By Scott Ramage / September 29th, 2020
|Release Date||June 16, 2020|
|Platform||PC (Steam/GOG), Switch, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||T for Teen|
The Old West is ripe material for video games, a time in US history romanticized and re-imagined countless times and in countless ways. Sunset Riders, Red Dead Redemption, Wild Arms, Mad Dog McCree and, of course, The Oregon Trail are just a few examples. German developer Retrific threw their own ten-gallon hat in the ring with the idea of applying the Old West motif to a shooter with rogue-like tendencies, Colt Canyon. Let’s see whether this game ends up filed under the good, the bad, or the ugly.
The backstory for Colt Canyon plays out in a prologue which is shorter than the time it will take you to read this paragraph. You’re a gunslinger nicknamed Colt, out in the wild with your partner. Some bandits storm in, shoot Colt, kidnap his/her (your choice) partner and leave him/her for dead. After regaining consciousness, he/she has to fight his/her way through several levels, beat the baddie, and rescue his/her partner. There’s not much beyond that, but given how the game plays out, it doesn’t need any more.
Colt Canyon’s gameplay largely emphasizes fast-paced play, but allows for a somewhat flexible approach. Players need to move to the right across randomly generated levels, either killing or avoiding various baddies and wildlife along the way, then fight a boss after every three stages. You only start with a basic weapon, in Colt’s case a revolver, and need to find ammo and extra weapons dropped from enemies or found in pots and crates, which can be slashed open with a melee attack. Ammo drops tend to be of anywhere from one to two rounds, and given that there are four different types of ammo, getting the right kind for one weapon isn’t a guarantee. That’s where stealth comes into play. Enemies will only attack if they see Colt, noted by the exclamation point above their heads. Getting the drop on them with the melee attack often kills them, or at least deals some serious damage. I wound up relying on stealth a lot to keep the game moving, as stopping to bash open ten or twelve pots and crates looking for ammo or health every other minute bogged down the experience for me. Playing too slowly can lead to a warning appearing that wolves are entering the area, and the only real way around them is to get to the next level. Still, it’s satisfying to dodge bullets and nail multiple baddies on the run.
Enemy variety largely depends on how far you get into Colt Canyon. At first it’s mostly guys carrying pistols, pitchforks, machetes, or whips, and occasionally a dog. Beyond the first stage though, the game does well to introduce a couple new enemies in each area. Shotgun-toting maniacs and ladies with repeater rifles show up, then guys carrying shields, then snakes, then riflemen, and then hard-charging, sword-wielding soldiers. Environmental obstacles like prickly bushes and exploding barrels pop up. The difficulty jumps with every new enemy introduced, but it rarely feels excessive and helps differentiate each stage.
Fortunately, Colt Canyon isn’t entirely one-sided against the player. Aside from the weapons some enemies drop, there are also prisoners to rescue which give the choice of a random perk. These range from free ammo and health, to not being detected as easily by bad guys, to having the prisoner tag along and fight, assuming he’s given a weapon. There are controls for making him stay put, which is good because when left to his own devices, he regularly blew my cover and started lengthy gunfights. Also helping are some powered up weapons, locked away in chests tied to colored keys. Said keys may be found in another level entirely, requiring backtracking (which is an option, thankfully) to prior levels to get them. Unfortunately, I often got hit by ambushes between stages, mini levels where you get attacked by over half a dozen enemies, usually ones a couple stages ahead that can take way more damage and wield far stronger weapons. I’ll comment more on these later, but for now let’s say these were a good idea in theory.
Visually, Colt Canyon can be summed up in one word: minimalist. Every living, breathing thing in this game is a monochrome sprite, but they’re all smoothly animated and stand out from the environments, which are far more detailed. Impressive bits of detail include wheat fields bending when walked through, or cacti getting slashed or blown apart. My only issues were, first off, the size of the sprites. I understand having the viewpoint pulled back so the player can see as far ahead as possible, but I usually played this game in handheld mode. Otherwise I’d have to sit pretty close to my TV to make out what was happening on screen at times. The second issue is color choice. I expected to see sepia tones, but I didn’t expect the hearts in the health bar to be such a dark shade of red. Thanks to my colorblindness, sometimes I couldn’t tell how much health I had left. Beyond that were some minor display issues with the text, like how I died and got a message saying “Ew Character Unlocked.”
Speaking of, part of the incentive to replay Colt Canyon is the slew of unlockables. Progressing a certain amount or hitting certain statistical landmarks unlocks new characters and weapon loadouts for each. The characters are what make the game’s experience so versatile, as everyone has different stats for health, speed, and proficiency with different weapons. One fares best with rifles while another works best with a bow. One has enough health to withstand a close-range explosion while another can only withstand a few bullets. I wound up having a much better time with a couple of the unlockable characters than with Colt, so I’m thankful that these were included.
My major sticking point with Colt Canyon was the same one I have with many rogue-likes: the feeling that it’s being excessively cruel. Out of all my deaths in this game, all but a handful were caused by the same two things over and over. The first was exploding barrels I couldn’t run away from in time. Sometimes barrels, rather than breaking open and dropping ammo or health, will shake and emit a hissing sound before exploding, which is a one-hit kill to most characters. Often my character’s sprite was standing in front of the barrel, blocking the already small visual cue that it was about to blow up. This isn’t helped by the soundtrack, which is an otherwise nice period-appropriate score, but frequently has rattles or hissing sounds similar to what the exploding barrels give off. Seeing a perk to not die from explosions felt more like a backhanded pick-me-up than a pleasant surprise. The second primary cause of death was the aforementioned ambushes. Aside from instances where I got jumped by enemies I didn’t have a good weapon to fend off, particularly wolves, often times I would take damage either right as the stage appeared or before the level even finished loading in. Getting attacked before I can react is one thing, but getting immobilized and shot or beaten to death with no chance to fight back on multiple occasions really soured my experience.
That all changed for Colt Canyon when, after a lengthy delay, the patches that had long since been implemented on the Steam version were approved for the Switch version. If you’re wondering why this review didn’t happen sooner, this is why. These patches include difficulty balancing, indications for enemies that have keys, and a more defined visual cue for exploding containers among several other things. Whereas before I was struggling to make it through the second level, now I’m able to actually finish the game. I won’t spoil what happens near the end, but I will say that it doesn’t end when you find the partner and what follows is my least favorite part of the game. Even considering my playthrough lasted maybe an hour and a half (if that), I was a bit let down by the endgame.
Colt Canyon does many, many things right. The core gameplay is addictive. The visuals and presentation are wonderful, in spite of brown being the dominant color much of the time. I wasn’t bored for a second. However, I also feel no need to go back to it again, even with the slew of unlockables. Fans of rogue-likes and semi-top-down shooters will likely have no regrets shelling (heh) out $14.99 for this. Perhaps I’m jaded from playing the unpatched version at first, but after riding off into the sunset once, I’m content to drop the six-shooter, rifle, shotgun, bow, knife, and whatever other weapons I found in this game and move on.
Review copy provided by publisher.