Rogue-lites are a genre of games I find myself enjoying quite a bit, even if I’m not always great at them. There’s just something about the infinite replay value these games provide due to the procedural generation associated with them. My personal favorites include: Enter the Gungeon, Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, and Spelunky. I’ve recently had the opportunity to sit down with West of Dead, a unique rogue-lite from Raw Fury and developer Upstream Arcade. It should be noted the key I was provided with includes both the base game as well as The Crow DLC which includes a neat little cosmetic crow familiar, an additional level, and other minor content.
West of Dead is a cover-based twin-stick shooter where you play William Mason, an outlaw who met his end. Now his soul is stuck in Purgatory, a horrifying world filled with wendigos, restless Civil War soldiers and hellhounds. He must navigate Purgatory’s ever shifting landscape in pursuit of a mysterious man in black. Gameplay consists of moving from room to room, having shootouts with enemies, reaching the end of each level, and occasionally taking on a boss fight. As you may expect each level is generated with randomly distributed enemies and loot. You’ll utilize guns, items, and bolo ties in your quest for redemption.
You might think West of Dead would most resemble other twin-stick shooters, but actually it takes a lot of notes from Dead Cells. You can carry two weapons at a time, two special skill items that provide abilities with cool-downs, a amulet like accessory that comes with useful passive abilities, and you’ll find shrines that allow you to choose one stat to level up. (Guns, skill items, or health.) Similarities do not end there either. Enemies drop “sin” which serve the same role as cells, currency to be used to unlock new weapons and other upgrades for future runs. Just like how enemies will drop blueprints, here they drop “memories” that make the previously mentioned upgrades available in a shop you can access between levels by speaking with a witch. Considering how well these mechanics worked for Dead Cells it’s not a bad formula to follow.
Light plays a huge role. Enemies will oftentimes be hiding in the darkness and you’ll have to activate lamps placed in each room in order to illuminate your surroundings. Not only will this make said enemies visible but it’ll also stun them temporarily. This will be a lifesaver in some of the more chaotic firefights. You’re virtually invincible to enemies trying to shoot you from a distance while in cover, but they can destroy your cover so that is something to watch out for. Also some enemies will charge at you and attempt to rip your face off. Cover won’t do you much good against those guys, so it’s best to dispatch of them quickly.
Something that does separate West of Dead from many other similar rogue-lites is how you can evade and avoid enemies. In games like Enter the Gungeon or Binding of Issac, typically the player has to clear a room of enemies before they can progress, however here you actually don’t need to clear the room to move on to the next. You have the option to either sneak past or just outrun your adversaries. Of course this will mean losing out on money, sin, and potentially memories, but you might live to fight another day.
An interesting choice made by the developers is, unlike most other rogue-lites, you will not be re-fighting bosses in new runs after you’ve beaten them once. I think this was to better serve the game’s narrative, since bosses often represent character from Williams past, but I don’t know how I feel about it. I think maybe a better approach would have been to include the bosses in subsequent runs, maybe including multiple possible bosses per level like in other rogue-lites.
West of Dead‘s strongest point by far is its presentation. In a genre mostly dominated by pixel art it really stands out with its stylish cel-shaded 3D graphics. There’s no denying the game looks fantastic. It also features some really top notch voice acting from Ron Perlman of Quest for Fire and the Hellboy film series. Perlman’s performance combined with the soundtrack really does a lot for the Western/hellish atmosphere.
There are unfortunately a lot of small things that bother me about West of Dead. The very first thing that jumped out at me were the menus. They’re obviously designed with controllers in mind, despite being a shooter. The mouse is of little to no use, forcing you to navigate with keyboard inputs. The aiming also feels imprecise. I find myself scratching my head quite often, not exactly sure how I didn’t hit the thing I was attempting to shoot. I think this is in part because you really only have a vague idea of the direction you’re aiming. It would be nice if there was maybe a visible line of sight to aid in aiming. The cover mechanics are also fairly awkward. Sometimes you stick to cover, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to slide to cover and jump over it instead. Speaking of cover, I feel there can be a bit of a balance issue here. I mentioned previously how some enemies will attempt to get at you close range, well these guys can really put you in a difficult spot. You’ll have to leave cover to avoid them, but doing so also makes you a prime target for the enemies shooting at you from a distance. It’s a no win situation that often results in you taking a lot of damage regardless of what you do. All of this adds up to some frustrating deaths that don’t always feel like your fault.
When it comes down to it West of Dead is a compelling, although quite flawed, game. In some ways, it feels like an Early Access game that’s not quite ready for launch. The good news is, the developer is still releasing updates and in fact, there was already one update that came out during my time with the game that addressed some issues. I’m holding out hope that maybe after a few additional future updates this will be the great game I think it has the potential to be. It’s definitely something to maybe toss on your wishlist and check it out during sales. Not sure I would recommend picking it up for full price, however, at least not in its current state.