Some of the most special gaming experiences have amazing storytelling in the package of a beautiful and unique aesthetic. Stories told from new perspectives or filled with deep meaning will stay with the player for days, months, and even years after completing the game. A simple and fun gameplay experience will find its feet not only in the action and joy of the game itself, but in the memories found within the game world created. West of Dead is a perfect example of this. While the twin stick rogue-lite game is flawed, it’s rewarding in its gameplay loop and memorable in its storytelling and world-building.
West of Dead is developed by Upstream Arcade and is available now for PC and Xbox One, with PS4 and Switch versions to follow on August 5, 2020. As an entry in the roguelite genre, West of Dead is an enjoyable the game to play and unique style.
West of Dead sees players take control of William Mason, who wakes up in purgatory and finds that the afterlife is not what he expected. He travels through purgatory, based in 1888 Wyoming, and battles monstrous creatures, but with each death, he wakes up back where he started – truly stuck in limbo. He is tasked with finding out why he is in a constant loop and hoping to get to the other side. He was told that the good go to the east, to the light, but the bad go to the west, and the bad currently block the way to the east for men like him.
The simple yet interesting plot works perfectly within the rogue-lite genre. In such games, players have a single life to try to advance as deep as possible through the campaign. West of Dead, and most games of the genre, call each playthrough a “run.” If the player dies during this run, they have to start over and try another run in the hope that it will go further each time. In many rogue-lite games, the story doesn’t always make sense or connect to the gameplay. The plot of West of Dead, about dead skull William Mason stuck in purgatory, fits like a pistol in a holster for the genre.
The rogue-lite genre should not be completely confused with the roguelike genre. When a player dies in a roguelike game, they lose all progress and must start over with each new run. Rogue-lite games, however, allow players to maintain some form of progress between runs.
The core gameplay of West of Dead is a lot of fun. The player controls William Mason’s movement with a thumbstick and aims the other. While not the best shooter of all time, the gunplay is mostly responsive and fun. Enemies are brought down by gunfire, or close-quarters melee combat. Other items such as bombs can also be used to attack enemies. Meanwhile, the enemies attack back with weapons of their own. There’s a cover system baked into the gameplay that allows players to hide behind and vault over obstacles, and it’s refreshing to see it from a third-person perspective.
The guns found throughout the game range from shotguns to pistols to rifles. Each weapon type feels unique, and playing around with different tools to destroy a room is enjoyable. Enemies attack in a variety of ways, with monsters rushing in for melee, skeleton fighters shooting with rifles, and creatures throwing bombs. The cover system and guns allow the player to kill with style and efficiency.
The rooms are procedurally generated, making each match fresh most of the time. Meanwhile, when a player dies and has to start a new run, new and different paths and rooms keep everyone on their toes. Finding the exit to each level, or chapter as it’s called in West of Dead, can be a challenge. On some runs, someone may see an exit within the first few minutes, on others, it may take a little longer. But strategy comes with deciding whether to actually leave when the exit is found. Players have a map to progress through the labyrinth-like chapters, so leaving the exit and coming back isn’t hard to do. But it might be worth staying in the chapter longer to collect all the secrets inside. Each chapter has rooms with chests full of weapons, upgrade rooms that can be used to power up William Mason, secret passages, surprise boss-like battles, and more.
Between each chapter, players find and interact with several helpful creatures in purgatory, including the Witch. Players earn “Sin” by fighting monsters and progressing through the game, and they can use Sin to buy items from the Witch or upgrade their healing flask. In this case, the items purchased actually stay in the game regardless of each run, so this is where the rogue-lite aspect comes into play. Some purchased items, such as guns, are added to the game’s loot pool. For example, a pistol that freezes enemies can be purchased from the Witch, and then that pistol can be found in chests and throughout the game for use in subsequent runs.
One aspect that may frustrate players when it comes to West of Dead is that the runs seem stacked against the player at the beginning. While it’s theoretically possible to beat the game on the very first run without dying, it gets easier and easier over time thanks to items bought from the Witch. Run 75 can have a large flask for healing, several powerful guns added to the loot pool, a sheriff badge that deflects incoming shots, and more. Meanwhile, the very first run will stick to simple weapons and perhaps the lowest flask for healing.
Another thing that can be disorienting is the layout of the rooms. Every room felt very cramped and almost claustrophobic. There is often a lot of unused space outside of the room, because they are so small, and fighting a dozen oncoming monsters in such a small space can seem overwhelming.
West of Dead can also become repetitive quickly. The first chapter or two is played so many times that it can get dull quickly. Yes, the rooms and the layout are procedurally generated, but the enemy types and the chapter theme remain the same. So since each death starts a new run starting from square one, the earlier levels can be boring. However, this is true for most of the roguelike or rogue-lite genre and there are more exciting environments to discover as players progress.
Perhaps the most special part about West of Dead is the world building. The art design, music, and writing are unique and striking. The cel-shaded graphics are dark but beautiful. The music is perfectly in keeping with the theme of the game, but since it stops, changes, and starts with each new enemy encounter, it can be abrupt. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy and Hellboy) voices the undead William Mason, and he does a great job. His deep, sad tone sounds perfect for a cowboy stuck in purgatory. Like the narrator of Bastion who discusses every moment, William Mason talks about his time in the afterlife and every event, often in a funny and thoughtful way, and always with western cowboy slang. The writing is amazing and adds incredible value to the storytelling.
West of Dead elevates its experience thanks to its storytelling and art design. Some aspects of the game can be frustrating, but the overall package is generally worthwhile in its gameplay and beautiful in its design. And as William Mason himself said, “they say a hero dies only once, but I say a hero keeps coming back,” and returning for each playthrough in hopes of finally being caught that perfect run was a great time in West of Dead.
West of Dead is out now on Steam and Xbox One, and August 5 on PS4 and Switch. Today Technology was given an Xbox One code for this review.