West of Dead Review — A Breath of Life
While West of Dead is subdued in many ways, I find it to be an easy recommendation for any fan of roguelike titles.
West of Dead came about at a particularly great time for me. My Western-themed D&D campaign is on hiatus due to the pandemic, so I’ve been hankering for some more cowboy-themed content. And while I didn’t get all the classic yee-haws and old fashioned standoffs that I wanted, what I did get with West of Dead was a surprisingly deep story on the topics of death and moving on.
In between that poignant story is a decent roguelike game, one that manages to strike a fair balance between narrative and gameplay. Although it is often held back by its own story in areas where other roguelikes succeed due to their lack of one, I still found myself grinding it out much like I have done with The Binding of Isaac and Enter The Gungeon before it, although never to the same extent.
Beginning with your character, a nameless specter wearing a blood-red poncho and sporting a constantly flaming skull, players must advance through the purgatory they are trapped in to move on west, assumedly to find rest. You, along with all the other spirits in Purgatory, have been trapped since the arrival of a strange preacher. In order to pass on from the endless death and resurrection of Purgatory, you must guide your character through the western-inspired layers of this area, find the preacher, and figure out how to resume the flow of spirits west.
As a narrative-driven title, West of Dead features another uncommon trait for roguelike titles – voice acting. Throughout the game, your character remarks on their current situation as well as the surroundings they’ve found themselves in, and they do so with authentic turns of phrase. I have to give some credit to West of Dead’s writers for this as their main character manages to constantly feel like a grizzled man ripped straight out of an old west town. It only helps more that a majority of the game’s voice acting is done by Ron Perlman, who you may remember from Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy, or as the grizzled voice delivering the mantra of “War… war never changes,” in the Fallout franchise. In this role, Perlman’s delivery goes above and beyond what is expected. Saying that he lends life to this undead character is as ironic as it is true.
While it does have its differences from many other roguelike titles, West of Dead keeps many of the genre’s usual features in place. Making your way through purgatory means shooting your way through procedurally generated rooms in procedurally generated dungeons, each of which has its own style and comes with its own unique enemies. The start of every run is usually the slowest, featuring basic enemies with rifles and low-tier weapons. As you continue deeper, enemies get more varied and your arsenal more powerful to match.
These early levels are also where you’ll find that the game’s cover system is the most important. Upon entering a room in any of the dungeons, you’ll find much of it obscured in darkness, with small pieces of cover scattered around. Making use of cover whenever possible is important since it not only lets you avoid enemy shots while being able to attack, but you also reload your weapons much faster. However, the further you go into the game, the more you encounter melee-based enemies that can easily flush you out.
Outside of cover, there aren’t many options for dodging attacks besides a dodge roll. Unfortunately, the dodge roll only works about half of the time. Bosses and rifle-wielding enemies often shoot two times or more, and performing a perfect dodge roll on the first shot will almost always leave you wide open to getting hit by the second. It’s frustrating to say the least when the game punishes you for dodging an attack correctly, especially when it seems like there are no other options to avoid getting hit.
In most situations, however, it’s fairly easy to come out of a room unscathed. Enemies have two bars, one for health and one for stun. Usually, the stun bar will deplete faster than the health bar, giving you a bit more breathing room. Because of its usefulness in stopping enemies in their tracks, I found myself using every opportunity I could to stun enemies. It’s also possible to keep baddies at bay using ceiling lanterns scattered around each room. The game uses darkness not just to emphasize its grim art style, but also as a gameplay mechanic. Enemies stuck in the dark cannot be locked onto, letting them shoot at you while you can’t retaliate. To combat this, lanterns are located in each room that can be illuminated. This not only reveals enemies but also stuns them for a brief period of time, letting you quickly unload damage before they pick up their rifles again.
It doesn’t always work like that, though. With all the rooms and levels being procedurally generated, I came across a decent amount that were totally dark, forcing me to slowly work my way to the next lantern. I would often be attacked from behind or the sides by an enemy I had no idea was even there. And while losing health in West of Dead isn’t as punishing as it is in, say, Enter the Gungeon, it’s still a pain to get hit when there was no opportunity to dodge.
Of course, this all ties into the underlying link between most roguelike titles – RNG. West of Dead runs depend on RNG almost as much as they depend on the player’s skill. You can easily start off on the wrong foot in a run or have fortune swing out of your favor later on. However, there are some things that the game leaves up to random chance that shouldn’t be, namely your starting weapons. Each run in the early game starts you off with just two weapons, and they’re usually hot garbage. The most common combination of guns I’ve seen is a farmer’s shotgun, a single shot, and a musket, which takes a while to load up. Working around the limitations of these weapons makes the early game much more difficult than it ought to be, and encounters that should be easy end up deadly.
Thankfully, weapons aren’t limited to just those two. They generally come in three flavors; slow loading, long-range rifles, fast-firing mid-range pistols, and heavy damage dealing shotguns. In my time with the game, I’ve found that rifles aren’t exactly the best option in most scenarios – they take a while to reload and a fair bit of time to even aim accurately. Compared to pistols and shotguns, which can both be fired immediately at enemies, rifles aren’t that useful.
Progressing through the game means unlocking a wider variety of weapons and items to use. These weapons often come with their own status effects that make them even more beneficial than their base counterparts. For instance, one of my favorite weapons is the Freezer, a pistol that slows enemies down with every hit. Unlocking these takes one of the two currencies in the game: sin. It’s an uncommon drop from enemies, and at the end of every floor, you have to hand over all the sin you’re carrying to a witch, who in turn unlocks new passive and active items for you, along with weapons.
Sadly, that’s about as deep as the weapon and item systems in West of Dead go. There are no crazy synergies between items, no overpowered builds, or anything like that. The game does a fantastic job of making your character feel vulnerable, but I could never find a reason for that. One of the main reasons why I enjoy roguelike titles is because I’ll eventually have a run that completely breaks the game. It’s the dream of every person who’s played a lot of Gungeon or Binding of Isaac. We want to shoot giant, screen covering bullets that kill bosses in a single hit. Simply put, that kind of thing just isn’t present in West of Dead.
In a way, lacking that kind of over-the-top gameplay is good for the game. Everything about it is kind of subdued, from the bleak, dark art style of every level to the haunting-yet-enchanting music that plays as you wander through the halls of Purgatory. The more I unraveled the mystery of the game’s character – who they were, who the preacher is, how they both ended up where they are – the more I felt that the game’s restrained gameplay was appropriate.
After my time with it, I found West of Dead to be a fine roguelike. It offered enough weapon and enemy variation to keep me interested when it wasn’t busy telling the story of a mysterious man of the old west. And when it did tell that story, I was genuinely interested, and not just because I love the sound of Ron Perlman’s gravelly voice. Despite its hiccups and some mechanics that still need work, I would easily recommend West of Dead to any fan of roguelikes, with the caveat that it certainly won’t be the kind of game you’ll sink hundreds of hours into.