It hasn’t been very long since I last checked out West of Dead, a new isometric roguelite shooter by Upstream Arcade and Raw Fury. The developers held a free open beta ahead of the game’s full release, and I put a decent amount of time into it.
My general feeling was that West of Dead was a promising roguelite with some fun weapons, stylish visuals, and an interesting story narrated by Ron Pearlman.
My initial impressions from the beta remain largely unchanged after playing through the full game, and that unfortunately extends to the complaints I had as well.
West of Dead
Developer: Upstream Arcade
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platforms: Windows PC (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: June 18th (Windows PC, Xbox One), August 5th (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4)
In West of Dead, you play as a mysterious gunslinger with a flaming skull for a head. You have recently died, and find yourself stuck in Purgatory. An enigmatic preacher appeared in Purgatory not long before your arrival, and the recently departed have found themselves unable to find their way to the afterlife ever since.
Your goal is to find this preacher and figure out what must be done to allow the dead, including yourself, to continue their journey to find eternal rest.
The game’s story is narrated by Ron Pearlman, who acts as the inner monologues of the mysterious gunslinger that you play as. The real meat of the story is told through memories that you find throughout your journey deeper into Purgatory. These random drops are often awarded after boss fights, and can be traded in between levels to unlock short cutscenes narrated by Pearlman.
Pearlman’s performance in West of Dead is pretty solid. While he sounds a bit monotone at times, it comes off as an intentional bit of acting to reinforce his role as a weary gunslinger trying to find peace and rest after a rough and violent life.
West of Dead is a roguelite, and its general gameplay loop and format will be familiar to anyone with experience in the genre. The game is divided into three chapters, each of which consists of about three to four procedurally generated levels. There are a handful of branching paths and secret levels to uncover too, along with several endings.
Like many roguelites, West of Dead features two types of progression. You’ll find loads of item drops and upgrades to help you out during a run, and there are also permanent unlocks that give you access to new items and abilities in future attempts.
Enemies drop two currencies when killed: Iron and Sin. Iron is used during a run to buy items at the merchant, who randomly appears within levels and always offers a selection of three items you can buy. Sin is used between levels to purchase new unlocks.
Between each level there is a small rest area with a witch. Here you can trade in Sin to unlock new items that will drop in future runs. You gain “blueprints” for new items as random drops throughout the game, and there are dozens upon dozens of items to unlock, so completionists will find a lot of replay value in the game.
Many of these items also require huge amounts of Sin to unlock, so be prepared to grind. Some of the bigger items in particular require so much Sin to unlock that you might spend several runs working towards acquiring them.
Another form of permanent progression are special items that you unlock for beating bosses. An early example is gaining the ability to use nodes placed throughout a level to fast travel to areas you’ve previously explored. This is very useful if you want to push your luck and fully explore each level before moving on to the next one.
In terms of your loadout, you can carry one charm, a flask of whisky that restores your health, two weapons, and two items at a time. Charms offer passive buffs, like restoring health when you kill enemies. Items are all based on cooldowns, and run the gambit from attacks like throwing axes or sticks of dynamite, to utility items that give you a few seconds of increased reload speed or invulnerability.
The game’s items and weapons start out as a fairly mundane selection of stuff you’d expect from a game with a Wild West theme. There are revolvers, muskets, lever-action rifles, and so on. You’ll gradually start to unlock some really bizarre weapons as you progress though, including revolvers that freeze enemies, or guns that shoot poisoned bullets.
Each gun and item has multiple levels, so you’ll want to look carefully at weapon drops, even if its a gun you already have equipped. Usually the difference between item levels is lower cooldown, or better reload speed.
There are other ways to power up your character during a run. You’ll regularly come across shrines that offer a choice of three bonuses. These choices include increased max health and melee damage, increased firearm damage, and increased ability damage and item recharge rate.
These bonuses start big, but gradually get smaller as you level them up to prevent you from becoming too overpowered. Given the game’s overall difficulty, these bonuses could arguably be tweaked to make the later levels less punishingly brutal.
You’ll also stumble across lost souls on your journey. These poor, restless dead are burdened with sin and just wish to move on and find eternal rest. You can choose to unburden them of their sin, which plays into one of the game’s endings.
Doing so drops a ton of currency and usually two items or a memory. On the downside, you become cursed until you kill a set number of enemies. This means that any amount of damage will instantly kill you until you lift the curse.
This system gives some added risk vs reward to each run, as the drops you gain for unburdening a lost soul are often pretty good, but you risk dying in even a fairly trivial encounter if you aren’t extremely careful.
In terms of combat, West of Dead is essentially a cover-based shooter, and You will die very fast if you don’t stay behind it. To further emphasize the game’s cover mechanics, you also reload your weapons faster while in cover. The actual gunplay uses an auto-lock system, though you still need to aim to a degree.
That doesn’t mean you can just sit behind a chest-high wall forever, though. Cover gradually degrades as it is shot, and eventually crumbles altogether. There is also an interesting light system in the game.
Enemies that are in the shadows are not automatically targeted by the game’s auto-lock system, making them harder to see and hit. Each combat encounter has several lanterns that you can light up to counteract this, and most of the game’s enemies are also momentarily stunned when the lantern is first lit.
West of Dead has some pretty decent enemy variety. The most common foes are all some variant of undead soldier or outlaw carrying a gun. The game does an admirable job of spicing up even this most basic of enemy types, however.
Early undead soldiers will just mindlessly stand in the open shooting at you, while later variants will actually take cover and try to maneuver into better shooting positions.
There’s a variety of more interesting enemy types as well, including enemies that throw the light mechanics out of the window. There are these tall, humanoid crow-like creatures that will ignore you unless you light a lantern, at which point they will go berserk and quickly chase you with their long talons.
Many of the game’s boss enemies also become enraged when exposed to light. While later enemies unfortunately start to enter bullet sponge territory, the combat overall in West of Dead is pretty fun.
The game has plenty of cool weapons and items to unlock, and most of them are backed up with some pretty solid sound design. When an enemy is vanquished, the game makes a satisfying “ping” sound before your foe disintegrates into a shower of money.
Complimenting the game’s nice sound design is an enjoyable soundtrack. Each combat encounter concludes with a short Western tune celebrating your victory. The Farm level in particular has a pretty catchy Wild West-inspired theme, to the point that I’m tempted to grab the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, West of Dead does have its fair share of problems. I briefly mentioned that the later portions of the game feature enemies that feel a little too much like bullet sponges, which can lead to some overly drawn out encounters. Conversely, you remain fairly squishy throughout the game if you aren’t making smart use of cover.
As with all roguelites, the random generation can occasionally screw you over. It’s not uncommon for a mundane selection of foes to suddenly become a potentially deadly encounter due to room layout or their positioning.
You see that big balloon with legs at the foot of the ladder? Those are the game’s obligatory suicide bomber enemies. You might ask why I don’t just shoot it before climbing down. That’s because the game’s combat system simply doesn’t allow you to shoot enemies that are on a different elevation than you.
This can get especially annoying when an enemy spawned right by a ladder you need to climb up or down. Luckily, I happened to have dynamite with me for this encounter, so after a few tries I was able to get it to land close enough to the enemy to make it explode.
The auto-lock system can also be quite finicky, and it’s not uncommon for the game to decide that you wanted to throw your hatchet at a distant enemy off the screen instead of the demon pig-thing currently charging at you.
There is also just a general, undeniable clunkiness to the game’s controls and mechanics. Your character automatically slows down to crouch behind cover when you get near some, which can be irritating when moving around a level, or worse, trying to dodge a nearby melee enemy.
This clunkiness is exemplified when trying to play the game with a keyboard and mouse, where aiming and movement in general feel really bad. Not only that, but most of the menus can’t be properly navigated with that control scheme.
The worst example of the game’s awful PC controls have to be the witch’s menu. This has to be navigated with the arrow keys for some inexplicable reason. There are no tooltips either, and clicking on an item in the list will automatically start spending Sin instead of just letting you read the item’s stats.
While the game feels better with a controller, the witch’s menu is still horrible. As I said earlier, there are dozens of items in the game, so scrolling through this menu with a controller is a complete pain in the ass.
There is really no reason why this game controls so poorly with a keyboard and mouse, other than the developers simply couldn’t be bothered to make it work better. You can’t even rebind keys in the game.
The game’s AI and physics can be questionable at times as well. It’s not uncommon to see enemies get stuck, or simply ignore you as you shoot them. One example of the game’s bizarre grasp of physics was during the Wendigo fight.
This boss has a charge move that can deal a ton of damage if you get hit by it. One of my runs ended on this fight because I positioned myself behind a pillar to avoid the boss’s charge move. Silly me for thinking this was a logical strategy, as the boss’s head then slid along the edge of the pillar and he hit me with his butt, knocking off my last chunk of health.
It certainly wasn’t the only time I’ve seen enemies do bizarre things like this. I was once killed when one of the huge, butcher-like enemies in the second stage did a complete 180 mid-attack animation to hit me after I successfully dodged behind him.
Finally, I can’t end this review without mentioning that West of Dead featured day one DLC. A DLC pack called The Crow launched alongside the full game. For $2.99, this DLC features a crow companion that follows you around, a new level, a new weapon, and a new enemy. There is also a soundtrack available for $5.99, with a bundle that includes both with the full game.
Now, soundtracks being sold separately on day one doesn’t bother me at all. Many games do it, and you aren’t missing out on any actual gameplay content by not buying them. However, a DLC pack being released the same day as the game itself rubs me the wrong way, even if it’s only $3. It gives off the impression that content was cut from the game to make a few extra bucks.
While West of Dead certainly has a fair amount of issues that detract from the experience, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. The combat is challenging and fun despite the more clunky aspects of it, though I think it could use some rebalancing and tweaking to avoid unfair combat encounters later on.
The game also has no shortage of weapons and items to unlock, so if you want to acquire them all, you can easily get your money’s worth from the game’s $20 price tag.
The game’s atmosphere, visuals, soundtrack, and narration all combine to create a fairly intriguing story and setting as well. Between all the items, and figuring out how to unlock the secret ending, West of Dead has a good amount of replay value.
It’s just a shame that the game is undeniably clunky. The PC port is pretty poor in terms of controls, and there really isn’t any reason why it should be. With some improvements here and there, West of Dead could become a really good entry to the roguelite genre. I still had enough fun to recommend it, just be prepared for some janky controls and mechanics here and there.
West of Dead was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Raw Fury. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.