No one can accuse Weird West of false advertising. The setting for the action RPG from WolfEye Studios is recognizably Western-themed, ticking off some of the major elements to any good cowboy tale in the opening minutes. There's an almost sepia-hued palette, bandits and bounty hunters, a sheriff, and a favorite gun called Ol' Blue. But this isn't the pioneer country you learned about in history class. It's a world of werewolves and pigmen and visions too, and after watching the game in action, I can't wait to saddle up when it comes to PS4, Xbox One, and PC this fall.
The story of Weird West is spread across five different characters that you'll play through one after the other, each character's tale representing a chapter of a larger story. The character stories are chronological, which is actually a relief given the recent industry obsession with time loops. Our demo introduced the first character, bereaved bounty hunter Jane Bell. What's interesting is that as you progress through the game, not only will the world state you create with one character carry over the next, but later characters can meet and team up with other heroes you've already played. It's migraine territory to even try and fathom what that means for balancing and building the game, but I can't wait to experience it as a player.
For whom the Bell tolls
Bell needs to find her husband who has been taken by a gang called the Stillwaters, and after a tip from the sheriff, is headed to a town called Grackle nearby. That means finding a shovel to dig up your old bounty hunter cache – and if you feel the need, the teddy bear of your dead son – and loading up your gun. In just completing this simple set of tasks we get to see just what a playground the game will be for players who like to experiment. Our demo driver shoots an oil lamp to start a fire, then douses it by picking up and throwing a nearby barrel of water. A chicken wandering by gets a kick, plates and jugs are taken, and food is hoarded to be cooked later on a stove or a campfire. And that's before we've left the Bell homestead.
If you're worried about how shooting – the love language of the Wild West – might work in this sort of top-down view, the answer is as simple as a line to indicate the path of your bullet. It shifts to red when something is in your line of fire, and it seems an elegant solution in a game where being able to reliably take out a small oil lamp at the right moment could change the course of a battle. We only got to see Bell working with her basic revolver, but weapons can be upgraded, and from a glimpse of a menu screen, Bell will have access to shotguns, rifles, bows, and knives, as well as special bounty hunter abilities. This is a game that wants you to be able to customize the way you play.
Old town road
On the way to Grackle, we get a glimpse of the world map. There's an icon for our destination, one for our character, and everything else is shrouded in the old world map fog of mystery. Creative director Raphael Colantonio says the team was inspired by older RPGs like the original Fallout, and there will be events that occur as you travel, some of them random, some of them planned. As we're seeing the game's first character in action, we get a planned one, a coyote attack. This gives the player a chance to try their shooting and hints at how you can use the environment to your advantage. You would have thought even wild coyotes would have known not to amass around explosive barrels by now. Intriguingly, in the aftermath, the usual option to loot the coyote corpses also has an option to bury them. I can't wait to find out why you might need to do that.
In Grackle, there's a surprise that even the developers weren't expecting – or at least they do a good job of faking it – as one of the world's more dynamic features makes an appearance. A tornado sweeps through town, meaning you have to shelter indoors until it passes. Climate change is coming for us all. While we're waiting, outside a ghost – also one of Weird West's random events – floats by. Once the bad weather and the spirit have moved on, we meet up with Sheriff Flora. She's got a Stillwater gang member in custody, and you can choose how to interrogate them, kind of a good cop / break all of his fingers situation. Our demo driver takes it up a notch, shooting the prisoner once we have the information we need. This loses us some reputation, which will change how you're seen in the world. Be a friend to all and you'll get benefits, like a better price in shops; act like a maniac and you'll end up with a bounty on your head. At least before the guy died we managed to learn where the gang was hiding out, and a little about sirens. They look human, but they eat people.
The next big set piece is breaking into the gang's camp, which really shows off the game's flexibility, depending on how you want to play. You can go full frontal assault, sneak in, use the environment to cause chaos with fire and oil, or come up with your own half-baked strategy and see how it goes. If you're going stealth, you can see when enemies are suspicious or onto you thanks to question marks and exclamation points above their head. And if you're not, you can use dynamite to blow your way in. It's chaotic and messy and looks more fun than a cowboy boot's worth of moonshine.
Colantonio explained during the demo that the game is designed to allow that sort of freedom, it's "a big salad of things," but one where it feels like there's more to the world than what exists beyond the narrative of the game. That extends to the physical landscape of the game too, the team at WolfEye Studios is keen to encourage non-linear exploration, so you can find areas that it feels like the level designer never meant you to see. That might mean getting onto a rooftop then dropping down into the room below thanks to an unsecured skylight, or ignoring the demands of the story and just going on a rampage through the town. Be careful though, your choices will have consequences both on the story and the world state. Murder everyone in an area and it will become abandoned, when another character returns a new gang might have moved in. Taking one person out might spark a vendetta from another, one that can continue even if you've moved on to a new character.
From Colantonio's background at Arkane, you might be expecting Weird West to look like Dishonored or Prey. Instead, it reminds me most of Divinity Original Sin 2, a top-down world where all the items you can see dotted around the world can be interacted with. Whether or not they're useful to you depends on your ingenuity, but the experimental and item hoarders are going to have a wild ride. For everyone else, there's so much story leaking out of every pore, you're going to get lost in the world with the rest of us. "Immersive sim is more than a genre, it's a set of values," says Colantonio.
Weird West will be released on PS4, Xbox One, and PC in the fall. Until then, check out the best games of 2021 so far.