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There is a scene, at the beginning of Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, in which a cowboy, toiling on the American Frontier, bids his family farewell, having bound their ankles and wrists with rope: “Jack, be kind to your mother. Abigail, teach the boy right from wrong.” The pair of them are rasping, and rimed in gore, but before he departs our man tenderly lays plates of meat for them to devour. Something about that moment, despite its dumb comedy, rings perversely true. The border between the living and the dead may be newly porous, like the one between the civilised and the wild, but both need policing with kindness, morality, and, it goes without saying, guns.
Maybe that is why the Old West, with its cold nights and its sun-cracked wastes, is fertile ground for fantasy. And yet, for some reason, not many developers have sown its soil. I fondly recall playing Darkwatch, on the PlayStation 2, a first-person shooter that supplied a drop of vampirism to the genre, whose hero—a really pale rider—dined on his own horse, in a fit of thirst. But on the whole we take our Westerns neat, unspurred by the supernatural. Now, thankfully, we are back in that twilit territory with Weird West, the debut game from WolfEye Studios. In it, we get werewolves, sirens, sorcerers, and more, along with every shade of ghoul on the human spectrum. Indeed, one of the virtues of Weird West—and of the genre after which it is named—is that the weirdness isn’t necessarily rooted in the otherworldly. The West, it seems to suggest, was an otherworld, and, though we view the action from a lofty angle, ours is not to judge.
The story is split into five chapters and guided by five characters. “Each new face you wear is the key to a fresh perspective,” we are told. But the question of who, or what, is doing the wearing hangs over the story like a bad smell. Everywhere in Weird West there are signs of something older and deeper at work, reaching back to impossible antiquity. “Let’s say I’ve seen enough empires rise and fall that they feel regular as seasons,” someone says. Thus, when we assume control of a man with the head of a pig, our thoughts drift to empires past—to Circe, in particular, who favoured porcine transmogrification as punishment for Odysseus’ men. As a result, the characters, both those we control and those we meet, have a kind of disposability; “All this so-called life, it’s no more than snatches of bad weather,” a young girl muses, weary beyond her years. But it’s not that we don’t care for the figures that drift through Weird West, rather that we come to terms with their end more readily, folding them into a larger forecast. Their seasons pass.
All of which suits the action like a leather glove. The director is Raphaël Colantonio, who founded Arkane Studios in 1999 and departed in 2017. Colantonio directed Prey and co-directed Dishonored (along with Harvey Smith), and you can sense, in Weird West, a developer both returning to his obsessions and—freed from the budget, and the bloated expectations, of AAA game development—toiling on a fresh frontier. Hence, the credo, laid down by a loading screen, “that nothing is off the table… even putting important story characters in the dirt.” Choice has long defined Colantonio’s work, as far back as Arx Fatalis. When we note, in the new game, the way that each level is, on close inspection, a paper map, whose edges are inked with dotted lines, we don’t feel constricted, as though its world had stopped short of our wonder; we feel tempted to chart its possibilities.
These are manifold, and I found my approach shifting to fit the character I was controlling. The first is a former bounty hunter, by the name of Jane Bell, who is looking for her lost husband. As Jane, whose past tolls with gunfire, I was given more easily to shooting my way out of a bind. In an interview, Colantonio described his new game as an “action-y version of Fallout 1 or 2,” and that, by and large, rings true. We get a slow-motion leap, of the muzzle-flashing sort that Max Payne cherished. And there are numerous weapons at our disposal, from pistols and rifles to double-barrel shotguns. The controls are those of a twin-stick shooter, which isn’t ideal in the thick of a chaotic clash. Shootouts are best resolved quickly, and with a clear plan of action; otherwise, they end up frantic, and you have to hunker down to withstand them, as if they were snatches of bad weather.
The stealth, in Weird West, requires patience. One mission, in particular, sleuthing through the purple gloom of a brothel, was a real pain. Your mini-map is crammed with vision cones, and your enemies’ movements are randomised for each encounter; but what good stealth needs is clarity and consistency, not chaos and quick saves. The only reason I didn’t damn it all and storm the place was down to the pigman. The poor fellow is met with hostility wherever he trots, so I felt a subtle approach, avoiding confrontation, was best, lest I validate everyone’s prejudice. His name, we learn, is Cl’erns Qui’g, a snorted version of his old human name, with some of the letters snaffled. And, while he seems a figure of pity, his filthy backstory, once those letters are filled in, challenges our sympathy.
This is where Weird West, over the course of its five campaigns, stamps itself not as a debut but as the work of a developer who is hungry to deliver that which still excites him: stories, decisions, and the notion that our yen for narrative excitement ought to be at home, not put aside, in an interactive medium. The heroes of this grim adventure—among them a werewolf, a Native American warrior, and a witch—are bound not only by shared quirks of the storyline but by the land they roam. As you traverse its plains, they surge from point to point, recalling those interstitial travelling shots in the Indiana Jones movies, where a globe would be seared across with a dashed line. It reminded me of the overworld in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, whose land was navigated by tales of similar tallness. But where that game fixed its gaze on America, with a distinct twang of Mark Twain, Weird West looks instead to Colantonio’s prized setting: the immersive sim, its vales both wildly specific and given to flights of fantasy. The characters here may have been dishonoured, they may have fallen prey to schemes beyond their reckoning, but they all makes choices—and a mark—before they are put in the dirt.
Developer: WolfEye Studios
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on] Xbox One, PC
Release Date: March 31, 2022
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