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West of Dead
Game Reviews

West of Dead

A rootin-tootin’ gun-shootin’ roguelite adventure with random levels and Ron Perlman.

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Consider this: you’re a video game developer looking to make it big in the industry. That’s not the easiest thing these days, though. If you work for a AAA company, you’ve got resources and a team on your side, but generally you’re making what you’re told to make. So instead, maybe you grab a friend, set up in a garage and go indie. Problem there is that around the turn of the 2010s, the message indie devs were getting was that anyone could make games…so they all did. Now the most prominent digital storefronts are packed to the brim with various flavors of shlock, drowning out the odd gem here and there.

So what do you do? Well, you do what indie game developers have been doing for years. First, you take a look for whatever the hottest genre might happen to be. Thanks to the skyrocketing popularity of The Binding of Isaac, that means you probably want a run-based game, or “roguelite,” though using that term might make you feel a little grimy. Next, you look for cheap or free marketing. With the rise of Early Access, you don’t even need a finished game to start selling and getting paid, and with the rise of YouTubers and Twitch streamers you don’t have to rely on PR companies to give you spokespeople who mostly stay on-message and do as they’re told.

Oh, and grab a publisher if you can, they’re helpful. Yes, I know everyone was telling you they were bad a few years ago, but that was back when saying it and having an active Kickstarter could make you rich.

There you go! It’s not a fool-proof blueprint to indie success, since the market is saturated like some kind of exploding sponge, but it’ll give you a shot. This formula’s produced quite a few (countless) run-based games over the past few years. What does West of Dead, the latest in the neverending line of would-be heirs to Isaac’s throne, do to set itself apart? Well, it’s got Ron Perlman in it. That pretty much sold me, anyway. I doubt he was cheap, but I guess war never changes.

Perlman plays Mason, a spiritual drifter doomed to wander Purgatory after a mysterious calamity prevents the dead from going to Heaven or Hell. It’s all due to some spooky preacher, so Mason grabs his shootin’ irons and heads out into the afterlife to blast some baddies and set things straight. You’ll travel through numerous levels of Purgatory seeking your quarry, with Perlman’s famous gravelly voice driving you on as you go.

You know how I mentioned that there’s a billion of this kind of game out there by now? Turns out that makes them pretty easy to describe! West of Dead is essentially western Dead Cells with a cover system, a lighting system and a focus on ranged combat. Boom, done!

There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the basic flow: you’ll traverse a procedurally-generated maze and enter dark rooms. Once you step inside, you’re best served looking for lamps to light the place up, since your guns aren’t great at targeting enemies in the dark. Then you’ll want to quickly hop behind the nearest cover before you start taking shots. You’re practically invincible behind cover but vulnerable in the open; as per the roguelite blueprint, damage racks up quickly and healing is rare, so taking stray bullets means Mason’s going to be pushing up daisies (again) before long. Cover’s always destructible, so you won’t be safe forever, but it’s a great way to clear out rooms and plan your next move.

Your gun-shootin’ abilities are determined by, of course, the guns you carry, as well as upgrades you’ll find throughout each level. Your firearms include revolvers, rifles and more, differing largely in damage output, reload rate and accuracy at range, though there’s little quirks to each specific weapon as well. Meanwhile, upgrades include cooldown-based special abilities like rebuilding cover and charms that offer buffs like increasing reload speed. Throwing weapons including grenades and knives are available as well, along with melee weapons for getting up close and personal, though the latter doesn’t tend to be the best move in a game where enemies hit this hard.

Honestly, it makes for a pretty enjoyable and tactical take on the genre. I found myself reminded of Remnant: From the Ashes, another cover-focused shooter that rewards both methodical play and twitch reflexes. Like that game, cover is handy but you’re rarely perfectly safe; Remnant used swarms of melee-focused enemies to flush you out, while West of Dead simply takes your cover away as it’s blasted to bits. Either way, it’s the sort of game that’s easy enough to get the hang of but challenging enough to keep you going for awhile.

And make no mistake, West of Dead is tough in the way that’s bound to get some of those YouTube “OMG Twitch Streamer Rages!!” videos going. Expect to die a bunch, so try to die gloriously.

West of Dead sounds great. It’s got Ron Perlman, so of course it does. It also looks great, though, with the focus being on the aforementioned lightning mechanic. The chiaroscuro effect in each room reinforces the importance of getting the place lit up before you get lit up, which is nice. There’s also something to be said for the design of Mason and his foes, which are appropriately Western-influenced and demonic in equal parts. The levels you travel through aren’t super varied or anything – it’s typically one cave-fulla-cover after the next – but that’s not really what you came for, right?

Nah, what you came for is your next addiction. And here’s the real reason the run-based formula works so well – it can grab you, even if only for a couple days, and keep you playing. West of Dead manages that with aplomb. It’s not the finest of its genre or anything, but it’s got a unique aesthetic and gameplay style, not to mention Perlman backing it up. The best part is, as of this writing, it’s available on Microsoft Game Pass for both Xbox One and PC. You’ve got Game Pass, right? There’s no risk in checking it out, and no-risk games are the easiest to recommend.

About the Author: Cory Galliher