You got some Old West in my X-COM! You got some X-COM in my- BLAM! ...death rattle.
"Have you played XCOM before?" asked Kacper Szymczak, the Lead Designer at Creative Forge Games, before I sat down to take a look at Hard West, a tactical RPG with a western setting. His question was indeed the fastest way to explain Hard West, which borrows liberally from Firaxis' exemplary sci-fi SRPG.
"So it's like XCOM in the Old West?" I asked as Szymczak showed off the basic movement, to which he answered, "More like the Weird West."
The movement, different floors, onscreen UI elements (including the yellow and orange boxed areas where you can move a character within environments), and ways of seeing different floor levels, screen rotation, etc., aren't just "like" XCOM's, they're identical to it. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Szymczak added. So it's a good thing that the rest of the game is quite different from the vaunted sci-fi franchise or else we would have some copyright issues.
"It's harder than XCOM," Szymczak tells me, and boy, is he right about that one. Hard West seems to revel in a heightened difficulty curve, albeit a balanced one, taking its cues from old Westerns where a single shot puts your enemies in the dust. The game allows for reconnaissance before the shooting starts, allowing the player to position themselves before the combat begins. That's about the only boon you get.
In the level Szymczak showed me, his undead protagonist had to rescue a man trapped by cannibals from their farm. He went in having done everything correctly. Not only had he worked with another character to increase his reputation with the cannibals, he also poisoned their nearby water supply before going in, making them weaker in combat.
The level of suspicion the enemies have towards the main character determines how large a cone their vision is so that the player can enter without them being suspicious enough to start combat. Maneuvering around them to find their locations can result in not even needing to enter combat in some cases. It's possible to hold-up enemies if suspicion hasn't been aroused, who will remain immobile for a certain amount of time. Szymczak told me about a bank heist mission that could be completed (with a high difficulty) by keeping everyone in the bank held-up by re-holding them up before their period of immobility runs out.
The actual combat is brutal and leans on the more realistic side. Hit points are few, and the guns are powerful. (Humans are squishy after all.) You can maximize your chances with strong positioning and adopting cover (which is almost fireproof in some situations) and utilizing special abilities. Abilities are presented as a deck of cards, keeping with the Wild West themes, and Szymczak showed off one that allowed a player to use an extra action point every time they killed an enemy. By placing his character in the right position, in the upper end of a barn, he was able to liquidate almost their entire band by shooting one after the other as soon as combat began.
While Szymczak had maximized his potential to get through the combat as efficiently as possible, it hadn't come without cost. He only received the poison for the cannibal drinking supply after agreeing to a medical experiment that resulted in him getting sick. It was probably worth the sacrifice, though. After showing me how it was done, Szymczak let me play a version of the same mission with straight combat, during which I died promptly, not having done the legwork to make it easier.
Hard West holds a clear reverence and love for XCOM, but is a very different game at the same time, adding in some Wild "Weird" West flavor and changing the combat dynamic heavily to favor pre-combat tactics as much as the actual combat. Creative Forge plans to release the game on PC later this year.