West of Dead combines Ron Perlman, cover shooting, and Western panache

Thanks to Rockstar’s 2018 cowboy opus, gamers everywhere are once again enamored with the American frontier. OK, maybe not the Old West of legend, but they certainly want to get down to some cowboy stuff. Despite Red Dead Redemption 2‘s glowing success, we still haven’t seen many other developers tackle the time period. Outside of Techland’s excellent Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (which is coming to the Switch next month), there are too few unique takes on the genre. That’s where Upstream Arcade and Raw Fury come in with West of Dead. A procedural isometric cover shooter with style to spare, West of Dead is cool enough even before you factor in the dulcet tones of Ron Perlman voicing your skeletal hero. Diving into the open beta on Xbox One, it’s clear that this is one indie to watch next year.

West of Dead Preview | Telling tall tales

You play as a skeleton cowboy with little in the way of memory. The only thing you can recall is the grisly face of a priest laughing at your dying gasps. You’ve landed in purgatory, and your only way forward is to pick up some guns and blast any otherworldly creature in your way. It’s a pretty standard setup, but that works perfectly well in a pulpy Western setting. There are no stamina meters here, just flaming skull heads, fast-acting revolvers, and a big bad Wendigo waiting for you in the boss room. Incidentally, beating said creature will gain you an unspecified trophy in the full game, which is a fun incentive to master the demo.

However, even without that bonus, players may find themselves hooked on what West of Dead brings to the table. Real cover shooting isn’t something that many roguelikes have toyed around with, and Upstream Arcade found a simplistic solution that feels extremely natural. Taking cover is vital to surviving most rooms, especially when you’re fighting off fellow gunmen. To do so, you just need to walk up to any knee-high barricade or wall and your skeletal avatar will automatically get into position. Slipping into cover has no fuss or button presses. It’s just cover fully integrated into the movement system.

West of Dead Preview | Rooting, tooting and six-shooting

With cover taken care of, West of Dead has the rest of the controller to play around with. You have a rolling dodge, one gun for each trigger on the controller, and special items mapped to the bumpers. Smoke grenades appeared to be one of the few items in the demo and they allow you to ninja back to a good vantage point. There’s probably also a TNT power-up of some sort, as I was dodging several sticks during my runs. If the final game can yield more items, shooting will be in a better position because of all the added variety piled on top of the solid fundamentals.

Speaking of, West of Dead also provides a good balance for its shooting that mimics the ebb and flow of a Western shootout. Reloading happens automatically whenever you run out of ammo, and you’ll have six shots at most before you’re a sitting duck. If you don’t count your bullets in the chamber, you’ll take silly damage all throughout your run. If you keep your calm and time everything right, you can use your six-shooter and your agility to avoid taking any fire. Ron Perlman even speaks up if you clear a room in spectacular fashion, acknowledging your expert play with a little touch of welcome flourish.

West of Dead Preview | Back out on the range

So far, there’s not much to hate in West of Dead, and hopefully what it offered here is only a small sampling of the options in the final game. The straight stat upgrades you find along the way replace any meaningful gameplay changes. Systems like this function well enough, but they can be a little boring in the long run. It has strong Hades vibes from Perlman’s narration and the way the little story in the beta unfolded. A strong narrative hook in the pre-combat area could replace any need for zany power-ups, but it’s not in there yet. Also, Dead‘s strong silent cowboy shouldn’t become a chatterbox, but hearing just a bit more narration from Hollywood’s favorite Hellboy wouldn’t be a bad thing.

As procedural games continue to evolve and provide more varied experiences, it’s always great discovering what genre mashup developers come up with next. If you catch this article fast enough, you may have a chance to see what all of this means when you play West of Dead yourself. The open beta lasts until November 25, and this is a concept worth checking out in this limited time. We’ve got a great foundation for an indie darling, and Upstream Arcade has the potential to pull it together and deliver on the unique gameplay evident in this open beta.

GameRevolution previewed West of Dead on Xbox One X via an open beta client freely downloaded from Xbox Live. It will be available on Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC when it launches in 2020.