If you’re not expecting an open world or deep RPG mechanics this is a lot of fun. I generally don’t like casual games but this gets to the action right away and doesn’t really stop until you finish it (later that evening if you just power through).
Imagine a single player Frozen Synapse with improved Prison Architect style graphics in a traditional western setting. It’s an indie game and your characters have big heads and little circles for hands but it’s quite bloody and it does one thing really really well; it captures the feel of what we imagine chaotic western gunfights feel like.
Should you Get It?
I was about to type an unequivocal yes with the caveat that it’s just a little fun game, but then I went back to Steam to check the price. I expected something in the $10 range and was a little surprised it was US$14.99. Whether that’s a good value for you depends on how much you’re happy to spend for an evening of playing. The game is a lot of fun but it lasts maybe five hours and I don’t really feel like replaying it.
You create your western bandit gang leader in seconds and go on very quick missions. You start alone but quickly rescue a partner. After the 3rd mission you are free to hire more. After missions your characters gain XP and their stats go up automatically. When they level they gain a preset skill (each character has a random mix of these). You don’t make any choices regarding progression. You just choose who goes on missions and what weapon they take.
There’s only three possible weapons: a pistol, rifle and shotgun. Characters have four stats: Vitality, Accuracy, Dexterity, Evasion. That’s it really. It’s all extremely streamlined. No narrative or consequence or dialogue of any kind. Instead of listing what’s “missing”, I’ll just focus on what’s there. Really good pausible outlaw vs. lawman combat.
What you Do
You control your little outlaws on tiny missions that take place in a variety of generic western towns. Most missions start with your weapons holstered and your characters seemingly innocent. This lets you wander about town, positioning and scouting more or less at will. Once you draw your weapons the townsfolk react appropriately. Peaceful civilians will run to the sheriff’s office to alert the authorities, deputies will draw guns and open fire. It feels realistic and nuanced despite the cute graphics.
Pressing the space bar pauses while still allowing you to give orders. You’ll pause a lot but it’s not fiddly. The only things you can make your characters do is move (taking cover automatically when available) and target opponents. You’re not even really directly telling them to attack opponents, you’re just building a sort of threat queue for each of your characters and they decide how to dispense lead to deal with the multiple targets.
Missions start out quiet, then you do something like kill the sheriff so you can free a captured gang member or start robbing the bank and everyone reacts and all hell breaks loose. It’s a ton of fun as you lead your band through a hail of fire to escape points, or hold out for a train to arrive. I usually don’t enjoy these games because they feel like puzzle games. This played much more natural. I got through most missions on the first play through but often by the skin of my teeth or with a fatality or two.
I keep saying it, but it’s really bloody good fun. Shotguns one-shot surprised guards at close range. Dual pistol wielding outlaws can take out a room. There’s a lot happening under the hood. Facing matters and enemies take time to turn and shoot. This lets you set up satisfying tactical ambushes, one character pulling out a shotgun and taking out a few at close range while his mates come up from around the corner just as the surviving foes turn to see who attacked them. You constantly need to use little spur-of the moment tricks to keep your tiny band alive while outnumbered.
To help you stay alive are the buildings populating each mission’s town. Killing all lawmen inside and holding the building for a few seconds secures it and confers a bonus for the rest of the mission. The saloon let’s you see all characters regardless of range or cover. Securing the sheriff’s office unlocks all doors on the map so you can surprise out of position guards. You constantly balance these bonuses with the overall objectives and the clock. The game rewards a bronze, silver or gold star at the end of each mission and this determines how much XP each gang member gets.
Again I don’t usually like that mechanic in games. Usually scoring a gold star requires puzzle like efficiency and multiple playthroughs of each mission. This wasn’t the case. I’d say I played well, but most missions turned into a clusterfuck of running and switching positions and diving through windows to stay alive yet I still got gold or silver stars most of the time. The judgement felt fair.
After you get your xp you choose another mission from the world map. Order doesn’t matter and they have no effect on each other. The little description doesn’t even make any narrative sense. Team mates are captured, enemy gangs are ambushed – none of it matters. It’s all just an excuse to set up fun, iconic scenarios.
I played on the second difficulty level which seemed like the “default” level. It indicated that enemies have normal stats and reactions and so forth. There’s one level below and two above. You can choose to play with permadeath or let your characters revive after combat. You can also choose ironman mode or allow mission replays.
I chose permadeath and ironman and had to restart my game three times in a row, each time before the 4th mission. It wasn’t too frustrating because the game was teaching me its mechanics and most of the lessons would have been more obvious if I didn’t disrespect the game because of its cute graphics. For example, on my second playthrough I knew that a couple of deputies come out of a saloon once I shoot the sherriff to rescue a friend. Instead of going straight for the sherriff’s office I walked into the saloon, drew my gun and shot them in the back. They both died before they could damage me but the bartender pulled out a shotgun and killed my guy.
On a 3rd playthrough I decided to snipe from a church. There was a lot of cover and I had a good idea of where enemies would come from. As soon as the priest saw my drawn guns he ran out of the church and to the sherriff’s office. Deputies poured out forcing an unexpected gunfight while I was still positioning my snipers. It was great.
After an hour of failing and dying I got the hang of it and breezed through the rest of the missions. That’s not accurate, because as I said, each one felt satisfying and daring. Characters sometimes died and had to be replaced but never so often that funds were an issue. The game did get easier as it went on, despite the enemy count and skill raising. Your characters become deadly and durable. Carelessness is punished throughout, even a max level character will be cut down in 2 seconds when facing multiple enemies out of cover.
The skills they get as they level up make a huge difference despite often being one-shots with short range. Throw sand blinds all enemies in a tiny cone but when fighting takes place in a cramped office a tiny cone can take out half a dozen enemies. Not that the sand takes them out. They’re just blind and helpless while your characters shoot them with blood spurting and pooling around corpses.
I tried the hardest setting for a few missions after finishing the game. It is much harder. Playing the first mission exactly the same way as I did on the default difficulty resulted in death and failure.
Final Score – 73
If you liked Frozen Synapse, Doorkickers or small squad tactical combat in general, you don’t mind spending $15 and you want to kill 5 hours then this is great. I’m not the target audience and I had fun the whole time. I just bitched about general slog in games – this had no slog. It’s fluid and mostly balanced and fair. I wish there was more equipment, and maybe a little decision making upon leveling, but that’s my own preferences, not the game’s goal. It wants you to relive all the standard, western themed, O.K. Corral like moments in westerns. It totally nails that as well as the limited production values allow.
The game was totally stable and smooth and I imagine you could run it on any machine. The only bug I ran into is not getting any steam achievements despite accomplishing their requirements.