There are a lot of reasons to take a look at West of Dead. Cowboys and Wild West aesthetics are hot in games right now, in the wake of Red Dead Redemption 2. Run-based games are, likewise, very much a structure du jour. It’s dusted with voiceover narration from Ron Perlman, who you might know from Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy films or the FX TV Show Sons of Anarchy. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that its core mechanical conceit, as a cover-based twin-stick shooter, helps Frankenstein it to original and, dare I say, innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, West of Dead is a textbook case of a half-baked concept: Though its big sweeping ideas work well, the minutiae, from scaling the difficulty of encounters to unrefined enemies and plain old technical issues, threaten to undo the experience at any time.
West of Dead’s conceit builds up a simple but interesting little tale. In Purgatory–which is apparently in Wyoming–the dead have stopped filtering “east” to heaven or “west” to hell. You play an undead cowboy called the Marshall who’s lost his memory, save for his mission to kill the evil preacher holding up the afterlife. Though it’s more narrative glue than captivating storytelling, the Marshall’s inner monologue, in subdued performance from Perlman, keeps the story in mind, evoking a world that you might not see in its generic, monotonous Wild West-themed levels.
Like so many of today’s Rogue-inspired games, the story naturally falls away at a certain point, as you play and replay the game over and over, attempting to reach your goal. West of Dead retains many of the tropes established by the many, many rogue-lites that have launched in the last few years, and it cribs its structure specifically from 2018’s wildly successful version, Dead Cells. West of Dead procedurally generates long levels, which are punctuated with a store where you must spend Sin points to permanently expand your arsenal of weapons. In each run, you find upgrades to your specs and more powerful gear–two weapons, two accessories, and a passive charm. By defeating optional bosses, you gain access to branching paths with harder levels. You carry an upgradable healing flask, which you refill between levels. There’s even a hall at the start of each run where you can see all the weapons and upgrades you’ve bought. Though it comes dangerously close to getting branded as a “Dead Cells clone,” using familiar structure makes it easy to focus on West of Dead’s combat, where its real innovations lie.