We've taken a trip to the American West to hunt down the Ghost Train in Ice Code Games' strategy sequel.
A few months back, I had a chance to check out the first hour or so of Ice Code Games’ turn-based strategy sequel, Hard West 2. It was here that I got my first taste of what this different development team was doing with the supernatural western experience, and while I noted that the game was absolutely not a walk in the park, it’s generally more fast-paced combat and interesting overworld really drew me in. Today, we’re right on the cusp of Hard West 2 actually debuting on PC and for the last few days, I’ve been well and truly immersed in this game and checking out all it has to offer.
But before I get into my thoughts, here’s a quick rundown on the premise and plot of Hard West 2. This game sees you leading a group of outlaws through the American West on a revenge mission to take down the nefarious commander of the mysterious Ghost Train, which travels around the land terrorising its inhabitants. Known as Mammon, this individual cheated you out of your right to claim the train for your own, and then proceeded to attempt to claim your soul, and now you’re hellbent on finding the Ghost Train again and exacting revenge on Mammon for his swindling crimes.
The majority of the gameplay plays from a top-down perspective, where you lead your posse of outlaws around the West, and explore points of interest, interact with settlements to pick up side-quests, heal-up, and shop, and even find places to initiate combat sequences. Once you get into combat, the gameplay shifts to turn-based strategy, meaning you have to command each character and use their specific amount of action points to move around a battlefield, use items, attack hostiles, and use abilities in a meaningful way. Granted there are systems in place that allow you to capitalise on kills, as the Bravado mechanic resets a character’s action points upon landing a killing blow, which in turn opens the opportunity to chain kills and really cut through foes quite quickly.
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Similarly, each respective playable character has their own skill and set of abilities. Gin Carter (the typical outlaw type) can fire a penetrating array of shots at foes every other turn, which does medium damage but can hit multiple enemies at once. The magical Flynn can use a spell to switch her place with an enemy, to either obtain some overlooking high ground, or to put a foe right in the danger zone of her fellow posse members.
I’d like to make it fundamentally clear here that Hard West 2, as I continued to say in my preview, is not an easy game. Even on the easiest difficulty, you will find yourself replaying parts of the game due to facing failure in combat, and while that’s not necessarily an issue, anyone hoping that the turn-based strategy gameplay in the combat on lower difficulties would be toned down so you can focus on the story, will find themselves sorely mistaken as the narrative progresses. And this is because there are certain systems and design choices in place that make decisions ever more important and impactful, whether that’s relating to mission objectives that mean certain posse members have to survive or even when looking at the out-of-combat healing, which simply doesn’t exist – rather you have to visit a doctor to regain health at the cost of some money. It all means that every move you make is important, because sometimes you will find yourself in back-to-back combat engagements and with no way to heal between the two, which really amps the challenge up when you have to push through an entire combat sequence often with half or less than that of your posse’s full health.
I will say that the combat doesn’t face some of the more typical X-COM-like issues of the strategy genre, as I haven’t faced stupid percentages that essentially mean anything less than 100% accuracy is failure, and likewise the ability to use shot ricocheting makes approaching combat all the more fun, as you can get creative with the way you look to bring down enemies. In that sense, Hard West 2’s combat and turn-based strategy gameplay excels.
The overworld itself is also one of the areas that I appreciate most about Hard West 2. It’s not overwhelmingly packed or too massive, but has a nice balance of interesting points and not too much empty space in between. Each point-of-interest usually also rewards you with something useful, be it new weapons and gear, or even some playing cards, which are used to boost individual stats of each character (for example health or speed) and can be paired up like poker hands for extra benefits as well. It all combines well with the customisation suite to give the player enough freedom in how they specialise their respective characters and does so in a way that doesn’t feel overly complex or complicated.
One of the areas however that I’ve begun to appreciate less is the pacing of the game, because I’ve found that Hard West 2 simply feels too slow at anything less than four-times gameplay speed – which just so happens to be the maximum speed option. This is for both roaming around the overworld, which at regular pace feels mind-numbingly slow, and also in combat, especially when you’re taking on a lot of enemy units who take an eternity to get their turn out of the way.
But generally speaking, I’ve come to really like Hard West 2. I do strongly believe that its crushing difficulty will alienate a lot of players, and that that might just be the biggest turnoff for a lot of fans. But for any X-COM and turn-based strategy veterans who are used to (and appreciate) getting absolutely battered when playing video games, this should be right up your street. Everyone else, you have been warned.