|Our Score||7.5/10 - Good|
|The Good||Imaginative grindhouse-western setting, plenty of variety in character builds (and the option to rest your skills any time)|
|The Bad||By the late game, combat encounters start to feel repetitive and tiresome.|
|Release Date||November 21, 2022|
|Developed By||Flying Wild Hog|
|Available On||PC, Xbox One/Series, PS4/PS5|
For my first few hours of Evil West, I was all-in on the no-nonsense grindhouse crunchiness of it all. With its butch story, lumpy character models, ardent linearity, and transparently arena-based combat, the cowboys-vs-vampires game from Shadow Warrior developer Flying Wild Hog has all the feel of a very good game from 2012. And for a while, it really got me thinking: if it's OK for today's games to model themselves on, say, late 90s shooters, or early 90s SNES games, then why the hell not should a game have that somewhat trashy 2012 flavour?
But eight, ten hours into its campaign, Evil West began to answer that question for me. It's a hell of a ride for a while, but it struggles to sustain that momentum once it starts bogging you down in repetitive enemy encounters that show up its mechanical shortcomings.
So what kind of game is Evil West? Well, it's more God of War than Gears of War. While there are guns aplenty, they're all secondary to your electrically charged gauntlet, which you use to uppercut enemies into the air before slamming them back down, insta-rappel yourself towards enemies then deliver a hyperspeed electric punch combo, and pull off DOOM-style finishers that yield precious health pickups. It's a game that wants you to get stuck in there.
One of the best design decisions from Flying Wild Hog was to effectively treat the guns as individual cooldown-based moves rather than selecting them from a radial menu and forcing you to think about ammo. Hold Right Trigger to unload your revolve with fanning, hold Left Trigger to aim down the sights of your revolver. In a sticky spot up close? Just hit 'X' [Xbox controller] to blast your way out with a shotgun. There are a couple of weapons assigned to the same buttons that you'll need to toggle between, but they're all implemented in a way that you can unload all of them in a matter of moments. If you find yourself low on health and waiting for your healing function to recharge, with a bit of skill you can pepper enemies from a distance before charging back into the fray with your sparky blue gauntlets.
The game defaults to assisted snap aiming. You can change this to manual if you like, but you'll quickly realise that Evil West isn't really about the sharp-shooting; guns are mainly used to deliver damage-over-time before figuring out which enemies to dismember using your next combo. They also let you shoot enemy weak spots, dealing extra damage to enemies in short windows of opportunity (usually before the enemy delivers a particularly powerful attack of their own). Suffice to say, you'll have plenty on your plate, and the game is hard enough as is.
You play as Jesse Rentier, a Van Helsing-style vampire hunter for the Rentier Institute, an affluent organisation on the American frontier that protects the burgeoning United States from all kinds of ghoulish threats. You soon uncover that a certain subsect of vampires are conspiring to overthrow humanity, and it's up to you to quell their revolution. While you do pretty much all of the fighting by yourself (or alongside a friend in a simple but welcome co-op mode), Rentier rubs shoulders with a colourful band of misfits throughout the story.
There's your macho pal Edgar (y'know, the kind of 'real man' who knocks you over with a punch to the face then offers you a hand to get you back on your feet), the grouchy lady scientist, the derpy engineer, and the oddly likeable vampiric arms dealer Chester, who acts as a kind of weaselly but charming informant. Harrow, meanwhile, is a highly entertaining internal antagonist, representing the kind of unapologetic greed you'd like to think is a caricature of old-timey politics before realising that it's probably just as applicable today.
Evil West's characters make for a rick-rolling yarn, doing the whole Deadwood thing of modern-day swearing in an Old West setting to great effect. With plenty of gruff jokes, scathing one-liners, and sequences where you and your derpy engineer sidekick ride a minecart off a cliff while shouting 'Oh, shiiiiiiiit', it's a story that thrives in not taking itself too seriously, which is why it feels a little off when in its latter stages it gets a little self-serious and earnest.
The story is, of course, secondary to what you'll spend most of your time doing, which is beating and shooting the hell out of unholy creatures–werewolves, leech-covered zombies, and various arachnid and insectoid monstrosities. These fights range from the fantastic early on, to the outright infuriating in later stages.
Evil West feels great when you find that combat flow, especially once you start finding the character Perks and weapon Upgrades that really work for you. Pulling myself towards enemies, then stunning them to soften them up for a flurry of electrified punches, became a great way of creating space on the battlefield. I combined this with various perks that rewarded me with energy cells for certain types of executions, which meant I always had enough energy to pull off powerful moves like an leaping electric ground pound, which lets you do multiple leaps of increasingly lethal splash damage.
The upgrade system has an impressive array of moves, inviting plenty of build experimentation and ways to synergise them. This freedom is bolstered by the fact that at regular intervals you'll come across pods that let you completely reset your perks and upgrades (a feature that should be included in way more games than it is).
But by the later stages of the game, the difficulty curve is mostly correlated with the sheer density of enemies you face, which starts bringing to light the shortcomings of the combat system. For example, there are so many projectiles and attacks coming your way that it can feel like your primary means of movement in battle is dodging (there's no stamina system, so you can basically dodge around forever).
There's a snappy minor dash, which you double-tap for a wider dash, but realistically you'll mostly be using the latter as the hitbox around you (or enemy weapons) is often too big and unclear to risk any kind of fine-margin dodges; those bigger enemies hit hard too, which often makes you play with stern expediency rather than playfulness. You can get quite literally stuck between bigger enemies, with no gap to dodge through, which can be a death sentence if your shotgun is still recharging.
There's an unruly stiffness to the combat that becomes palpable when facing more foes. That's largely down to the fact that you need to manually turn to face the enemy you want to attack, rather than, say, point your left analog stick at an enemy who you know is just off-screen behind Rentier (when they're about to attack, it's indicated by an arrow) to backfist them and start beating on them. The need to always rotate around to face your foes is one of several little things that can make the combat needlessly frustrating at times.
Levels are linear and heavily pathed, to the point that you can only climb or descend ledges at designated points marked by chains. Again, Evil West feels very '2012' in this regard, with arbitrary puzzles and ledge-shimmying sections really just killing the time between combat arenas. But it does maximise that linearity, painting a super-stylised comic-book vision of the Wild West; endless oil fields punctured with pylons as far as the eye can see, underground caverns housing upside-down pyramids, and eerie corn fields surrounded by looming forests paint a deliciously spooky world, bolstered by stylish smatterings of neon red and green light.
For all its superficial swagger, it'd be remiss to call Evil West a case of style over substance, because there's a deceptive amount of substance to its combat system and the vibrant world its set in–just the amount you'd want in such a game. It's a good game for a good while, before its relentless pace runs of steam in the final third when repetitive, tiresome battles highlight the limitations of a mostly solid combat system. With the ability to play the entirety of the campaign in co-op however (with appropriately scaled enemies), I wonder whether spreading the relentless heat between two players could actually be the best way to play the game, and I plan on finding out soon.