The original Hard West game was a reasonably solid turn-based strategy game that required players to utilize cover mechanics to outgun swaths of foes. Hard West II is a spiritual successor to the first game, in a way, as it’s developed by a completely new studio, but it supersedes the original and improves upon it in a lot of smart ways. Commanding a group of four gunslingers against overwhelming odds, you can fight off everything from bandits to the undead in a horror version of the American old west. So is Hard West II softer than its predecessor, or is it a firm addition to your Steam library? Let’s find out.
In Hard West II, you take control of Gin Carter, a rather notorious outlaw on the hunt for a Ghost Train that’s supposedly filled with treasures. Quickly assembling a posse, Carter finds that not everything is as it seems when the devil himself comes and steals his soul. What comes next is a supernatural adventure in a horror-western, where Carter and his group fight outlaws, demons, and absolutely everything in between. Much of the dialogue isn’t voiced, especially little interactions between your characters or for a side quest you may have, but big moments in the story will have the occasional voice acting that helps to set the scenes.
In the overworld of Hard West II, you travel on horseback going from town to town, a contrast to jumping from battle to battle using nothing but a menu in most strategy games. While going from place to place, you can stumble across shops, characters, and even side quests that you can complete. Most side quests follow a pretty simple formula of requiring you get an item, or clear an optional battle, but these quests do make entertaining diversions as you venture across the landscapes. There are lots of choices to make at various parts of Hard West II, as well, and many of them will influence greater loyalty with your party members as you progress.
Hard West II’s main attraction would be its turn-based strategy combat system. Those familiar with games like XCOM will be immediately at home with the gameplay of Hard West II. For the uninitiated, combat in this game involves your group of characters against a number of enemies, with each of you taking turns moving around the environment. You’ll have access to a variety of different weapons, even explosives, and will need to use terrain to your advantage in order to clear out multitudes of enemies. Cover and positioning are important, and denying enemies from using cover is sometimes even more important for chaining turns together with the phenomenal Bravado mechanic.
Hard West II rewards aggressive play with Bravado, so rather than playing defensively, as you would default to in many other turn-based strategy games, in Hard West II you’ll want to constantly be moving your units and attack from reasonably fortified positions to down an enemy. Taking down a target will trigger Bravado and refill your action points for the turn, allowing you to continue taking actions until you run out of enemies to kill. Bravado rewards the player who presses onward and downs as many enemies as they can. Setting up a variety of situations where you can knock multiple enemies at once in a single turn can oftentimes change the flow of a losing battle, and don’t forget that you can ricochet bullets to strike enemies in their flanks or around cover, too.
Each character has a variety of skills they can use to their advantage, as well, and many of them have cooldowns short enough that it’s valuable to use them at a constant rate. Some skills are area damage, some let you fire through walls, but others offer incredible utility like straight up swapping positions with an enemy, letting your other units easily dispatch that target. The playing cards you collect will allow you to unlock more of the latent abilities of your units by making poker hands with them, with better hands unlocking more of their skills.
Eventually you’ll be able to do fun combinations with your character’s skills, such as having Lazarus swap HP with one your injured characters, and with a poker hand ranking of a straight hand or better, he can then swap HP with an enemy too. This effectively heals one of your units and then cripples a target, simultaneously healing Lazarus back up to begin the cycle anew. There’s a great number of fun combinations you can do in Hard West II, and experimenting with the abilities you have while prioritizing who works best for the task at hand is critical.
It’s important to note, however, that Hard West II isn’t a turn-based strategy RPG. Your characters will not level up. You can swap gear and change their cards, but what will always make more of a difference is using the right tools for the job, so make sure that your party members are fully equipped even if it means unequipping the ones you’re not using at that time. If you wind up hitting a wall, you can generally overcome it by messing with the cards you have equipped and trying a different approach. Every enemy encounter is hand crafted by the developers, rather than randomly generated by an algorithm. This means that encounters in Hard West II can be viewed more akin to puzzles whose solutions requires wanton murder.
The visuals of Hard West II, while pretty zoomed out for most things, are still quite pleasurable to look at, and a lot of the environments are designed well enough that you shouldn’t have difficulty in discerning what is traversable and what isn’t. The music also isn’t a slouch- the first Hard West had a pretty decent soundtrack, and Hard West II doesn’t disappoint in this regard either.
Hard West II is, in a way, a sequel done right. It’s an excellent challenge from beginning to end, and experimenting with different skills and abilities from the characters in your posse is a fantastic time. The title was originally plagued with a fair number of technical bugs which, as of the time of this writing, have been completely resolved. If you enjoy turn-based tactical games, Hard West II can be an easy recommendation. If this isn’t your favorite genre, Hard West II probably won’t break new ground or be your favorite. However, the fact that it rewards perfectly timed pushes where you can make all of your foes fall like dominoes in a single turn makes Hard West II stand out from its peers in a great way.