A gritty Wild West take on the highly popular, and addicting rogue-lite genre, West of Dead features a procedurally generated world, twin-stick cover shooter mechanics, and a stylistic protagonist with a flaming skull voiced by Ron Perlman, who you may recognize from Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy, or serving as the narrator from the Fallout franchise. Set in Purgatory, Wyoming in 1888, you'll venture through dark catacombs, icy caverns guarded by a dangerous wendigo, and stone cut passages inside a gold mine, only to perish and awake at the same saloon every time.
The grimy saloon, with its toppled over chairs, dirty tables, and a vacant piano sitting in a darkened corner, serves as your hub, the location you'll return to after a failed run. As a rogue-lite, you're meant to die, dying in West of Dead is good. Although you'll lose all of your upgrades, abilities, and weapons, you've acquired on your previous run. As you exit the tavern, you'll gain access to two random levels one firearms, located in a massive area, highlighting all of your unlocked weapons and items. Step outside, and begin your journey through the gritty crypts all over again.
Environments consist of tight corridors that give access to rooms of various sizes. Enemies never appear in hallways, giving you time to decide which direction you'll want to take. With that said, the tactical approach to combat does allow you to pull certain foes into these hallways, and more importantly, into previous rooms. Not only does these separate enemies, but it gives you the advantage to engage them while they attempt to chase you down. Lighting places a significant role in how engagements play out. Most rooms you'll enter are deprived of light, making it impossible to properly lock on to enemies, concealing those wishing to send you back to the saloon. Scattered about are hanging lights that, if activated, illuminate rooms and temporarily stun nearby enemies. The game's auto-aim doesn't lock-on in the dark; however, you can manually target these foes when you want.
You'll need almost always to find cover during gunfights, using parts of the environment, such as massive stone coffins. These are destroyable, so you won't be able to stay hidden for too long. There are both melee and ranged foes, with the former rushing towards you, and the latter taking multiple shots at you with pinpoint accuracy. Dodging and sliding into position is pivotal, as mistiming a dodge leaves you open to enemy gunfire, as only a perfectly timed dodge sees you avoid taking damage.
It took five or six horrendous runs to slowly grasp the game's mechanics to start progressing through the crypts. Before long, you'll understand how many hits it'll take to stun enemies with your revolver or how the slow prodding corpses love to follow you into previous rooms, making them easy targets. I still haven't perfected the art of dodging, and more often than not, when I'm out of cover or attempting to hop out from my crumbling hiding spot, I'm targeted instantaneously due to being too fast or too slow. Dying means you will lose everything you've acquired, so say goodbye to those improved weapons. However, if you can clear an entire floor, you'll spend one of two currencies on permanent improvements.
Upon reaching the witch, at the end of a floor, you compare their presence with that of an encroaching storm. Sin must be purged, unlocking permanent and temporary upgrades, such as a health flask, to recover a portion of your overall health that you'll retain across subsequent runs. Others include a shield to absorb damage for a set period, a lantern to stun nearby enemies, and new weapons, such as The Freezer, to briefly slow enemies down or The Traitor, which causes critical damage when shooting enemies from behind. The second currency, iron, can be exchanged for temporary abilities that you'll lose when you die. These include gaining health while sliding into cover, or halving your reload time for a short period. Rooms with a glowing skull provide upgrades, giving you the change to improve your maximum health, melee damage, or firearm damage. Given the world design's procedural nature, I had these safe zones back-to-back, giving me a much-needed boost to get through multiple floors before succumbing to a boss.
West of Dead provides an adequate challenge set across an intriguing premise. Hearing Ron Perlman's voice, as you explore the shadowy underworld added to the experience. There's not much to the overall narrative, but that can be overlooked once you get a handle on the exciting gameplay and stunning cel-shaded visuals. The random nature of each run does mean you'll get lucky, being able to breeze through a floor in mere minutes, and other times you'll have terrible guns and rooms filled with multiple enemies. Don't get me started with the beasts in the caverns that lunge towards you and have a large heath pool.Note: West of Dead was reviewed on Xbox One. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.