Cowboy-horror-action-brawler Evil West has been on my radar since it was first revealed at The Game Awards in 2020. It ticks a lot of boxes for me, not least of which is its striking resemblance to my beloved Darkwatch, and studio Flying Wild Hog has a decent track record with both the Shadow Warrior trilogy and this year’s Trek to Yomi. Earlier this year, I played through the very beginning of Evil West and battled the first boss, a towering bat monster you find in a tomb beneath a ghost town. For this final preview, I got to jump into a later level to see how the combat evolves once you get some more tools to work with. Managing the battlefield is a balletic bloodbath of quick thinking and even quicker reacting. Unfortunately, everything else feels an unnecessary barrier between you and the next big fight.
When I started this paragraph it occurred to me that I don’t even know our protagonist’s name, and frankly, it doesn’t feel like it matters that much. Playing fragmented missions in previews doesn’t serve the story very well, but these demos are meant to represent Evil West’s best qualities, which is undoubtedly the combat. Our hero has a wide assortment of weapons and abilities to face the forces of hell with, and his arsenal only gets more impressive as you go. Evil West takes a lot of the action game conventions of the Dark Souls era and adds some interesting twists.
Take parrying for example. A well-timed block can counter an attacking ghoul just as you would expect, but instead of simply retaliating with a scripted attack, you have a few options about how you follow up. A parried enemy is left stunned and surrounded by bright blue electricity. If you follow up with an attack, you’ll unleash a fast flurry of hits that will quickly vaporize them. But a stationary foe can also become a powerful projectile, so you might want to line up your shot, punch them into the air, then hammer them into another enemy in the distance. You may not have enough space or time to even react to the stunned target, so sometimes it's better to take the brief reprieve to instead focus on a ranged enemy that’s been harassing you from a nearby rooftop. You don’t have any time to mull it over and the wrong choice can be costly. There’s a lot of skill expression in how efficiently and stylishly you can clear an arena. You have plenty of tools, but it’s up to you how you use them.
Aside from your typical melee combos, block, and an interrupting kick (for unblockable attacks, a nice addition here) the rest of your weapons and abilities all have independant cool downs. I expect this to be a somewhat divisive design decision. Managing four separate cooldowns – shotgun, rifle, healing, and an AoE blast – takes a lot of concentration and attentiveness. Keeping an eye on the corner of the UI for cooldown timers while trying to dip and dodge around enemies can be stressful, and hammering on a button that does nothing because you’re still on cooldown can be pretty frustrating. As I got better at fighting, I found I was slowly able to stop using my abilities as ‘oh shit’ buttons and start weaving them into my attacks, utilizing them in advantageous moments. The variety of combat encounters do a great job of teaching you this by switching up the types of enemies you’re up against each time.
Most enemies don’t have complicated attack patterns to learn, rather they rely on numbers to overwhelm you. Creating space for yourself by dodging and using abilities is imperative, and prioritizing targets is often the biggest key to success. Though the arenas are always large and you’re always being attacked from every direction, you do have a lot of control over your position, and the position of your targets. I mentioned the hero punch that launches enemies into each other, but you also have a dash that will take you instantly across the battlefield, a pull to yank enemies closer, and multiple ranged weapons for shutting down flying monsters. Evil West is bound to draw comparisons to God of War, but even Kratos doesn’t have this many toys in his toybox.
When the dust settles and you finally have a moment to wipe the blood of your enemies from your face, it becomes clear that the rest of the game doesn’t have nearly as much to offer. This setting for this preview was yet another abandoned town in the Old West that’s been overrun with demons. Whenever you finish a fight, you’ll be able to poke around to find hidden chests filled with gold (for buying upgrades) and cosmetic items. A couple of environmental puzzles impeded my progress momentarily, but none of them felt like anything more than a simple diversion. One required me to drag a train cart back and forth along a track so I could climb on it to lower a drawbridge, another had me ascending a building with my grapple hook to flip three switches to open a gate. All of them felt obligatory – like they’re just the kind of a thing this kind of game would have – and not at all engaging.
There’s an inescapable double-A quality to Evil West, which I hate to use as a pejorative, but it will be compared to games like the earlier God of War and Devil May Cry. There aren’t a lot of linear action games like Evil West anymore, and it definitely feels like a PS3-era game. The example that sticks in my mind the most is a set piece moment where you’re riding in a train car down a broken track, shooting barrels to explode debris and button to switch lanes as you go. Instead of grappling onto a hook as you reach the end of the track to escape, it switches to a cutscene of the character doing exactly that. There are a lot of little moments like that that make it feel dated. It’s charming, for those of us who remember the likes of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, but with Evil West launching just weeks after God of War Ragnarok, the comparison will certainly be unfavorable.
I was sold on vampire hordes in the Old West, and I still am. My love for the combat far outweighs my concerns about, well, everything else, and I’m looking forward to smashing skulls and piling up some demon corpses this November. I’m also intrigued by the co-op option, which is not something I have seen in action yet, and it's not exactly a common feature for games like this. Hey, maybe that’s why the hero doesn’t have a name.
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