It’s easy to make a game difficult — the hard part is to make that difficulty appear fair and rewarding to the player. Blood West doesn’t try to fool you into thinking you are in for an easy ride, but doubles down on the challenge in unintended and unsatisfying ways. The result is an experience where I never felt accomplished for overcoming a particular task, only a sense of dread over whether or not I would be able to tolerate the jank and design to progress further.
On paper, Blood West sounds like a slam dunk — an immersive sim set in the old West beset by nightmarish monsters and uncanny demons all wrapped up in a vaguely N64/PS1 graphical style. While all those elements are present, the execution and gameplay suck all the enjoyment out of interacting with this world. With only a barebones narrative to fall back on, Blood West’s design will frustrate you in all the wrong ways.
Move along little doggie
Pitting Cowboys against Monsters isn’t exactly a novel concept for a video game, but the mash-up is offbeat enough to make something unique out of it. However Blood West decides to essentially forgo any storytelling beyond the most basic setup and loose quest structure. You play as a Cowboy freshly resurrected, despite the best efforts of a Native American Shaman, in a region of the frontier where evil spirits have run rampant and turned nearly everyone into twisted monstrosities. The spirits that revived you have done so with the express purpose of using you to find the source of this evil and destroy it, which is about the limit the game is willing to go in delivering a story.
While there isn’t a lot in that premise, there was still plenty of potential to build on that Blood West almost seems to intentionally ignore. The opening cutscene, narrated by the same Native Shaman, mentions the corruption of the white man coming to this land, bringing with them greed, temptation, and debauchery. A Shaman chooses to take one of these dead white men — an invader and defiler of that land — and attempts to bury him under his tribe’s tradition to save his soul from reanimating. So much could be unpacked here, and all the dominoes were set up, and yet neither the plot nor the cast of characters seems interested in exploring any part of it. The characters you interact with the most are the spirits directing you and your missions. However, they hardly speak about anything other than directing you to whatever McGuffin they sent you to find, or when you need to know where the next one is. Oh, and there’s one more person who talks: your main character spouting one-liners that made my eyes roll so hard I could see my own brain shrinking.
Blood West giving you shorn threads of a story about colonization, magic, and the Native American people and their culture is a spectacular fumble as is. Yet the gameplay and design proves to be equally as disappointing.
You are not, nor will ever, feel strong in Blood West. On its face, that isn’t an issue. The game seems to want you to use stealth and creative routes to carefully avoid or engage isolated enemies when the moment is right. The problem lies in that you are essentially an immersive-sim character who occasionally wanders into a Doom level. Random encounters in the hub are generally fair, with interspersed patrols you can plan and systematically dismantle. Core locations, especially quest areas, are not. These areas can be packed with 5 or more enemies all in constant eyesight of one another. And when you do get spotted or heard, there’s little recourse but to run.
Despite having all the iconic weapons of the era you would hope to see — revolvers, shotguns, rifles, bows. etc. — nothing makes open combat feel enjoyable. There’s no viable strategy in “going loud.” Even two or three enemies rushing you will feel overwhelming. The problem is that your guns are as weak as they feel, and the lack of enemy reaction or feedback to getting shot will have you wondering if your guns are loaded with blanks. Melee weapons don’t fare much better. Stealth hits are decent simply because they typically are single-hit kills, but trying to space and time your swings on an aggroed monster will, at best, result in trading blows. When you die in about three hits from basic enemies, that’s a recipe for frustration.
When you do die, getting sent back to your resting spot is a minor annoyance. Getting hit with a curse that gets stronger with each death is borderline sadistic. Curses can drop your max HP, Stamina, or give you some other debilitating disadvantage and can only be cured by purchasing an expensive item from a vendor or waiting until you’ve died three times, the curse getting worse with each death, and then completing a task for the spirit totem to remove it. But wait, it can get worse. I didn’t mess around to find out just how far it would go, but you’re not capped at one curse. Die a fourth time and a second curse is stacked on you.
Between your grueling attempts at completing whatever fetch quest you’re on, you will be managing your inventory and levels, which is a chore all on its own.
For gear, you have a typical grid-based system where everything you hold takes up a different amount of squares to limit how much you can carry in reserve. It’s simple and unobtrusive, but it does get tiring to loot such low-value items from monsters just to fill up your space to sell off later. I eventually stopped bothering with looting enemies for the most part after realizing there wasn’t much I could buy that actually improved my experience with the core systems.
There’s a big list of skills you are given to invest your points into upon leveling, however, I would be generous in saying half of them were even worth considering. Most are so situational that I wonder why anyone would invest in them unless doing a very specific type of run. The “good” ones that remain aren’t so much about making you more powerful but feel more like requirements to get your character up to a somewhat competent fighter. You are so underpowered at the start that it took multiple levels before I reached a level that seemed like a good starting point.
Move on to greener pastures
Blood West is as conflicted as its themes. The monsters, weapons, and level design would feel right at home in a Doom or even classic Turok game but lacks satisfying gameplay and gives you an underpowered main character that makes playing the game feel more like an exercise in exploiting the design than fully engaging with it. The story plays it too safe by refusing to engage with the most prominent themes of its own premise and falls back on tedious quests with little to no motivation to complete them. It is a criminal clash of design and mechanics that would be better off forgotten.
Blood West was reviewed on the PC with a code provided by Hyperstrange. It is available PC starting December 1.
- The horror and Old West aesthetics mix well
- Unsatisfying weapons
- Threadbare story
- Brutally difficult in all the wrong ways