These last few years we’ve had our share of spooky westerns. West of Dead, Ritual: Crown of Horns, and Weird West spring immediately to mind. And now we have Evil West from Shadow Warrior devs Flying Wild Hog. It’s no surprise the subgenre has taken off either. See, cowboys are cool. Even without monsters and werewolves and witchcraft, you can stick cowboys in more or less any story and improve it. It’s the same with pirates and vikings, but cowboys have a certain swagger that makes a dirty face, three-day stubble, and eight layers of leather plus a scarf and a massive coat look somehow badass.
And very few cowboys are as badass as Jesse Rentier, whose duster coat is actual armour and who uses a revolver that shoots lightning bullets. Jesse is a vampire hunter, see? The heir apparent to the Rentier Institute, a steampunk anti-vampire agency that seems analogous to the Pinkertons in Evil West’s alternate universe. Vampires, also known as ticks, are a rampant, deadly menace, and the Rentiers and their agents hunt them down across the North American frontier. Vampires use magic known as Glamour to hide their appearance and their lairs, so the Institute employs advanced science to weed them out.
As the story opens Jesse and his mentor survive a devastating vampire attack on the Institute headquarters and come face to face with Felicity D’Albano, a new breed of vampire with the appearance of a teenage girl and the powers of a god. Felicity and her maker are at the spearhead of a new vampire initiative and only Jesse and his small band of allies can stand in their way. The narrative is surprisingly engaging, with diabolical villains, sweary antagonists, and reluctant heroes, all laced with Flying Wild Hog’s particular brand of irreverent humour.
That said, Evil West is played straighter than the Shadow Warrior games. Jesse isn’t a bumbling jackass like Lo Wang, though he has a tendency to shoot first. There are jokes here and there but most are in the many, many references to other games and media.
Action is in third person, with an over-the-shoulder camera that feels most like God of War, believe it or not. In fact, Evil West’s structure is more like Kratos’ 2018 adventure than anything else. The movement feels similar, and even the combat shares DNA. In lieu of a magical boomerang axe, though, Jesse instead wields a variety of guns and gauntlets. His right hand he uses to clobber vampires into sticky giblets with a lightning-infused Gauntlet, called the Zapper, that has a multitude of uses.
For a 12-15 hour adventure, Evil West packs in an awful lot of weapons and abilities. Just the Zapper Gauntlet alone can stun enemies, pull them to you, or create massive shock waves to stagger enemies. Then factor in the Crippling Rod that stuns entire groups, dynamite, a rapid fire crossbow, a long rifle, handgun, shotgun – all of which can be augmented with lightning to deal extra damage and even channel the effect through crowds. There’s no weapon wheel to cycle, as every weapon is attached to a specific button, meaning switching on the fly is easy.
Interestingly, nothing requires ammo pick-up. Everything is on a cooldown, including Jesse’s guns, requiring you to keep moving and switching up your weapons to speed up the recharge times. Health and energy pick-ups will drop from enemies killed in certain ways, such as with a finisher or shotgun (sorry, “boomstick”) blast. You’ll periodically meet miniboss enemies such as a giant winged Highborn Vampire, a tunneling mole monster, and a grotesque beast with a hideous spider on its back. Each of these, and even some of the end-of-stage bosses, are shuffled into the enemy roster, leading to some insanely busy – even stressful – encounters later on.
Some of the boss fights are superb, too. One against a huge creature that attaches itself to buildings and either shoots a stream of plasma at you or swings into you like a wrecking ball is cool, and there’s one fight in the late game that requires you to use everything in Jesse’s arsenal to stay alive. Each one feels different to the one before, and presents a meaty challenge even on standard difficulty.
Again, the combat feels very similar to God of War in that it mostly takes place in open spaces that punctuate stretches of exploration. There are environmental puzzles to solve, secrets to find containing new Perks and cosmetic skins for Jesse’s clothing and weaponry, and tidbits of lore. You get around using a grappling hook or your weapons to clear paths and create climbing points. The way forward is highlighted by silver chains, which is as good a way as any, though it doesn’t look entirely natural in some locations. Think of them as the runic sigils in God of War that tell you where you can jump, climb, crawl, or swing.
The mission structure doesn’t change much throughout, aside from a few fun distractions like a mine-cart ride, but the locations and enemies are impressively varied. From werewolf-like Nagals to the terrifying Boo-hags, hulking brutes with axes and hammers or giant shields, twisted monstrosities covered in the giant leeches that may or may not be the true vampiric form, there’s a ton of things to kill and a ton of ways to kill them. The result of which is a game that just doesn’t get boring.
While the story is hardly up there with the best, it’s engaging, funny, moving, sometimes a little surprising, and well acted despite there being very few truly likable characters. Jesse and his best friend Edgra Gravenor, and vampire expert Dr Emilia Blackwell are the best on offer, while the supporting characters are either shouty sweary arseholes or softly spoken science types.
It does look pretty good for the most part, though. It has the same over-saturated colour palette as Shadow Warrior 3, with too much grain in the cutscenes and some very temperamental background textures that either pop in when they feel like it or sometimes not at all. Character design is incredibly busy. Jesse walks around like he couldn’t decide what to wear so just wore everything he owns, constantly adding new weapons and gizmos to his person like the mule in Buckaroo. It’s small wonder that he’s so slow climbing ladders and ropes when he’s carrying most of an armoury on his back.
Some things do seem a little superfluous, though, such as a rope you can tie to your crossbow bolts to create ziplines, which is barely used outside of a few very specific points and could have been left out altogether. Especially as the moment Jesse announces that he needs a rope, one just happens to be hanging behind him.
Speaking of superfluous, a multiplayer mode feels somewhat excess to requirements. You can play the entire campaign through with a friend, but you’ll both be Jesse, and story progress only continues for the host. It’s a nice option if you really want it, but the single player campaign doesn’t really lend itself to teamwork in the real sense. It does change up some of the encounters, though, adding new enemies and tougher fights to compensate for the extra guns. Sadly there’s no local co-op, though, so you’ll need an online connection to partner up.
Most of my complaints here are small, though. Evil West is one of the most surprising and enjoyable action games of the year, and Flying Wild Hog have an absolute banger on their hands. It may not be particularly nuanced and it’s about as subtle and understated as a firework display in an outhouse, but Evil West is the most fun I’ve had with a boomstick since Doom Eternal.
Combat is so much fun
Loads of weapons and skills
Great level and enemy variety
Can feel a little cumbersome
Some graphical and performance issues
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