should have been called “Wyrd West”. At least that’s my take on proceedings after being delivered a deep-dive for the ages by WolfEye Studios
’ Julien Roby
and Gael Giraudeau
, who serve as executive producer and game designer on the game respectively. Joining them, and at the helm of this locomotive remittance of information, is industry legend and former Arkane Studios
co-boss, Raphael Colantonio
. The trio don’t hold back on the breadth of content their new studio’s debut title is filled with, either, which is most easily summed up as a game set in *some sort of* Wild West, but not as you really know it.
"More than just horror meets Wild West, with dark fantasy elements, folk horror, wickerpunk and more permeating the world build...”
Why Wyrd? Because while “weird west” is itself an established -punk subgenre, with something like Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
being a proximity example, WolfEye’s take on it all envelopes a bit more than just horror meets Wild West, with dark fantasy elements, folk horror, wickerpunk and more permeating the world build here. There’s also a heavy lean on fate and intertwined destinies in what we’ve been exposed to with Weird West, which is the heart of wyrd. Still, when you have a pig man as a character you’ve unashamedly borrowed from a popular modern TV series, maybe “Weird” is the better fit.
“I’m into Westerns as well, but I also like special worlds, you know?” says Raphael "Raf" Colantonio when asked about Weird West’s genesis. “The “Wild West” just as the ‘Wild West’ was not enough to me. The same way in Dishonored
we started with London
, but we wanted more
than that … I think it’s in our passion to really create
worlds as opposed to just ‘reproducing’ worlds.
“So we started with what we liked from the Wild West and some of the tropes, but we branched pretty quickly. From the get-go, really. We knew right away that it wouldn’t just be the Wild West; we wanted something more and “Weird West” sounded like a cool fusion of fantasy and Wild West. And some of the inspirations… you know, there’s a Lovecraftian
vibe in there, there’s some horror vibes and one of them is even surprising -- one of the monsters in the game is a pig man and that just came from American Horror Story
. Watching that show [we thought] it would be a great fit for Weird West.
“So we tried not to make it a mash-up of everything we like, but as we integrate elements we of course flavour them in a way that feels cohesive with our world, but the inspirations are pretty vast.
“Also it’s not a “what if?” thing, or an alternate reality thing, you know? It’s not “in the year 1700 this thing happened”... it’s just its own world.”
I should back it up a bit here and introduce you to your new “most wanted” title. Weird West is an action-RPG or, as Raf and co. like to refer to it, an “Immersive Sim”. The ‘almost a genre’ can best be summed up across experiences comparable to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
or Arx Fatalis
(as referenced by WolfEye), but at its core, as Raf explains, it’s a space where “the world is actually bigger than the game … a world that exists without
the player”. This concept is less about building around the player-character or the game’s eventual narrative, and more about construction of a living, breathing space that would exist with or without you. Everything in it serves a functioning, logical purpose and the game and its subsequent gameplay stems from your interruption of it.
You almost become
a system. An unexpected, unpredictable system, but a system nonetheless. And one said “functioning, logical” world needs to react to.
"Given the bulk of the collective WolfEye pedigree, it’s certainly something not unachievable...”
The makeup of Weird West is built around a playthrough mechanic featuring five characters and five separate vignettes. Each character’s arc is part of a greater narrative, and after each respective playthrough, the state of the world as you left it is the same state the next character not only enters into, but then has to deal with. This opens up the idea of replayability given you can try to manipulate the world in various ways to affect the flow-on gameplay and multiple-arc setup. It’s incredibly ambitious, but given the bulk of the collective WolfEye pedigree, it’s certainly something not unachievable. How deep and dynamic this idea goes, however, remains to be seen.
Additionally, in a game-world that exists beyond the player and narrative proper, you need volume and movement. This is dictated by Weird West’s myriad AI and how they dynamically shape the fluidity of the space, especially if you’re the one messing with them, and it. And while the game obviously features story-specific NPCs, comrades and enemies, how you choose to deal with them is entirely up to you.
“We wanted the world to be on its own, and not waiting
for the player,” explains game designer Gael Giraudeau. “And if I can give an example: if you killed everyone in a location (you can attack everyone in the game), this location -- instead of making AI respawn all the time, you know, magically reappearing in three days time -- it will [instead] go into an abandoned state. So if you come back you will really see the town deserted with [spiders and cobwebs] and stuff on the floor… people have left, you know. And then a couple of days after [that], it’s possible that another faction takes that town and owns the town again. It can be humans, but it can also be some weirder people and more dangerous people as well.”
It’s not just a replacement crew of AI, it is in fact an entirely new tenant, with their own decorative ideas and blueprints for the layout of the abandoned space.
“The look of that town and the way the [new] AI will behave will completely change your exploration and the way you’ll face it again,” Gael adds. “So this is something we’re pretty proud of, and the art direction and the tools we have put in gives us the flexibility to create this [and make] very drastic changes.”
Of course, it’s not just a residential thing, so to speak. Or community. Shit can get personal based on how you play and who you attack. With long-lasting effects.
“And looking at the AI in combat, you can have several behaviours that [become] richer,” he continues. “For example, people can flee. So if you attack a gang, some of them can flee and then there’s a chance they can develop a vendetta against you, if you killed the gang leader, for example. And this revenge [against you] can happen at any time in your playthrough.
“If you kill everyone in a town you’ll have a bad reputation and you can start getting bounties on your head. So those kinds of things, we wanted them to be in the game to have this coherence.” [Also] you can recruit previous heroes that you [already] played [for] this journey.”
"Some actions and options like this might seem initially as superfluous, or even burdening the player with too much choice, but this is essentially an open-choice action-RPG where those choices matter. And the game-world and everything within it is yours for manipulation...”
In addition to the game’s current AI, you’ll also have the chance to recruit a previously-played hero from an earlier playthrough to the run you’re doing now, as an AI companion, which adds to the replayability side of things mentioned earlier. And all of this will lead to larger questions that surround the rewards for multiple playthroughs, what can be uncovered in double-dipping to this effect and to what extent all of this can be exploited.
Speaking of, exploitation is a key component to many factors throughout Weird West. Everything in the game-world and in your immediate vicinity is interactive. You could have baddies right outside your house, but if you highlight your bed, there’s an option to at least attempt to sleep in it, irrespective of the lurking danger. Some actions and options like this might seem initially as superfluous, or even burdening the player with too much choice, but this is essentially an open-choice action-RPG where those choices matter
. And the game-world and everything within it is yours for manipulation. It also means nothing here is ever canned, so to speak. And while there is an obvious narrative that plays out, deviation from its delivery and the path it offers you is entirely yours to dictate. This is every bit the Raphael Colantonio joint we’d expect.
I mean, you can pat your dead dog, Ava.
And that leads into the game's tone, which is setup nicely in an outset kind of way, through the gravely delivery of narrative to you
as you play. It's Western noir, if it's anything, but it's not you
telling your story. It’s being told in a fourth-wall *scratching* kind of way, but nothing’s broken here, except maybe any expectations you had when considering just how this whole “Weird West” thing might play out.
In one of the five stories (or characters) you play through, you’re a retired bounty hunter, forced back into action when your son, Huck Bell, is murdered and your husband taken. Floods it’s a bad situation, and this world isn’t wholly ready for you to come back into it with a mind for vengeance, or maybe you’re not ready for a new world emboldened by your burying your iron, Ol’ Blue, in the first place. Whichever the case may be, two storms are a brewin’, destined to clash. The fallout from this clash, however, is
And this tone throughout never seems to let up, darkly reflecting the freedoms WolfEye has given you. Being able to bury your dog who is dead, or pat her, for example, shows you the studio has focused squarely on one of its internal design tenets which is to as often as possible “say ‘yes’ to the player”. Or, more broadly, to apply agency where it makes sense to, even if it isn’t required from a pertinent gameplay perspective.
"Things like finding a locked door might have you searching for a key, but if that door is made of wood, then there might be other ways to get through it...”
So much thought has gone into small things. You can fill an empty bucket with water, which can be thrown on a fire, or over crops, or at people. But if it’s raining outside in one of the game’s random and dynamic weather episodes, that bucket will already be full. Things like finding a locked door might have you searching for a key, but if that door is made of wood, then there might be other ways to get through it. In this way, the logical world is simply embellished with its weird elements.
Fantastical or not, wood’s just gonna burn.
And on pouring itself into systems and maybe going overboard on getting it right, something as seemingly trivial as handling weapons became a bigger hurdle than the studio anticipated.
“Frankly, we didn’t see it coming,” Raf recalls of the issues faced with the game’s aiming mechanic. “In our mind we were going to go with, like, a Twin-Stick Shooter [setup], but twin-stick shooters are usually top-down or if not top-down they’re in one plane anyway. Which is not the case for this game -- it has verticality, so if you’re on top of a roof, for example, you can still aim at things at the bottom. And we didn’t want to do things simple, like just aiming at the characters, we also wanted you to be able to aim at objects. And [so] this is the kind of design we always like to invest a lot of time in because even though at first it doesn’t seem necessary, it feels very good and it feels very expressive to be able to shoot at anything you want. [And] it also provides opportunities for emergent tactics.”
You can approach combat scenarios in a stealth or front-on, all-out way, and your map will allow you to see the line of sight of enemies. This means you’ll need to make sure you’re covering your tracks as well, or using the environment to your advantage. But in talking about the environment and to maintain the logic theme of the game-world, you might find multiple paths to an objective or area, but some will require additional elements. For example, a well might be a less conspicuous path to a cellar, but in order to descend you need a rope, which means you might still need to navigate a hornet’s nest of enemies, while attempting to remain unseen to find that tool.
Nothing’s simple in Weird West.
As far as character progression goes, you have Abilities and Perks you can deck out, such as bolstering your ability with revolvers or your knife. And this is the lite-on stat stuff that tends to lean more into action than RPG, as WolfEye was cognisant of being too heavy in the numbers department. At least from a modern gaming landscape sort of perspective.
With the game’s Perks you spend collected “Golden Aces of Spades” to do things like increase your Max HP or help extend the duration of slowed time in the Max Payne
-borrowed Bullet Dodger Perk, among others. And each has three tiers to invest in. In total in our demo I counted 14 for the Bounty Hunter character, but it might be different for each, which might also play into areas and missions, and which characters are better suited for certain non-essential tasks the game-world offers.
And in how the whole thing is approached geographically, there’s a travel map that connects areas of the world, but it’s not a single streaming-all-the-time space. And in area-to-area traversal from the game’s overworld map, you’ll come across random encounters, such as a coyote attack, or maybe bandits or the like. And sometimes these are scripted events tied to story or beats, but more often than not they’re random, not at all unlike other RPGs of this ilk, such as the classic Fallout games Weird West clearly draws a lot of inspiration from. But in thinking of how the game shaped, we do ask about how the Western theme worked in conjunction with wanting to build an RPG and if one affected the other.
“We theme our RPG systems around the Wild West,” Raf replies. “If we think just about weapons, for example, we’re going to use the weapons of the Wild West and those are going to have perks or abilities that map to [the theme]. So in a way, yes the RPG systems are themed around the West but what I like about the Wild West is the same thing that I like about medieval -- it’s pretty simple. It’s pretty raw. Everyone already knows it. It’s not infinite.
“You know, if you do a game that’s in the future, there’s no limits, you don’t really know what you’re going to have and you’re going to have to explain everything you do, you know: “what is [this] fusion energy thing you're talking about?”. Whereas if you’re going medieval or Wild West people expect
mines and wooden tables, and guns or swords… things that are simple that people map to very easily. And I think that provides a very healthy and simple initial canvas to do whatever you want, and that’s what’s powerful about those worlds.
“And then of course we added the weird to it and that’s where we had the flexibility to do whatever we want without, of course, going too crazy. Otherwise people get lost.”
"We had four people making the entire art of this game, which is remarkable.” - Raphael Colantonio
Which is an interesting way to conclude this first look at a game that ticks more boxes in this state than a lot of already-released AAA titles with budgets for days. And it’s something we’re inclined to ask Raf:
How has it been stepping back from such big-budget games with massive teams, and to what extent did going smaller affect the studio’s vision?
“First of all, it’s the team right,” he says. “I’m lucky that I could recruit a lot of people that I’ve been working with for… two decades, really. So it’s not like I’ve had to convince them. And so it’s more than a ‘Raf game’, it’s really all of this team. And also the main difference, frankly, between Prey, Dishonored and Weird West is the budget -- that’s really where the difference is. We had four people making the entire art of this game, which is remarkable. If you have four people versus a 100 people… that just allows us to go as deep as any of the games we’ve done before. If not deeper.
“Surprisingly, [Weird West] might be our biggest game. Our hardest game to make for sure. There’s just so much content, there’s so [many things to] interact with and so there are so many ways the game can break… it’s been really, really scary.
“[But] to me there’s no trade off in the sense that I don’t feel like we’ve [gone] smaller, we’ve actually been going bigger. You know, it doesn’t take a month and a half to make a character, in this case it’s all done by the same person and it takes a week. That’s the main difference, really. And so that allows us to be more flexible, take more risks, try more things and iterate and change our minds and it’s actually more fun, frankly.”
Weird West is slated to release on PC
and Xbox One
later this year. Check back for more as it becomes available in the lead up to release, right here on AusGamers.