God I love a good werewolf. Werewolves, I propose, are a chance for game designers to be unreasonable. Werewolves do not wait politely to attack. They do not shamble and bunch together like zombies, taking blind swipes at you with the wrist rather than the hand. They do not have rail guns that need powering up. Instead, werewolves come out of nowhere and they’re suddenly right up close. They do not acknowledge your personal space. Werewolves are a flurry of terrifying slashes of the claws, they are berzerk energy and long health bars. Werewolves are jerks and we love them for it.
There is a werewolf equivalent in Evil West, and I reckon they get to the heart of what’s great about this euphoric, silly, straight-ahead chugging blast of a video game. Simple really. When you first meet werewolves they’re absolutely terrifying. They’re overwhelming. Each one is a boss fight in itself. Wow! What was that? Hope I don’t see any more of them, pardner! But you do, you do see more of them, pardner. They come in packs. They come alongside other enemies. They come alongside bosses.
And yet, by the end of the game you’re knocking them aside. Batting them away. Popping their heads off and splattering their bodies. This is Evil West: it’s got that great Double-A treat, the ludicrous power curve. By the end of the game you’re pretty much a god. And gods really give game designers a chance to be unreasonable.
Let’s get the plot out of the way. Evil West. That’s the plot. It’s the old west, but there are monsters and shambling horrors and vampires and all that jazz out there in the wilds. You play part of a team who takes these beasts and shows them who’s who. It gets a bit more complicated, but not too complicated. This is a game where a zeppelin loaded with hideous slobbering nightmares crash lands in the narrative’s equivalent of the White House. Plot is fuel here, propulsion that drives you to greater slaughter.
It’s a third-person brawler, inspired by the recent God of War, but really coming to you direct from somewhere around 2011. You’re huge on the screen and you punch monsters in combos, and you can kick them to give you a bit of space. And then you can punch them electrically, pull them towards you or you towards them with an electrical gizmo that allows you to lay on that delirious staggered beat-down from the Arkham games, their skeletons buzzing away inside them as you work because of all the volts. You can launch them into the air and cannonball them into spikes, into each other. You can pound the ground and pretty much evaporate them on the spot – all of this once you’re deep in the campaign of course, and pleasantly powered up.
It’s not just punching. That could be the tagline for Evil West really. The West is Evil, right, but you don’t just punch it. You have a six-shooter, and a rifle for distant enemies. No ammo to collect, all this stuff works on cool-downs. And it can all be tricked out with electricity. Ditto the special weapons like flame-throwers and a crossbow and other stuff I won’t spoil. No ammo, just time it with the cool-downs. Meanwhile keep an eye on your health and your electrical power.
Enemies repeat readily but that doesn’t matter because they’re mostly glorious. Every type of enemy from 2011 is here and waiting to embrace you. The guys that run at you and explode. The guys that burrow and erupt from the ground. The shield guys you have to flank. The guys that hover in the sky and then crash to earth now and then. All of these take a pummeling, or a blasting, and all of them have moments of weakness where the glowing spots let out an arc of light and a chime, encouraging you to rifle them for massive damage or a health drop. Simple, predictable enemies, gradually added to throughout the campaign – this is one of those games where mini-bosses quickly become folded into the general enemy camp – and coming at you in new combinations, in new arenas, perfect for letting you try out your latest gadget. At times, it’s almost Robotron.
What else? It’s surprisingly beautiful, for starters, offering a rush through several kinds of Western settings: blue sky canyons, nasty haunted swamps, mines, mountains, icy ridges, the works. Slaughter is broken up with traversal moments or a puzzle, generally involving electricity or a bit of pushing carts around. It’s nothing headscratchy, just a perfect cleanser to get you ready for the next brawl. Whisper it: there’s a hub, and it’s lovely. And all the while you collect bits of lore and cash for upgrades – good upgrades, always a challenge to pick between them – and perks when you level up that steadily see you growing from someone who is afraid of werewolves to someone who barely notices them.
It is, in other words, a really beautifully made video game. It knows what it is – the kind of game with launchers, the kind of game where the protagonist has lines like, “Never thought I’d be blowing up my own house!” And it delivers on its simple pleasures with beauty and variety. There’s online co-op for two players, which I haven’t been able to test, and I gather the consoles may stutter a bit, although I’ve had no problems on PC. But otherwise Evil West is wonderfully brutal and charming and luminously old fashioned. It’s Bulletstorm. It’s Painkiller. It’s werewolves up the wazoo. And I had a brilliant time.