Death is pretty integral to videogames. Not in some fancy, high-falutin conceptual way, but as the default failure state in most action games. Even when it’s not explicitly referred to as such by the game, we talk about dying, about losing lives. At the same time, the attitude towards death is rather relaxed. You die, you restart, you try again. No biggie, until some story beat snatches a beloved NPC away from you. (Aeris! *sob*)
While some games have played with this, embracing death as a game mechanic, like Planescape: Torment, or rejecting it entirely, like Fable 2, the big shake up for dying in games came with Dark Souls and chums. Suddenly death mattered beyond simply losing progress. I’m not going to go into detail, for fear of stealth Soulsborne article accusations, but if you’ve carefully edged through a tough area to reclaim your lost souls/echoes/rings, you’ll know what I mean.
Thing is, it’s been a while and that approach is getting a bit stale. Did it really need to be in Tunic? Like Anor Londo, it’s beautiful, but stagnant. We need a fresh take on popping the old clogs. That’s where Blood West comes moseying into town, all cocksure gunslinger swagger. Death is a big part of the game, not least because that’s how you start out, a freshly raised undead desperado (undeasperado), tasked with collecting cursed golden artefacts by the (supposedly) benevolent spirits who dragged you back to the land of the living. Since they’ve done it once, they can do it again, rendering death a very temporary state of affairs.
Maybe surprisingly, you don’t drop anything when you die. No loot to recover, no experience points lost, nothing. On the other hand, resurrection isn’t a simple task (apparently, I don’t have extensive training in the necromantic arts) and you come back with a flaw. Just a minor one at first, a small health debuff maybe, or a penalty to your sneaking ability. Each time you die, it gets a bit worse and, after three deaths, flourishes into a full blown curse with a much stronger effect.
Here’s the really clever bit. You’re not stuck with the curse for good. The powers that dragged you from the grave can also lift a curse, once it’s fully active. There’s no cost involved, but you do have to perform a task as a symbolic part of the curse breaking ritual. They’re simple enough - kill a few of a certain enemy, bag yourself a bevy of headshot kills, that sort of thing, but they create a rather pleasing gameplay loop as you patch up your dodgy body and soul. Dying still hurts, since some of the enemies you’ve felled will respawn when you do, but it also gives you a chance to sell some loot and stock up on ammo, maybe go to your stash and grab some different weapons and try another approach.
Simple systems that just work are common throughout Blood West. When you sneak, you get a visibility metre that fills up if you’re seen or heard by an enemy, with icons to indicate which is the case and where the enemy in question is located. When it fills up, you’re spotted. Really straightforward and, I would imagine, a far cry (no pun intended) from the stealth mechanics seen in the very tripliest of AAA games, but it works. It’s the same with the visuals, the sound effects, the voice acting. Nothing to set the world on fire, but it all comes together to form a cohesive whole that, even in early access, absolutely understands the assignment and gets it done.
That’s the rootin’ and the tootin’, what about the shootin’? Satisfying, in a word. The weapons on offer, axes, knives, bows, shotguns and the ubiquitous six shooters, aren’t going to come as a surprise, although there are supernatural versions with some cool abilities, but they are a lot of fun to use. Enemies are pretty tough and blasting away will just end up eating through your ammo supply. Or with you being eaten. Or both. At the same time, they’re generally vulnerable to headshots and melee stealth attacks, with even a basic revolver loaded with standard ammo being able to take out most enemies with one shot. It makes all the small upgrades and skills you buy when you level up feel really meaningful.
I’m particularly enamoured of the ability that gives you a brief moment of slow down when you aim down your gun’s sights. Once again, it’s nothing original or world-shattering, but in a game where a good aim means the difference between a one-shot kill and emptying your entire cylinder at a ghoul that still eats your face, it’s a huge help and feels really cool, every single time.
I should probably point out, just to avoid confusion, that this is not Weird West, the supernatural horror Western immersive sim with a heavy bias towards stealth. This is Blood West, the supernatural horror Western immersive sim with a heavy bias towards stealth. Okay, they’re pretty easy to tell apart, since Blood West is an FPS, but that is part of the game’s biggest issue, which is visibility.
Not only has it popped into early access just a few weeks before the release of a game that sounds very similar on paper and has had a high profile launch on Game Pass, but it’s a retro shooter at a time when there are a lot of retro shooters about and it doesn’t really stand out from the pack. I love a good immersive sim, but I’m pretty cold on straight up first-person shooters these days and it was only a friend’s recommendation that brought Blood West to my attention. It’s why this article exists, I wanted to pay the favour forward and bring the game to the attention of you lovely lot. Go check it out and, a few months down the line, you can relish being an insufferable hipster because you played Blood West before it was cool.