Written by Steve Heller
Boomer Shooters are having a moment right now. Over the past few years we have seen a slew of modern takes on classic Quake II vibes games, from the demonic Prodeus to the campy but action-packed Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun. Seeing games that look like they came from my early teens running at 144 frames per second with advanced movement options really does get my nostalgia flowing. With this renaissance of “new old games”, I have been rather surprised that we haven’t seen more immersive sims in the same vein as Thief or Deus Ex hitting the front pages of Steam. Sure, we have Gloomwood that is currently in Early Access that cribs directly from the Thief bag of tricks, but for the most part developers are sticking to the balls-to-the-wall gameplay motif of id Software’s heyday. Maybe I am just out of the loop, because Blood West completely blindsided me.
Blood West is definitely stealing from Thief (no pun intended) and System Shock in all the right ways, delivering a stealth-focused weird West adventure that melts down Lovecraftian horror and pulpy Western tales into a lumpy gumbo. The result is a rather unforgiving experience that will likely appeal to a very niche audience, and completely demoralize everyone else who isn’t up to the task.
Arise now, ye tarnished
Awakening from the underworld, you are the Undead Gunslinger. Instead of simply leaving this mortal plane like everyone else, you are stuck in the cursed canyons of this hellish Western landscape, tasked with appeasing the ancient gods and ridding the world of the curse that damned the entire population. It’s a simple setup that gets things moving, and while the voice acting is definitely a little B-tier, the lore surrounding everything else is dripping with atmosphere. Every time I found a new item I gleefully opened up my inventory to read the flavor text, especially for the weirder items like monster eyes and severed chicken heads. While it doesn’t come out in the “main story”, there is a lot of great narrative inside of Blood West, and as a tone piece I think the developers have really hit something great here.
The structure is pretty simple: speak to the totem who will give you guidance as to where the next artifact is located and mark it on your map. Trudge your way across the open world to said location. Sneak around, stab some monsters in the face, get the artifact, and return to the totem to offer it up as tribute. Once you have collected enough to satisfy the gods the location of the final encounter will be revealed and at that point you may continue to collect more artifacts spread out to gain more XP and level up your abilities, or you can tackle the beast head on to move onto the next location. The format is fine, but it is the finer details that really made Blood West a pretty hard game for me to enjoy.
Fumbling in the shadows
The combat was a mixed bag for me. The guns FEEL so good, with chunky feedback when squeezing the trigger and realistic weapon sway which means you really need to take your time and land your shots. But the enemies are just too relentless and too brutal for most encounters to feel rewarding. The game puts a heavy focus on stealth, using a simple sight and hearing bar that lets you know how likely you are to be discovered and promptly surrounded by foes. While this works well in theory, there were far too many times where I thought I was clear to make an approach and take out an enemy with a stealthy knife hit to the head, only to have them immediately change their path, spot me, and kill me in a matter of seconds. Throwing rocks as distractions felt unreliable, because often when trying to create a diversion the wrong move at the wrong time sends everything towards inevitable death. Stealth is fun, but being punished so severely every time something goes awry, not so.
I am all for brutal combat. I love hardcore tactical shooters. I like FROM’s catalog of sadistic games. But Blood West doesn’t feel fair when you are getting constantly slammed for trying to meet the game on its terms, by playing stealthy. The smallest mistake, the smallest transgression often results in a horribly frustrating death. What’s worse is that in the first three or four hours of the game I was ready to give up. The game had frustrated me beyond no end that I was going to simply walk away and never return. I fear that this will sadly be the experience of the majority of players who stumble into this game and that is a real shame because eventually… eventually it clicked for me.
The saving grace of Blood West’s brutality is its comprehensive perk system that allows you to build a specialized hunter who is capable of dealing some serious damage to the monsters who have likely been kicking your ass for hours. The perk tree is tremendous, with so much diversity that I honestly didn’t know where to begin. Want to make a drunk hunter who is a specialist with melee weapons but can’t aim a gun to save their life? That’s a possibility. Want to create a marksman who can headshot a baddy from a mile away, and slow down time briefly when aiming down sights to land a perfect hit? Also a possibility. Once I had overcome massive adversity, I was sneaking through the canyons slaying fools left and right, which was netting me more XP and more perks, and the loop of becoming a powerful hunter was well and truly cemented by the time I made it to the first boss. During those hours, Blood West quickly went from a game I loathed to a game I was obsessing over. That really took me by surprise, and I am so glad that I managed to get over that hump.
Where's all the stuff?
But then I came up against another wall. The game features three environments, each it’s own open world as you progress through the story. I really want to commend the developers on this choice because all three environments are strikingly different from each other, offering interesting options to gameplay and new challenges to face. But after a few hours in each of them the fact remained that while challenging and rewarding, Blood West just ultimately felt too empty for me. Most structures such as houses or sheds have a few rooms, many of which are completely empty which discouraged me pretty early on from doing methodical exploration. When I think of the best immersive sims, I imagine opening up every drawer and trashcan I can see to find items or lore to expand my experience. Blood West on the other hand doesn’t have that many intractable elements, and outside of looking for ammo or the occasional chests, exploring most locations leads to a deadly fight with enemies rather than any truly meaningful loot or experiences.
Once you learn the handful of enemies that each of the three environments harbor it quickly becomes stale. I think mostly because there is not that much outside of the combat to really engage you in its world. For me if there were more notes, more things to loot, more spaces to explore, I think that would have struck that perfect balance for me. But there simply isn’t and that led to me ultimately leaving my dusty hat behind for greener pastures. I was tired. Blood West is exhausting. Some people will really like that. I simply didn’t.
Blood West is a boomer shooter take on an immersive sim that is dripping with atmosphere and has good writing on the periphery. It’s intense onboarding will be too much for most I feel, and ultimately it’s empty worlds left me wanting for more. But once I did manage to click with its combat powered by a surprisingly diverse and comprehensive perk system, I could see why it has so many fans. I’d love to suit up for a more refined sequel, but if you are looking for an unforgiving stealthy immersive sim that isn’t pulling punches, this might be a sleeper hit for you.