Thanks to the Black Friday shenanigans at work, I have barely had time to play any games recently. Still, I set aside some time this past weekend and during breaks to check out Evil West from Focus Home Interactive and Flying Wild Hog.
Evil West has been popping up in trailers here and there at various shows, and always looked pretty damn great. It was certainly one of my most anticipated upcoming Xbox and PC games of 2022, in a year that is arguably fairly light on so-called “AAA” bangers across Microsoft’s platforms. Overwatch 2 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 have been doing some of the heavy lifting for me, as well as Vampire Survivors, but Evil West kind of showed up out of nowhere having slipped off my radar. I quite honestly didn’t realize exactly how much I needed a game like this in my life right now.
Evil West is absolutely ridiculous. The performance is iffy. The story is aggressively familiar. The game is overly linear. It’s grotesque and unashamedly violent. And I fucking love it (so far).
Evil West: Old school in the right ways
So, what exactly is Evil West? If you were around during the Xbox 360 era (and I assume many of you were), you’d probably find some familiarity between Evil West and classic linear action games like Gears of War. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, is PlayStation’s 2018 reboot of God of War. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how dare I compare PlayStation’s crowning achievement to a big-budget indie title like Evil West?! Bear with me on that for a little while. First, let’s set the stage for Evil West, a game I had absolutely no idea I wanted until this past week.
Set in an undefined Wild West-inspired era, Evil West follows a group of vampire hunters a la Van Helsing. The Rentier Institute conspires in secret to combat the growing threat of mutated vampiric beasties rising from the dark places of the American frontier. Complete with funding from the nascent U.S. government, The Rentier Institute has developed an arsenal of Nikola Tesla-inspired contraptions and steampunk weaponry that evolve and grow as you play through the game.
You play as Jesse Rentier, a grizzled vampire hunter veteran and Institute agent who is investigating a new threat to the Old West.
Early on, you are acquainted with a cabal of ancient vampires who describe themselves as the Sanguisuge. This mysterious council has fallen into something of a civil war, with the establishment opting to keep vampires and their culture hidden in the shadows with illusory magic. One such upstart, however, known unceremoniously as Peter, attempts to persuade the Sanguisuge to betray their customs and ancient ways and enslave the human race instead. Peter is afraid of the technological advancements of The Rentier Institute and other organizations like it, and foresees a future where vampires are destroyed. Casting off Peter’s fears, the Sanguisuge council sentences him to death for blasphemy — a little heavy-handed, no? Well, it seems that Peter seeks not only to attack humanity but has also figured out a way to subvert the mysterious magics that create vampires in the first place, which forms the basis of the game’s early mysteries.
Who is Peter? Where do vampires come from? What is “The Calling” they keep talking about? What do Peter and his creepy blood-craving daughter want for the world? The lore is there in heaps of text files and voiced letters if you’re intrigued. But if not, that’s all good too. Evil West gives you a delectable arsenal of guns, electrified gauntlets, and other crazy steampunk powers to hang, draw, and quarter the hordes of squishy beasties that want nothing more than to very angrily murder you.
Finally, a AAA game that respects my time
In the intro I compared Evil West to God of War (as well as the title, I sure hope I don’t make any fanboys mad here 🥲.) But hey, truth is, it’s hard not to draw these kinds of comparisons. Evil West unashamedly borrows heavily from God of War’s combat system — and they do it pretty damn well.
From everything to the controls, the weighty feel, the air juggling, and the finishers, Evil West absolutely dreams of being God and/or Gears of War, albeit lacking the word war. And sure, it doesn’t quite reach up to God of War’s raw quality with regard to enemy variety and general combat responsiveness, nor Gears of War’s performance or gunplay. Still, Evil West definitely comes far closer than most imitators, which is a boon for Xbox players who are locked out of the God of War fun.
The first level takes place during a classic Wild West scene we’re all familiar with. A train on a bridge, with the bridge, you know, exploding. Only this time, there are swarms of thirsty vampire mutants instead of outlaws. The game gradually feeds you new abilities and powers during its tutorial stages, culminating in Jesse becoming a walking arsenal of steampunk superpowers.
Jesse’s gauntlet is a versatile tool that not only beats vampiric creatures into a bloody mess, but can also produce an electrified barrier that clearly riffs on God of War’s Guardian Shield with a couple of nifty additions. You can use this shield to block incoming light attacks, but you can also use it as a whip to pull enemies towards you, or use it to turn into a literal bolt of lightning to close the gaps on faraway beasties.
And while the God of Gears of God of War inspirations are clear, Evil West is still decidedly rooted in its unique setting. Air juggling with hip-firing revolvers feels great. Precision shots with a pump action rifle produce torrents of satisfying fountains of gore. Stringing combos together on stunned enemies rewards you with health bonuses and electrical charge, which in turn lets you unleash devastating area attacks for those moments when things get a little overwhelming. Evil West on normal difficulty has offered me a fairly solid challenge without feeling the need to get super sweaty with it, but there are higher difficulty tiers for those who are seeking more brutality.
There are a couple of things I wish Evil West did a little better. The presentation is inarguably stunning on Xbox Series X, but that 30 FPS 4K quality mode is a bit of a kick in the nads after getting so used to 60 FPS minimum in recent months. On the flip side, the 60 FPS performance mode looks blurry as all hell on my 4K TV, leaving me with “lesser of two evils” graphics choices. I opted for the 30 FPS in the end because I do sit weirdly close to my TV, and it’s truly a stunner with its lighting and character designs. Each monster looks as though it truly crawled from your worst nightmares, and the cinematics are crisp and expressive with a penchant for quality that is increasingly becoming Focus Home’s calling card.
There’s some great attention to detail, too. Side characters often get involved in the fun, and Jesse will offer contextual callouts that add a bit of depth to the combat arenas and character development. The game’s linear format is already serving me up some solid story pacing thus far, with a decent trickle of new characters, spectacular abilities, epic set-piece boss battles, and stunning vistas, which really harken back to the golden age of story-driven AAA combat games.
Indeed, this is a wholly linear affair, which almost feels like a dirty word these days. There’s no open world here. There’s no online service (beyond online story co-op with a buddy), and there’s no battle pass. And I am absolutely knees-to-the-ground grateful that at least one big-budget studio is not only willing but eager to give me experiences that actually fucking end in 2022. I don’t need 200 hours of elephantine open-world drudgery, copy and pasted side quests, checkpoint checklists, and “ten times bigger than Skyrim” map design in my life right now. Evil West came at the right time for me, and maybe it will for you too.
Evil West: A great alternative to God of War Ragnarok
For Xbox fans who feel like they’re missing out on the God of War Ragnarok party over on PlayStation, Evil West might be just what the doctor ordered. PC players of course can get in on the God of War fun on Steam, but if you’re already done with that and fancy a holdover while waiting for Ragnarok to drop on PC, this is a truly great alternative.
Evil West missed the boat for this year’s Game Awards, but I honestly think it would have been nominated for something had it launched a little earlier or a little later. Evil West is a big step up and a feather in the cap for Focus Home Interactive and Flying Wild Hog. I can’t help but don my Evil West leathers with a sense of nostalgia in my heart, given that it has come along and captured my imagination so easily in an era of infinite never-ending service games. Evil West isn’t demanding my intellectual investment with an award-chasing plot nor is it expecting me to make battle pass grinding a part-time job. Evil West knows what it wants to be, and so far, it’s crushing its goals in a fistful of lightning.
Evil West co-opts the God of War formula exceedingly well, while also bringing enough new ideas to the plate that I can’t help but sit up and pay attention. Right now, I’m having a blast, and I’m eager to get back and continue churning up vampires into bloody chum.