James Stephanie Sterling
Evil West - Red Undead (Review)
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Evil West Released: November 22, 2022 Developer: Flying Wild Hog Publisher: Focus Entertainment Systems: PC, PS4/PS5 (reviewed), Xbox XS
Evil West is a captivating study in the meaning of humanity set against a world ever changing, exploring in particular the need for people - both individually and as a collective - to adapt alongside their environments. It tackles the age-old clash between traditionalism and innovation, how our cultural standards evolve while those who cling to the past fight viciously to keep society trapped in it. Often engaging, at times even touching, Flying Wild Hog’s emotional tour de force paints the evocative backdrop of an America long gone and expertly positions it behind a stunningly heartfelt narrative.
Only joking. It’s dumb as hell… that’s why it’s so good.
Evil West is a big stupid shooter with a big stupid story about big stupid monsters featuring big stupid weapons. It’s been compared to similar silly shooters like Gungrave and the litany of mid-tier action titles that heavily populated the Xbox 360 way back when. These comparisons are perfectly apt - while there’s a heavy hint of the contemporary Doom games informing some of Evil West’s design (particularly in its finisher kills), the blood of deliciously dumb 2000s design courses through its veins.
The sales pitch is just what an action fan needs - you tear vampires to bits in the Wild West. Protagonist Jesse Rentier works for a secret government agency dedicated to fighting supernatural threats, predominantly vampiric creatures excessively named the Sanguisuge. Armed with an electrified metal fist, Jesse wallops and blasts his way through a surprisingly diverse range of locales to stop the latest Sanguisuge shenanigans involving the infection of his father and the machinations of a little vampiric girl called Felicity.
The dialog is hamfisted, the premise is absurd, and the detailed amount of lore manages to over-explain while paradoxically saying very little at all. None of this is a negative - Evil West is just one of those games that leans so hard into its own nonsense it works no matter how ridiculous everything gets.
We’re dealing with a Focus Home Interactive title, and such releases always get my attention. Whether they’re good or they’re bad, games published by Focus are almost always interesting, and the company’s library is packed full of experiences that are creative, fun, and invariably janky. Evil West is most certainly on the positive side of the spectrum, providing all the requisite creativity, fun, and jankiness one might expect.
Punching monsters is just so damn enjoyable in Evil West. Jesse’s Gauntlet is basically just a big hunk of metal attached to his arm, and smashing it into the campaign’s many weird monsters feels like it really fucking connects. One cannot undersell the simple joy of truly meaty melee combat, and meat is most certainly on the menu.
Over the course of the game, our stereotypically gruff protagonist will acquire a handful of guns and gadgets, each of which can be upgraded using “Bucks”. The controls map all this weaponry out quite well - simply pulling the trigger fires off revolvers with automatic aiming, while manually aiming causes Jesse to pull out either a rifle or a crossbow depending on what’s equipped. One button is dedicated entirely to a shotgun that deals massive damage to anything directly in front of the player, while heavier weapons can be equipped with the D-pad and stowed by using pretty much any other attack command. At first it can feel like a somewhat unwieldy scheme, but I’ve come to appreciate exactly how immediate the inventory is..
Immediacy is most certainly the point, as Evil West makes it quite clear how unwilling it is to ever stop you from hitting stuff. This philosophy of constant offense is reflected in the ammo, or rather the lack of it. Everything is governed by a cooldown, even the regular guns. If you stop firing, ammo will passively refill the gun. If you empty that gun while firing, you can either put it away and let it refill, or allow a reload animation to play out in exchange for quicker access. There are no ammo pickups required for anything, be they one-shot items like dynamite or conventional firearms - and as a result you’re compelled to just go wild and fire off everything you have whenever it’s ready.
You’ll need it, too. Not a single individual enemy in Evil West is particularly difficult, but the way they compliment each other can make overall combat encounters feel downright brutal. An interesting element to Evil West is how often it makes you feel like you’re fighting a boss before you realize that, nope, it’s a regular enemy that will be thrown out in combination with all the other hard-hitting, thick-skinned, mercilessly aggressive monstrosities. There are four actual bosses in the entire game, but by the time I fought my first, I felt like I’d gone through a dozen.
Fights are fast paced and unapologetically hectic. Enemy aggression is set to high at all times with almost every monster boasting a range of attacks, some of which leave them open for countering, others just requiring you to get the hell away. For the most part, this is fine and dandy, but a number of encounters feature enemies that cover each other so well you’ll be stumped as to how to actually land a shot without losing a chunk of health. Some fights have felt quite off balance, especially when the bigger monsters are fought in groups, each one launching an attack just as the other three or four have gone through theirs. A couple of times I finished a fight wondering how I even made it out alive.
The true boss fights can really suck, particularly the first two. While the final pair are relatively straightforward fights with clearly balanced attack sequences and checkpointed phases, the first two are just a fucking nightmare. They’re typified by overwhelming attacks that come at once from multiple angles while regular enemies swarm in to artificially heighten the challenge.
The first encounter, the Parasiter, is a veritable who’s who of bad boss tropes. Not only does it take forever to kill, it consists of two respawning plantlike limbs you have to repeatedly destroy, both of them striking and shooting you at once before a third main head spews acid and makes boulders fall from the sky in patterns so random they will invariably cause damage. In addition, it starts spawning eggs that hatch into exploding enemies if they’re not destroyed, and by the end of the fight it’ll be doing all of this at once - the striking, the shooting, the acid, the boulders, and the explodey bastards. It’s a lot, and the relative ease of the last two bosses highlight exactly how much of the difficulty came not from balance but from just swamping the player with random attacks at a pace too quick to effectively navigate.
This is pretty much how the game feels when it’s at it worst, both in and out of boss battles. There are simply times where the player has no opening whatsoever, and an otherwise enjoyable time becomes aggravating. Still, I cannot emphasize enough how those moments are worth slogging through due to how fun the rest of it is.
The more you play, the more kitted out you become. By the time you’re yanking enemies toward each other with an electric lasso, uppercutting them, and punching them into groups of other monsters to make them explode, you’ll have found the more aggravating encounters perfectly compensated for. A rudimentary leveling system provides just enough unlockable perks to slowly turn you into a showy killing machine with a handful of rechargeable skills and flamboyant electrical effects. It’s most certainly a game that gets easier the deeper into it you get, and it’s exactly the kind of game where this works.
While the campaign is linear, there are many side paths containing valuable resources or chests - standard videogame fare, albeit poorly handled in this case. It can be quite hard to tell the story route from side paths, and if you walk just a few steps in the direction of narrative, you’ll find the way back arbitrarily inaccessible thanks to strict backtracking restrictions. Realize you missed something? You’ve lost it, especially since checkpoints tend to save the moment you’ve gone too far. While any linear game has the risk of missable content, it’s not just a regular problem here, but one that’s very obvious to the player every time they choose the “wrong” exploration route.
This policy against moving backwards would otherwise be noble - it’s clear Evil West is committed to its linearity and that’s a commitment I respect. This is a campaign that drives ever forward - rare is the chance of getting lost thanks to simple level design and flashing scenery indicating exactly where you can go. As a defender of the linear format in general, I’m duty bound to praise it here, even if it’s a little too extreme sometimes.
One thing that stands out is a massively bold art style. It’s not just the creative monster designs and cool weaponry - though that stuff’s commendable too - Evil West’s aesthetic is drenched in harshly saturated colors and garish lighting. It boasts more gamma than Bruce Banner. Individual environments are dominated by a strictly limited color palette that’s been used to fantastic effect - many areas utilize oppressive amounts of green and red lighting that remind me of schlocky horror movies, particularly Creepshow. Even mundane cowboy towns or canyons are steeped in ostentatious oranges and browns. Yes, Evil West manages to make even the color brown look gaudy.
The locales, as mentioned earlier, are surprisingly diverse. While there are the usual gulches and deserts you’d associate with a western, the fight against the Sanguisuge takes Jesse to eerie swamps, spooky forests, blazing oilfields, and caverns literally carpeted with leeches and spiders.
Characters and monsters are similarly varied and pleasingly overdesigned - everything manages to look both cool and silly at the same time, and it’s all rather memorable. I love how so many of the creatures have gigantic nails randomly jammed into their legs and feet - there’s no practical or story reason for it, they’re just there to look gross. While the actual number of true vampires on show are limited, you’ll be dealing with plenty of beehive demons, jacked up werewolves, and leech-limbed body horrors.
While I mentioned jank earlier, by Focus standards Evil West is a polished affair. A few indoor environments suffer aggressive pop-in as the walls and furniture struggle with rendering before you see them. The physics can, at times, be a little wonky and a number of enemy character models will remain idling onscreen after death. The worst recurring glitch I had, though it happened maybe twice, was the audio becoming corrupted by horrible static sounds that required restarting from the main menu to get rid of. Also, why does the game’s menu not offer checkpoint reloading? It’s just plain weird to have to reload a checkpoint by quitting to the title screen.
On the whole, I expected a far less stable game than I got, and that’s damn good going.
Evil West is the kind of beautiful trash I wish we had more of. It’s a ridiculous game in service to a purpose no higher than smashing monsters to gloopy bits, and by God do I admire that. While at times combat balance is uneven, any such moment is made up for by a terrific weapon set, extravagant finishers, and an immediacy of offense that ensures the action never wavers.
Refined? No. Elegant? Hardly. Fun as fuck? Fucking yes.