Evil West asks a simple question: What if cowboys fought vampires? It's the kind of off-the-wall thinking that gets a Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford movie greenlit, and developer Flying Wild Hog certainly gets a lot of mileage out of its whimsical concept. Set in an alternate version of 1890s America, Evil West is the Wild West at its wildest. A familiar backdrop of swinging-door saloons, rolling tumbleweed, and abandoned gold mines are interwoven with Nikola Tesla-inspired electro-steampunk technology and an assemblage of ravenous bloodsuckers. Evil West shines in the heat of battle when that initial question can be answered, but its strengths are often diminished by the dated design wrapped around them.
The story is a fairly by-the-numbers affair, pitting a vampire-hunting organization against a vampiric enemy force threatening the continental United States. You're strapped into the spur-clad boots of Jesse Rentier, a typically gruff protagonist with very few emotions beyond mild indifference. His occasionally pragmatic response to the absurdity occurring around him is slightly endearing, but it's telling that I had to look up his name before writing it here. The narrative does periodically broach some interesting themes; for instance, one of the Highborn vampires is concerned by humanity's ever-expanding technology and the threat it will pose his fellow sanguisuge--but these threads never really go anywhere. The only one that does revolves around a smarmy and misogynistic government official, yet his comeuppance isn't as satisfying as it deserves to be.
Ultimately, these one-dimensional characters and cringeworthy dialogue replete with strained expletives are easy to ignore. The story is little more than a vehicle for its chaotic combat, propelling you from dusty town to murky swamp in search of new monstrosities to extinguish. The most surprising thing about Evil West is that it's more of a brawler than a shooter. The behind-the-back third-person perspective is reminiscent of the most recent God of War games, letting you get up close and personal as you pummel enemies to a bloody pulp. Jesse is equipped with a metal gauntlet that adds extra heft to each punch, while a charged uppercut can be utilized to launch smaller enemies into the air where you can follow up with a cannonball strike to send them careening into a conveniently placed spike trap or stack of TNT. Jessie's melee strikes feel suitably weighty, and the gratuitous gore that coats each arena in blood and crimson viscera really sells the power fantasy at Evil West's core.
Eventually, the gauntlet is infused with electricity, further expanding upon your repertoire with a voltaic variety of new moves. You can pull enemies towards you or you to them, sending volts coursing through their bones and giving you a short window to lay waste to their helpless husks with a flurry of blows. This has dual uses, too, as you can latch onto distant enemies to zip away from danger or yank one out of a pack to deal damage before their pals arrive. Most of Evil West's challenge comes from the large number of foes it throws at you at one time, so having this kind of mobility is key to survival, alongside the typical dodge move and a kick that can interrupt certain attacks. There's also an electrical ground pound that evaporates multiple enemies at once, and a shockwave attack that stuns multiple enemies, giving you a brief moment of respite or the opportunity to focus on a specific target while the rest are locked in place.
It's not just about melee fisticuffs, either. Jesse is still packing an arsenal of deadly firearms that gradually expands throughout the game. Rather than constantly swapping between weapons on the fly, most of these vampire-killing tools are each assigned a button. Pressing shoot on its own will fire Jesse's six-shooter revolver, while aiming down sights will automatically switch to a rifle for dealing with long-range threats. Another button fires a quick blast from the boomstick shotgun, and there are a few other special weapons that I won't spoil here. There's no ammo to collect; instead, everything works on cooldowns. It's a lot to remember, but combat feels both intuitive and fluid. You can launch an enemy into the air, use the revolver to suspend them with lead--revealing Evil West's Devil May Cry DNA--before zapping over to another enemy and blowing them apart with a close-range burst of buckshot. It's the type of game that would benefit from having a combo meter, just to keep track of how proficient you are at slaughtering everything in front of you, but sadly doesn't have one.
Evil West shines in the heat of battle when that initial question can be answered, but its strengths are often diminished by the dated design wrapped around them
The enemies you come up against are initially a varied bunch, too. From leaping werewolf-like creatures and bulbous humanoids that charge at you before exploding, to bulky shield-bearing foes with leeches for appendages and creatures that burrow underground when they're not chucking boulders at you. Each one presents a unique challenge, but they also have moments of weakness when executing powerful attacks, indicated by a glowing circle and notable chime. Shooting their weak point with your rifle deals massive damage and produces an oftentimes-vital health drop, although the sheer breadth of enemies on screen at any one time does lead to some frustrations when trying to execute techniques such as this. It can be difficult to line up a clear shot when there's so much traffic in the way, and with so much going on, there are some readability issues with knowing when enemies are attacking from blind spots.
Despite these issues, Evil West is at its best when at its most turbulent. It doesn't take long before mini-bosses are reintroduced as regular enemies, becoming another part of the supernatural furniture. You need to utilize everything at your disposal to survive as you're pelted from all sides by an ever-expanding swath of monstrosities, and it's hard not to smile when emerging from another scrap by the skin of your teeth. Unfortunately, this feeling begins to fade by the time the third act rolls around and the well of new enemy types dries up. At this point, the game resorts to throwing the same familiar combinations of creatures at you over and over again. There are only so many times you can defeat the same group of shielded opponents before repetition sets in.
Part of the problem also lies in Evil West's formulaic design. Combat generally takes place within boxed-in arenas denoted by spike traps and TNT. The dull and predictable layout of these areas isn't a significant issue since juggling all of the abilities at your disposal is more than engaging enough, but it's outside of combat where it falters. The main path connecting the game's combat arenas is marked with a glowing silver chain. You can duck into barely-hidden side passages to find money that's used to upgrade weapons, but this constitutes the lightest of exploration. Most of the time, you're simply moving from one shiny object to another, where you'll then watch Jessie climb up a ledge or squeeze through a gap. It occasionally breaks from the norm, putting you in a perilous mine cart ride or impeding your progress with a rudimentary block-pushing puzzle, but these moments are few and far between and are incredibly mundane anyway. There is one level that presents a whole town for you to explore as you hunt down and destroy a few monster nests. It's not an especially large space, but its newfound freedom does make for slightly more interesting navigation than usual.
Technical shortcomings are another nuisance that rear their ugly head. I encountered a few glitches, including a few moments where one sound effect would suddenly overpower the rest and continue playing even after combat had ended. There were also a couple of instances where I found myself stuck in the floor and another where the aiming reticle was knocked off center, meaning I had to aim up and to the left of a target to hit it flush. None of these issues were game-breaking, but that might be due to luck more than anything. I managed to unstick myself from the floor the first time it happened, and the second time was during a boss fight, so the resulting cutscene saved me from being stranded there forever.
In a lot of ways, Evil West feels like a relic of the past. It's the kind of game you could envision playing back in, say, 2010 or perhaps even earlier. This simplicity could've been somewhat refreshing when so many modern games are overly bloated by comparison, but it comes across like a game short on aspiration. Combat is robust, relishes in gore, and constantly delights with its weighty and satisfying action. It stumbles into tedium towards the end, though, both as a result of enemy oversaturation and because it's forced to carry the load, but it's the one aspect that makes Evil West worth playing. The rest of the game is formulaic and mind-numbingly dull, actively diminishing its high points as you saunter from one combat arena to another. I didn't always enjoy my time with Evil West, but I hope a sequel is in the pipeline, if only to see if Flying Wild Hog can expand and improve on its promise.