The Good, the Bad, and the Pixelated
When I was still wee, I often found myself stuck in my grandmother's house, far away from friends and video games and left with little to do other than draw or read. Once I filled every piece of paper in the house with doodles and had grown tired of reading the same comic or book for the umpteenth time, I'd start browsing my gran's large collection of videos recorded off the TV. Almost all of them were cowboy flicks.
They've long since blended into one huge Western experience: grizzled men riding across the expansive, open plains of the untamed Old West, seeking justice, fortune, and adventure. They gambled, duelled, and frequently became sheriffs of small towns bereft of hope. I wished I could be like them -- just with better hygiene.
The last place I expected to relive these memories was on Adult Swim's website, but courtesty of indie developer Ostrich Banditos and their free flash game, Westerado, that's exactly what I've been doing. You should too, as it's one of the best Western games that you could hope to play.
Westerado (Mac, PC)
My kin are dead, my mother is a mutilated corpse, and I put my brother out of his agonizing misery. Nothing will bring them back, but that doesn't mean I can't put the black-hearted son of a bitch who murdered them in a shallow grave. With vague directions, I ride to the nearest town, intent on discovering the identity of the bandit who destroyed my life.
Welcome to Westerado.
Justice has long since fled the town of Clintville. More than a few residents, including the local sheriff, know the identity of the man I hunt; while others know what he looks like, or at least what color of hat he wears, or that he has a fancy belt.
There's no such thing as free information, unfortunately, and I'll need to work to discover who I need to kill. This is a land of mercenaries, in both attitude and often career.
I gamble, I spurn the advances of women -- I'm that dedicated to my mission -- and I demand aid when there is none to be found. I know I need to swallow my pride and put my six-shooter to work on less personal business than hunting down my quarry. I don't like it one bit.
The West changes a man. It chews him up, spits him out, and all that's left is a gun and a hat. I'm presently wearing my hat, and I'm pointing my gun at a crying rancher. He owes my employer money. I've come to collect it early. I won't leave until I have every last cent, and he's starting to realize this fact. As I cock my pistol, he finally breaks, giving me everything owed to my employer. Another job done. Another life ruined.
My employer pays me in information. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the end of my investigation, and finally I'll be able to end the pathetic existence of the monster who left my ranch ablaze and my family dead.
As I make my way through the bandit hideout, I put down 20, 30, maybe 40 cronies. They don't put up much of a fight. Then, in a cave lit up by a solitary camp fire, I finally lay eyes on my prey. I'd be lying if I told you it was about justice anymore -- this is vengeance, plain and simple.
Round and round the fire we go, taking pot shots at each other before quickly pulling back to reload. I shoot his hat off, he puts a hole through mine; one of my bullets goes whistling through the air and into a wall (one of his ends up embedded in a crate.) Then, at last, a shot to the gut. He goes down like a sack of potatoes, and my sorry tale comes to a close.
My short tale of revenge merely represents one of the myriad stories that can play out in Westerado. The main story is always about a lone gun man seeking to end the life of the man who slaughtered his mother and brother, but how I went about reaching that climactic battle between good and evil was entirely up to me, the player.
This gorgeous pixelated facsimile of the Old West is ripe with opportunities for exploration, and everywhere I went, I found people looking for my help. Aiding folk is the only way to get ahead here, and my investigation would grind to a halt unless I was willing to get my hands dirty. There were wagons to protect, ranchers to aid, bandits to put in the ground, and even the occasional task that didn't require me to pull out my gun.
Of course, pulling out my pistol at the drop of a hat is all part of the fun. During any conversation I could draw my weapon, and the result was often hilarious. Though, sometimes it's a tad darker, as it was in the aforementioned debt collecting scenario.
Amid this classic story is no small amount of humor, laden with a lot of amusing pop culture references -- even Doctor Who's Tardis gets a mention. The juxtaposition of the hilarious with the gritty and grim makes Westerado a curious game, where drama and tension are just as likely as side-splitting silliness.
Glitches and freezes happen far too often, halting progress entirely. The game only saves map progress. When I had to restart, I ended up right back at the beginning. Westerado can be completed in all of 15 minutes, so it may not seem like a huge loss. However, the expansive world begs to be explored, and a freeze can mean that a good hour of progress goes up in a cloud of smoke.
Shooting can also be a finicky experience, requiring quite a bit of trial and error. Positioning myself in just the right spot to actually shoot someone was occasionally frustrating in the beginning, as there's no way to really tell if I had my foe in my sights. The permadeath system gives weight to these conflicts, but the poor shooting almost ruins them. The lack of any real enemy AI can be exploited, so it doesn't pose too much of a challenge. Bad AI shouldn't be a feature.
Yet, the times when it's not falling apart at the seams are wonderful. The open world let me choose how to make my way through it, and the occasional moral quandary inspires multiple approaches to many of the title's scenarios. There's a depth here that surprised me a great deal, but for those just looking for 15 minutes of gun-toting, horse riding shenanigans, it caters to you all the same.
Accompanying me on my adventures as a lone gun man was a memorable soundtrack that conjures up images of rolling tumbleweed, lined-up coffins, and tough men in ponchos. It is both catchy and stirring, and I've already started to miss it now that I've stopped listening. The music runs the gamut from up-beat tunes that spurred me to action, to more wistful, lonesome tones of the sort I might hear in my head as I eat some beans and remember the good old days before the ranch got burned down.
The soundtrack goes perfectly with the detailed, sun-soaked pixel art visuals that tap into one's nostalgia, while also creating a surprisingly authentic western look. Westerado's a very animated game, never staying still for a moment. The protagonist's poncho constantly waves away, chickens never stop pecking at invisible seeds, and dried out weeds endlessly dance in the ceaseless wind.
Even if you are put off by the plethora of bugs, it's free and accessible at the click of a button. You'd be doing yourself a disservice by not checking it out at least once. No doubt you'll find yourself checking it out again and again, as I have been. Drape that knackered old poncho over your shoulders, roll up that cigarette, and strap on a rusty six-shooter -- it's time to hunt down a real bastard.
THE VERDICT - Westerado
Reviewed by Fraser Brown