Weird West might be developer WolfEye Studios’ debut title but it’s certainly not lacking for ambition.
At a glance, the top-down perspective might evoke conventional hack-and-slash fare like Diablo. However, much in the same way that the game’s unique setting smashes together traditional western tropes with otherworldly and occult iconography, Weird West looks to tie together two very different genres: isometric roleplaying and immersive systems-driven simulation. It’s not quite the first game to attempt such a combination but it’s certainly the first to tackle things with this kind of style and pedigree.
Creative director Raphael Colantonio dates the inception of the project to around 2018. He and WolfEye’s other founder, Julien Roby, began discussing the kinds of games they wanted to make following their respective departures from Arkane - the studio known for immersive sims like Prey and Dishonored - and Hangar 13 - the folks behind the open world Mafia games.
According to him, Weird West’s eye-catching look and supernatural setting ultimately originated out of the team’s art department.
Colantonio says that Etienne Aubert, one of the lead artists on Weird West, “is a big fan of Westerns and he started to work on these visuals. Eventually, Manu Petit, who was the artist on Prey, joined in as well.
“Together, they developed this European comic book look. You don’t see the brush strokes but you see pencil [lines]…which is a very cool style,” he says.
When you think European comic books, you probably think Tin-Tin. However, Colantonio explains that “In France and in Italy as well in the 80s there were a lot of comic books about Westerns. There was something called Tex, which was super super famous.”
In line with these pulpy predecessors, Colantonio emphasizes that the setting of Weird West isn’t going for realism.
“It's not like the original historical West. It's inspired by some of the canon, some of the cliche, but it's also for us an opportunity to do something a little different with it.”
Colantonio says that “Western is really interesting because everybody gets it.”
According to him, the genre offers “a simple world where the technology is not that advanced” and one where relatively simple plot motifs like revenge allow you to tell “some really interesting yet relatable stories that can be deep.”
Then, “If you add the layer of weird and fantasy, then it was compelling to us,” he says.
“A little bit of Lovecraft in our Edgar Allan Poe kind-of-thing in a wild west setting sounded like something that could be cool.”
Two years later, the headcount of the developer now numbers around thirty or so people.
Colantonio says that the studio working through the pandemic ended up being “pretty simple because that's how it was set up from the get-go.”
He says that the distributed team was supposed to meet in-person every three months but those plans have been shelved due to the immediate and ongoing impacts of the coronavirus.
Alongside the logistics of this kind of development, the team at WolfEye have also had to reckon with the tribulations of transitioning the gameplay of systems-driven simulations like Dishonored and Prey from first person to a top-down isometric perspective.
“The biggest challenges that it creates are about the action side. If you think about an immersive sim, the structure relies a lot on the simulation part. The way we develop the game: the multiple-branching story, the interesting world to develop and to explore and all that is the same whichever the perspective is.”
While “in the case of a first person immersive sims you really are borrowing the moment-to-moment [experience] from the first person shooters” Colantonio says that Weird West leans on the conventions and design language of twin-stick shooters.
“It's not an RPG where you pause the game. You always stay in action.”
Physicality is a keyword here. If you read any interviews or previews about Weird West, it might sound familiar. Right from the game’s initial announcement, it’s been a quality that WolfEye have been keen to emphasize.
Colantonio clarifies this by adding that “In this case, what I mean is it's a very action-driven game.”
In line with more traditional immersive sims, Colantonio says that players will be able to leverage the ways in which the environment around them is physically simulated to their advantage. For example, he says that barrels can be knocked over, moved and used as a tool to reach higher vantage points.
Colantonio says that the character progression in Weird West is “more about unlocking gameplay powers or abilities than it is about +1% into something - which is why we call it an action RPG as opposed to an RPG.”
“There are some RPG elements in there but it's not like a hardcore heavy RPG with 100 skills and percentages and stuff like that. It's more of an action-driven thing.”
This emphasis on simulation extends into the way that the narrative in Weird West unfolds.
Over the course of the game players will take control of five distinct characters, each on their own journey. Their choices, actions and - ultimately - the state they leave the world in at the end of each playthrough shapes the next. You’ll even be able to track down and recruit your older characters in later runs, assuming they managed to survive their ordeal.
Still, Colantonio is keen to distance this repetitive structure from that of a roguelike saying that “it will very much feel like an authored RPG.”
Common tropes and trappings of the genre like companions, branching narratives and dialogue choices are all in the mix here. Asked how the latter is being deployed, Colantonio says that “we’ve gone back and forth many times.”
Eventually, they settled on making in-game choices offer more than just flavor. Colantonio says that whenever you get a dialogue choice in Weird West, it’s because you’re actually making a meaningful decision.
Asked about whether the future of Weird West includes features like mod support or multiplayer, Colantonio is open to the idea. He says “we are definitely thinking about all those things” but doesn’t want to commit to it yet.
“It’s something we’ve always tried to do in previous games that I’ve worked on but it’s hard. This game would lend itself very very well to that kind of approach because the world is bigger than the player and their own stories so having other little stories that people could make and push to the world would be really amazing.”
Weird West is slated for release in 2021 on PC.