December 5, 2023
Blood West is a particularly tough-as-nails cowboy-themed take on the stealth-focused immersive sim genre, a type of game centred around sneaking through labyrinthine environments and taking anything that isn’t nailed down. This style of game was made famous by the Thief and Dishonored franchises, amongst others. I can certainly appreciate much of the effort that has gone into Blood West, with a beautiful and modernised take on 90’s 3D graphics and several suitably complex towns and forts for the player to sneak through. However, even by the standards of the genre, Blood West’s punishing death mechanics and not entirely successfully-implemented open world setting makes the game a bit of a slog and not for the faint of heart.
Set in the Old West, as the title implies, Blood West sees you play as a resurrected amnesiac gunslinger, sent on a quest to vanquish the ancient evil that is plaguing the land and causing zombies, demons and other fiends to roam free. Starting out in a classic Wild West town, your journey takes you to various other locales as you continue to complete quests for the townsfolk to rescue stranded villagers and loot cursed artefacts. The player character’s occasional gruff quips are lent a gravelly gravitas by Stephen Russell, not coincidentally the voice of Garret from the Thief games and Corvo in Dishonored 2.
That said, if you’re looking for Red Dead Redemption levels of intricate cowboy drama, you won’t find it in Blood West. In the vein of the classic 90’s FPSs that it emulates, you get about as much exposition as you need to justify what you’re out to do and not a whole lot more. You can occasionally glean some additional narrative flavour from documents hidden on bookshelves or delving through the dialogue trees of the NPCs who steadily flock to your safe zone, but it’s still a fairly story-light experience for the most part.
In terms of gameplay, Blood West is a stealth game first and foremost. Although you can equip all manner of high-powered weaponry, including revolvers, shotguns and hunting rifles, engaging more than two or so enemies at a time is a recipe for failure. Enemies hit hard and can take several shots to take down when alerted, making critical hits from the shadows, carefully lined-up headshots and simple sneaking past them the encouraged strategy.
Fortunately, Blood West has a pretty useful user interface which makes it very easy to tell how visible or exposed you are to enemy detection. This includes different meters slowly filling up if you are entering the vision or earshot of a foe, as well as separate indicators to make it clear when you are safely obscured by a bush. You can also toss rocks to lure enemies away, which is a handy feature. Some of the most tense experiences I had in my time with the game included inching my way past powerful foes, stealing small opportunities to dash quickly between cover and seeing the visibility meter inch towards being full, but not quite, in order to maintain my cover.
On the other hand, level design is much more of a mixed bag. Many of the games from which Blood West takes inspiration take place in distinct, enclosed and tightly packed environments, with smaller areas linked together with shortcuts for the player to master. Blood West kind of has that, albeit in the form of several separate small intricate forts, caves and other buildings plonked onto large, relatively open sandboxes lacking in much cover and with many roaming enemies between you and your objective. It led to many places where there just weren’t many useful ways to stealth past without detection, and otherwise just being kind of dull to traverse with a lot of running from point A to B through open fields.
The opening chapter, which takes place in a large Wild West desert town, feels most egregious in this regard, however later maps split their open settings into more confined sub-areas and generally put more trees and other objects to hide behind to make stealth a more inviting option. I do wish navigating the map could have been streamlined though, as there is often a long walk back to where you were searching after each death and sneaking past or taking out the same enemies. While you can fast travel to beds you find across the map, it costs an expensive and limited item to do so, making it an unreliable option.
I think that Blood West could really benefit from visible enemy health bars. Enemies can seem quite tanky at times, and knowing if your shots are actually doing any real damage to them, or if you should just save your ammo and run, would be very helpful. Most importantly, it would make stealth attacks a more inviting prospect, as while back-attacks while undetected are USUALLY one-hit kills for regular enemies, depending on your weapon or the kind of enemy you’re fighting, a stealth attack might just hurt and aggro them, drawing them and all of their friends towards you. For a stealth kill system to work, it needs to be reliable and consistent, and many of my deaths were caused by a stealth kill just not being enough to actually kill an enemy and my plan totally backfiring because there was no indication that my attack would be pointless.
“…what holds Blood West back is how unrelentingly punishing it can be.”
So while the stealth gameplay works decently for the most part, what holds Blood West back is how unrelentingly punishing it can be. Every death (and you will die a lot) sends you back to that chapter’s safe area, maintaining anything that you have looted, but incurring a minor penalty resulting in a small hit to one of your stats. After three deaths, it magnifies into a major and much more serious curse.
These curses can range from making you 75% louder, severely limiting your stamina or hit points, or halving the amount of experience you earn. These effects stack as well, meaning that a particularly bad set of runs can see you thoroughly diminished. You can cure your curse by completing side quests for the talking skull at your base, but good luck managing 5 stealth kills when you’re nearly twice as likely to be detected. There is also a type of potion that cures your curses, but they are quite expensive and difficult to acquire.
There isn’t really any way around the curse mechanic either. You can equip a gold coin to avoid curse accumulation when you next die, but that expends the coin and acquiring a certain number of gold coins can be one of the quests you need to complete to cure your curse, so you might be better off saving them up for later. Despite the game’s many homages to 90’s first-person stealth games, there is no quick-save function, only a save and quit button, making any venture out into the wilderness a big risk as you can’t just reload a save if you die. It isn’t that a long-term punishment for failure is inherently a bad thing, but especially considering how easy it is to die due to a minor miscalculation, the game could have stood to be less punishing. I wish that Blood West would either limit it to one curse at a time, make them less debilitating, or make them way easier to cure, like being able to pick from a selection of curse-curing side quests or make the curse-curing potion cheaper and easier to find.
I could live with a high level of difficulty if the goals were more straightforward, but Blood West also suffers from some unclear quest direction. Quest objectives will usually be focused on finding a particular object for someone, like a holy relic or pure alcohol, and with a marker placed on your map. Despite that marker, finding the items still often relies on a lot of trial and error in terms of figuring out where in the cave or collection of buildings indicated on my map it would be. The NPCs are no use in terms of giving hints, leading to many voyages featuring a lot of poking my head into every single room or building until I randomly stumbled on the item, along with many deaths, of course. I feel like a clearer description in the quest journal of where to look, or a Dishonored-style X-Ray vision mode at least indicating where the general location of important items are, would have led to a lot less time wasted with aimless wandering.
I’m disappointed that I found Blood West so often frustrating to play, as it was quite nice to look at. Of all the game’s throwbacks to 25 years ago, the visual aspect was the most compelling, featuring what is effectively a modernised and cleaned-up take on late-90’s 3D modelling. It fits the retro tone and made me feel quite nostalgic whenever I got close enough to an object to see the pixels. It never interfered with the gameplay, either, with the NPCs all looking clearly distinct and the enemies all appropriately fearsome.
- Some areas dotted throughout the map were suitably intricate and interesting to explore
- Helpful stealth-focused user interface makes knowing how detected you are very clear
- Beautiful modernised retro visual style
- Open world exploration does not mesh well with the stealth-focused gameplay
- Lack of health bars makes stealth attacks unreliable and too risky
- Frustratingly punishing death mechanics, making any small mistake challenging to claw yourself back from
- Unclear quest objectives leads to a lot of trial and error
Blood West takes inspiration from Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored, yet falls disappointingly short. The level design and some particular mechanics didn’t aid the stealth gameplay very much, though the game’s large arsenal of weapons and tools and helpful UI do give it a decent stealth foundation which fans of the genre can get a lot out of. Unfortunately, the game’s gruelling death mechanics, unclear quest objectives and simple plot create an experience that’s simply exhausting after a while. Fans of stealth-focused immersive sims might enjoy Blood West well enough, but only if they are prepared for many frustrating mechanics holding the experience back.