Elegance of design and richness of content can make even simple actions rewarding, and Western Press is an admirable, if imperfect attempt to achieve this. A new title made by developer trio, Bandit-1 and published by Surprise Attack Games, this particular entry follows incredibly simple mechanics dressed in the trappings of the wild, wild west.
Now the first thing you should know is that the mechanics really don’t get more complicated than pressing a bunch of buttons as fast as you can. That’s all there is to it and that’s the point: Design-wise this is as pure as it gets. There’s an alternative mode where you memorise a sequence of buttons and THEN press them as fast as you can, or if you feel like switching things up (or toning them down), the custom tournament options can let you tweak things a bit, but the basic gameplay mechanic remains the same: Here’s a string of buttons. Press’em.
Now, full disclosure here: I never got a chance to play this against other people. Seeing as it’s just past midnight and the game has only just been released, that’s unsurprising and unfortunately I don’t have anyone living with me in my magical pocket dimension to play against, so my experience has been entirely limited to the linear skill test and some custom bot tournaments I jiggered for myself. Having said that, it’s not 100% apparent what differences there might be, save for the smug satisfaction of beating a stranger on the internet at a button mashing game (beating someone sitting next to you at ANY game is always a hoot). At the end of the day, you’re still pressing a sequence of buttons, and if you pressed them fast enough, your little cartoon dood will murder the other little cartoon dood and say one of a limited number of lines to humiliate them. Actually, I suspect that players would make for easier prey than the hardest bots: People can only press buttons so fast.
At the time of writing, I seem to be suffering from a crippling loading problem where the animation plays smoothly for a couple of cycles before dropping to the speed of a slideshow. The game does load eventually, but it takes about 15 minutes.
Also, there’s an issue where despite the fact that I’m playing on a PC, the game is showing prompts in memory tournaments as though I were on a console. This means that I’m being told to press Right Trigger and Left Shoulder as part of the combo which is… Well, I’m on a keyboard. Keyboards don’t have those. Anyway, I’ve made contact with the devs and we’re trying to work it out, but if a patch doesn’t come out before this goes live there’s not much to be done about it. I managed to figure out that Q and E were the shoulder bars, but neither Z, X or C were accepted as inputs so I’m damned if I can figure out where my keyboard’s triggers are.
Edit: The developers were able to resolve the UI bug in the time it took me to finish this review, so bonus marks right there guys. Well done.
In fact, it’s quite clear that the game is geared more towards console players. There is no keyboard support for typing names and no option to change which keys are bound in what way. That last point is actually just me being petty because I can’t clear the skill test beyond level seven. I’m perfectly at home using directional keys and WASD, but in my mind they’ve always translated into the same thing, so you can imagine how that screws me up and I don’t imagine that console players mistake the X button for left on the D-pad. It’s highly probable that allowing me to remap the inputs to the numpad won’t help in the slightest, but I’ll never know.
Now here’s the thing about games this simple: When your actual gameplay doesn’t allow for strategy, cunning or anything beyond purely reflexive play, it’s the richness of the game’s content and smooth design that needs to make up the difference. Western Press doesn’t manage to shine especially brightly on this front, but it certainly tries.
There are currently 16 playable characters (12 of which are unlocked through play) and 10 stages duels can take place on. The visuals might put you in mind of Gods Will be Watching and does its best to fit incidental details into the background. Each character also has their own little ways of taking down their opponent or going down after a hit and the animations are a good way of adding life to a simply rendered cast.
However, these characters are accompanied by an excruciatingly limited repertoire of spoken lines that become very irritating very quickly and while it’s certainly possible to skip them, you shouldn’t have to. When your visuals and gameplay are so simple, it’s your sense of character that sells a loss or a victory and it would have made the experience immeasurably better if someone had spent just a little more time fine-tuning character’s lines.
This becomes especially apparent when lines that make sense when spoken with a name become grammatically incorrect when speaking to “Priest,” (that’s his name) or when a character’s witty rebuttal doesn’t make sense when compared to the line it’s supposed to be responding to. None of this is helped by the canned crowd responses that play (even in the isolated wilderness) whenever a character speaks, randomly chosen from forced laughter, boos and an “oooOOOooo” of anticipation, regardless of the line’s actual content. Again, that’s something you can mute, but again, persistently cheesy and nonsensical crowd reactions shouldn’t be a feature you have to opt out of.
For people who fail – like me – and fail a lot – also me – I feel there’s a bit too much downtime between retries. In fact, I’d say that there’s a couple of instances where you’re waiting just a little longer than you have to. What the game DOES allow you to skip shows that the designers at least knew that getting you from encounter to encounter quickly was a priority, but they seemed to have missed a few spots. Single player retries should just happen (no mucking around with stats or housekeeping) and there’s a character select screen at the beginning of every duel that still baffles me. You’ve selected your character, and it’s impossible to select someone else’s, so inventing this need to choose a character you’ve already chosen and then select an input (keyboard or controller) that you’re already using seems a little redundant and wastes a handful of seconds every time. That might not seem like a big deal but when you’ve failed for the fiftieth time against the same bot or you’re waiting for yet another duel to resolve (I don’t think tourney duels can occur simultaneously – you have to wait your turn and the ability to skip is probably only a bot vs bot feature), but it can get super annoying.
There’s better news to be had for audiophiles, at least. The music doesn’t tire easily (at least not in the few hours I played) and Bandit-1 managed to secure a voice actor suited to the role of narrator in a story set on the frontier. He’s no Wayne June (I’ve run out of Lovecraft novels to listen to; I’m so devastated) and the writing itself feels a bit awkward in places – the game never feels quite certain how seriously it wants to take itself – but it’s good enough to get you into the right mood.
Ultimately, Bandit-1 approached this game with a fairly clear vision, a simple foundation and executed it with – if not elegance – at least enthusiasm. However, it’s a little borked here and there, and while I’m positive that future official and fan-made content (steam-punk lightning guns, you guys. LIGHTNING GUNS) may certainly add more character to the experience, I’m forced to judge things as they are.
Good luck in your next run.
Western Press is available on Steam here.