In Evil West, when an armored fist connects with an enemy’s body, a cartoon sound effect resembling a cinder block striking frozen beef is produced. If you keep punching a monster, it will eventually break apart like a water balloon filled with ketchup. When you use certain moves, punching a monster can make its skeleton flash into view as its grotesque body vibrates and blue electricity bolts hold it in the air. If you shoot a different foe, its arms may fall off and blood may gush forth like the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail suffering from hypertension.
It’s important to talk about how violent Evil West is right from the start, because that’s what drives the whole game. The new game from Flying Wild Hog, the same company that made the Shadow Warrior reboot series and Hard Reset, takes place during the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. The opening narration says that there has been a vampire conspiracy in the United States “since the time of the Founding Fathers.” Monster hunters with the Rentier Institute have been trying to stop it. A mythological take on historical settings can be a good way to show what happened in the past. Sadly, Evil West, despite devoting a great deal of time to its plot, doesn’t seem to care all that much about its story beyond the premise of combining a schlocky monster film with a passable Western.
Jesse Rentier, the protagonist, is a blankly determined supercowboy dressed in a notched wide brim hat and layers of ornately patterned black leather. Jesse is burdened with a large portion of Evil West’s storytelling, and he is not quite up to the task. He and the other members of the Rentier Institute, whose leader is Jesse’s rough-looking, horse-faced father, are a strange mix of deadly serious action heroes and funny rogues. Their writers don’t seem to know if the cast should be making jokes about how ridiculous it is to hunt vampires or giving boring explanations. Jesse will mutter “moneyyy” when he sees a bag of coins or “burnnn” when setting giant spiderwebs on fire with a flamethrower while exploring. None of these lame jokes are even close to as funny as the fact that his gauntlet says “RENTIER INSTITUTE.”
If the story played up the campiness of its premise a bit more, finding more humor in the absurdity of its dialogue and the drama of a plan to stop a criminal conspiracy led by an immortal little girl vampire, it would be more entertaining. As it stands, Evil West’s half-baked attempt at a story — there are numerous cutscenes and inter-mission levels that involve walking around a home base hub to collect scraps of in-universe text — detracts from what the game does best: offer a barrage of combat arenas populated by a variety of monsters who seem ecstatic to be ripped, shot, and beaten to pieces by Jesse.
Jesse is surprisingly fit for a man who travels like a Gears of War benchwarmer through sun-baked desert canyons, misty forest paths, and humid swampland. One of his skills, which is called “Cannonball,” lets him move quickly across the battlefield and launch himself at his enemies like a short cannonball. Even when he shoots and punches in Evil West, his movements are slow and deliberate.
As Jesse travels across the United States, he gets new weapons and upgrades from the institute’s engineers or from field loot. Evil West’s loadout and set of abilities grow slowly, but they never become too much. As a result, Jesse is encouraged to use every weapon he has to come up with new strategies. In this way, it’s like the original Doom games and their rebooted sequels, which had combat that got more complicated as you mixed and matched different moves. To be clear, it is entirely possible to win most battles with a limited arsenal. But the best way to clear a field full of flying, burrowing, charging, and exploding vampires is to use all of Evil West’s gruesome killing tools. As the adage goes, there is a key for every lock; Jesse possesses a weapon capable of disarming any monster.
As enjoyable as the combat is, it’s still disappointing that the best way to interact with the horde of vampire freaks in Evil West is to turn them into red ooze. While there are scattered references to the parasitic nature of America’s westward expansion, The Evil West pays insufficient attention to the context of its late 19th-century American setting to extract anything meaningful from it. Right away, the plot puts the leaders of the expanding United States in touch with real vampires whose main goal is to drain the life force from other people. Despite a few hints at a general commentary on the brutality of its setting, the game never lingers long enough to make any perspective clear.
A menu says that a large type of vampire is “native to the Jenu Tribe of North America,” but the reference seems to be to a creature named “Jenu” in Mi’kmaq mythology. Even though the mistake was probably made by accident, it’s a clear sign that Evil West’s creators cared more about using the setting as a mood board for cutscenes and battle arenas than about making the setting accurate.
Even though the characters and plot are boring and take up a lot of time, the combat is undeniably exciting. It would be easier to recommend the game if the rest of it packed as memorable a punch as the protagonist does when destroying the vampires of Evil West. As it stands, it is little more than a series of above-average arenas for monster-slaying interspersed with uninspired narrative.