Let’s start with a ratio: Wolfenstein II : Argo :: World to the West : The Chronicles of Riddick. In World to the West, developer Rain Games has crafted a game that some people are going to love. And while I am here to say that they love a game that is the very essence of mediocre, their opinion holds merit. Already I feel as though I am being far too harsh. On the game and people who will enjoy it. World to the West isn’t bad, it is simply okay. And you know what? That’s okay.
World to the West is now available for the Nintendo Switch, adding to the unending flood of indie games coming to the console. Taking heavy inspirations from the A Link to the Past, the game likes you play as four wildly different characters who are destined to fulfill an ancient prophecy of some sorts. It is charming in parts, which is all to really say of the story, but the dialogue was light and cute. An occasional welcome reprise. The rest of the game – from combat to the game’s structure – is decidedly less enjoyable. They say you steal from the best, but there is a severe distance between this game and that which it tries to evoke.
The beauty of the independent games, or even single-A titles, is that they bring a fresh perspective. I made the movie comparison above because the parallels of making a major blockbuster in Hollywood and making a low-budget independent game feel similar in end results. You’ve played a Mario game, and expect the next Mario title to tread some sort of familiar ground: you’ll collect things, there will be worlds, Peach will in be distress, they’ll make fun of Luigi. A Christopher Nolan film, similarly, will be $200 million, will have some time dilation, and you’ll argue for years about the true ending. These are institutions at this point. But the indie can do weird things, too; it can give us weird windows into a creative vision, play with expectations, and subvert them. This is all “flowery” speak so far. What point am I getting at? World to the West is not Call of Duty, Super Mario, Uncharted, and unfortunately it tried to be a bigger game than it was able to achieve.
Did you just read that I don’t think that World to the West is indie enough? That’s not what I am aiming for. The game is pretty and offers some unique ideas, however the concepts given to the players become too unfocused in the scope of the world. The world, reminiscent of Zelda, is a high mark for the game but ends up feeling vapid. Combat is a mixture of frustrating and boring. And finally, the story moves along at a lumpy pace, burdened by the game’s structure. These are things that could have been either honed in a more focused game. If the past two generations of games have pointed out, smaller games aren’t also short on quality, and indie games don’t have to be considered critically different from their AAA counterparts. World to the West is a matter of the vision exceeding the actual outcome.
World to the West centers around four characters whom have been inexplicably pushed to this adventure because it has been foretold. Nothing snazzy about this pretense. It’s a solid MacGuffin that has served innumerable stories well, and it mostly does for this game. Segmented into Chapters where the first five or six introduce the characters, setting, and unveil the purpose of your journey through this prophecy. The first few chapters where we’re meeting characters and new environments across the world runs at a nice clip, however once the game gets into itself it falls apart at the seams.
Mostly, there aren’t enough threads to keep the story together. The introduction of characters are so compartmentalized that there is no unifying plot line to bring them together. Sure there’s a big bad doing things, but when the four heroes come together, you immediately turn around and send them on their separate ways for the majority of the game.
And there is nothing in terms of objectives outside of you’re at point A, get to point B. Again, this is a serviceable device but the way it is implemented in late game is infuriating. You’ll be playing and exploring as one character until you run yourself into a wall–perhaps literally–because you’ll need the exploratory power of another character (more on that later). This causes you to find a Totem (which double as save points and fast travels) and change characters, which is okay but wanes later in the game when you need to constantly find Totems and constantly switch to characters around the map. From these Totems, you will then be force to move that character through the same locations to get to where your character just got stuck. The way that the game proposes exploration in service of moving the story forward is awful.
“Now, Brian,” you say, “maybe you should play the game for the exploration. Weren’t you the one that pined and got all mushy about Breath of the Wild for its exploration, falling into a world that you would be so engrossed in you’d miss your subway stop by thirty blocks?” Yes. But where World to the West fails to be a shining example of exploration is in the game’s core structure. The world is bright, cheeky, and filled with ups, downs, and turn-arounds that are mostly fun. If you could go through the game as one character, this world would be immensely enjoyable to fly around in. There are secrets hidden all over, there’s plenty of environmental puzzles to solve. Some of them are the simple hop-skip-jumps to get past, while others require a bit more thought. The world and the puzzles to navigate are absolutely the best aspect of World to the West, but it is categorically hamstrung by the mechanics of the game’s characters, and the abilities that each tout.
The game boasts four characters: The Mindbender, the Teslamancer, the Orphan, and the Strongman. Each has their own defined style of exploration and combat, along with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. It breaks down that each character has unique way to travel through the environment; the Teslamancer can “blink,” the Orphan can skate along self-propelled ice skates (it makes sense in game?). When they’re introduced in their chapters, the tailored slice of traversal is fantastic. It feels great, it moves along at great pace that feels rewarding, and it is simply fun.
Take away that tailored slice and thrust these characters into the world at large. Fine. Until you get to a point where you get stuck and then need to switch characters: find Totem, switch characters, hope that you have a Totem near your first character or hike the same road all over again. World to the West does not deliberately obfuscate a character’s path–there are options available that you can (or eventually can) move each character throughout all environments. However it is excruciating in the endgame, to a point where the game may have been ruined for me.
I will be (minor) spoiling a bit of the latter portion of the game so skip out if you’d like to go in blind. Here we go: When you are sent on the last bit of your adventure, you make your way to an underground area that is blocked off by several layers of doors that need a certain amount of batteries to unlock. These batteries around hidden throughout the corners of the world. The game never tells you that these batteries are at all important to the completion of the game along the way. So, you quite literally run into a wall near the end of the game to go on a fetch quest. And you’re not going out for a few batteries–the first boss requires you to collect a total of fifteen batteries.
You can pay the in-game currency to get some points on your map where the batteries are hidden, but they’re just blips. Which is fine under normal circumstances. But let me repeat: you are physically unable to open the doors without running around for these things. A little bit of direction would be more than appreciated. This is where the game fell apart for me.
All my gripes with the switching of the characters, running around until you run into a wall to then go back and switch characters and run all around again, come to a head here. There is no tailored exploration. The world is open to all four characters, but the batteries that you have to find are not. Try to get as much as you can with one of the four characters. Stall. Rinse and repeat for hours. I don’t understand the padding that developers may feel they need to do–make its budgets. We spent this money, make sure someone gets ‘X’ amount of time with it. Either way, it is there anyway, and it took out all the fun of the game.
Not only did the fun I was having with the game dissipate, but this is where the faults in the design of the game came to fruition. I found myself wondering about all the other games that make you backtrack, the Metroidvanias, the Zeldas; hundreds of games employ backtracking. The ones that employ it while still feeling fresh and great, I felt had something in common: the “badass” feeling. You walk around Hyrule loaded to the brim with high level equipment that no amount of enemies can stop you; your Dash in Castlevania is so powerful you can whip through each room at hyper speed and still kill enemies. Bloodborne will beat your ass into bonemeal, but you’ll eventually–git gud–get that level 10 Ludwig Holy Blade, and laugh your way from Yharnam to his castle.
You never get the God Complex in World to the West. When you’re fighting the same enemies throughout the game, and every encounter is the exact same, adding four to five to six hours of finding batteries is atrocious. To describe the combat more is to say it’s extremely hit or miss. I’ve seen “soft combat” be used to described certain games and I suppose it’s not a bad definition. It doesn’t feel good. Only the Strongman has combos of any sort, and they aren’t particularly effective because you can start a combo and an enemy can walk through it without consequence sometimes. The Teslamancer is really the only other character that is effective in combat. Both the Mindbender and the Orphan use different abilities to subvert or escape combat. The Mindbender in particular has the ability to “capture” enemies and use them in combat. Stuff like biting with a squirrel, riding a baboon creature with large claws–it’s fun, but still doesn’t feel great.
I want to go back to above where I felt that World to the West would have been better with a smaller scope. I still feel that way but I don’t necessarily believe in that concept. Personally, I’m always a shoot for the moon person; go “the underdog” kind of person. Commendation should go to Rain Games for going so big on their second game. They will get better. Their games will get better. And that’s being people who make creative endeavors. At least in a perfect world.
Bringing this game to the Nintendo Switch is a smart move–bringing any game to the Switch is a good idea (wink wink). There are some noticeable frame drops in large areas or areas with several enemies, but from what I’ve seen of the other versions, it doesn’t look to be too drastic. I played about an hour in Handheld mode and the rest in Docked mode. Initially I thought that Handheld mode had a serious performance issue but perhaps it was just at that time, subsequent Handheld use proved to be approximate to Docked mode.
When World to the West is doing things right are in the chapters where you have a quick, defined goal. You’ll run through events like fighting in an underground boxing ring, liberating a group of small orphan boys, and participating in a trials/race competition. The music is interesting in some areas where others I wish there was more. The underground mines in particular reminded me of the Lost Woods theme and I was sent for a nostalgic whirl. Some style choices like the ridiculous amount of vignetting were incredibly distracting in dark areas, and only added to the frustrating that was playing the game.
World to the West, in the end, is a good three hour game that takes ten hours to complete. It’s charming and goofy, but the way the game unfolds, the oddball charm escapes itself and there isn’t enough “stuff” to fill the areas that need to plug the padding. If you had a five foot hose and ran water through it, four feet of it would be springing leaks. What the game proposes itself as in the first half is nowhere near what the game plays as in the second half. Perhaps a second run through of the game would be an entirely different experience. The NieR crowd just screamed “thank you!” But World to the West was such a struggle to crawl through that I think it will be quite a bit of time before I consider dipping back into it. And by then, I’d have forgotten everything to do anyway.
If you got here and are still wondering, I don’t mind The Chronicles of Riddick.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Not so wild for the west
There are few ideas and interactions that make World to the West an interesting first half. Some of the character’s are fun to play as, and the more focused environments you first begin the game with pose some enjoyable, if light, puzzle solving. However the back half of the game is a woeful slog. The Nintendo Switch’s natural ability for gaming on the go will be a huge draw for World to the West; pop it on riding the subway, run around for a few stops, and pop it back in your bag – no stress and cheery style would be a-okay. Simply put though, it feels like they should have reigned it back in scope or removed the awful back end fetch-questing. Poor combat only makes the exploration an absolute choir, and the story doesn’t fill itself out enough to be the reason you stick through World to the West.