If your video game addled brains can remember back to early 2012, Sian reviewed a rather silly flatulence based game by the name of High Vaultage, a product of upstart Dutch developers Ostrich Banditos. We had some very nice correspondence with them and got to see an early build of the game (and provide some feedback that led to changes in the finished version!) as well as help them promote themselves in an increasingly hostile market.
Who would have guessed that their newest title, Westerado, would completely diverge from their established standard in such a way that caused me to question the limits of what can be done with Flash games? You? Get out of here.
Westerado tells the tale of a young farmhand who lives with his mother and brother herding buffalo out in the Wild West, when tragedy strikes. On returning to the farm one night, our hero finds his family dead or dying (leading to a heart wrenching scene I won’t spoil here) and their home burned to the ground. Taking refuge with his neighbour and uncle, the boy sets out to find and bring to justice the man responsible – by any means necessary.
So far, so Star Wars, but what really sets Westerado apart from most other Flash games is its delicious mix of aspects from different genres. The core mechanic is a long puzzle centred around collecting clues to ascertain the identity of the killer, which are obtained by completing quests for others in the surrounding small towns, Indian camp and ranches. These quests vary in scope and ethics from helping the local haberdasher hire some new hands by convincing the local women to sign up, to defending wagon trains and buffalo drives from roving bandits in horse-mounted side scrolling shooter sections to helping the local Indian tribe to slaughter an entire town.
The controls remain reasonably consistent though, and it’s always easy to familiarise yourself with whatever task you’re carrying out. However, there’s no reason to assume this necessarily translates to the game being easy. As you may have guessed from the examples listed above, the completion of different tasks will ingratiate you with some factions (the settlers, the ranchers, the Indians) but harm your reputation with others, affecting which clues on the murderer you can collect. For instance, do you chase away all the ranchers’ buffalo to get a clue from the Indian chief, or do you instead help the ranchers form a franchise to protect their herds instead? That’s the sort of dilemma you have to face in Westerado, and it’s a refreshing break from the black and white moral choices we’re presented in a lot of games.
Of course, it isn’t perfect. There are a few graphical bugs (I once had a pop up permanently stuck to the middle of my screen and my horse disappeared a couple of times) and the shooting controls (your character can only fire to the right or left, not up or down) make gun fighting slightly awkward. I don’t think these are issues that can’t be fixed, but it would have been nice to see them sorted before the initial release.
Where Westerado certainly doesn’t disappoint is in its graphics. Pixelated aesthetic has been used to particular effect before, namely in VVVVVV, Home, Lone Survivor, Fez and a whole bunch of other indie games I could rattle off, but this manages to be particularly impressive in its highly polished pixel renditions of sunsets, cliffs, desert and fire – the colour palette is pretty firmly in the red, so it’s a good thing that this takes place in the Old West, where it’s not only appropriate but incredibly visually striking. There’s something romantic about riding through the wilderness on your own, an impression only heightened by the excellent quality of animation on display.
The music is equally appropriate and only sweetens the deal, with classic spaghetti western stylings that are guaranteed to have you humming for hours. It’s all part of the retro charm of this game and goes brilliantly with the subtle humour that’s sometimes a shout out – calling the main town Clintville – and sometimes both hilariously off the wall while referencing the heritage of the creators – I am of course referring to the Dutch man who gives you a quest in his native tongue. I’m not going to tell you what it is though, since that would stop you all having to painstakingly type in into Google Translate like I did.
While Westerado could do with a few bug fixes and a little more content, those are minor flaws for a free game that otherwise reaches such an excellent degree of quality. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Westerado may well be the best game of 2013 so far. At least until I review The Cave and Ni No Kuni. Bad timing Ostrich Banditos, but you’ve earned your 9/10.