Jesse Rentier is a no-nonsense action man; a stubbled slab of beef who sees every situation in black and white. He's the type to remind you constantly that he's not cut out for pencil pushing deskwork, as if you couldn't tell by looking at him that he'd struggle to even hold a pencil without snapping it in half. In other words, he's neither refined nor imaginative, but he is solid, focused and capable of magnificent violence. A description that equally applies to Evil West.
In an alternate late 19th century USA, Jesse is the top field agent at family business the Rentier Institute, an organisation established to combat a scourge of vampires that's been nibbling on cowboys since the founding fathers. Given the sun-fearing nature of his foes, shootouts at high noon are off the table here, so Jesse heads out on expeditions to track down and smash the bloodsuckers to bits, along with their pet werewolves and other abominations they've manufactured. There's more to the story than that, of course, explained in cutscenes sandwiched between the game's sixteen missions, but walloping the undead is always your chief concern.
Indeed, Evil West adopts a 'get on with it' approach throughout. The main path connecting the game's combat arenas is marked with a glowing silver chain to keep you oriented as you indulge in some very light exploration, ducking into half-hidden side passages to grab minor treasures. A few levels get a touch adventurous with more open, branching and looping sections, and sometimes you have to find a lever before advancing, or push a mine cart, or dislodge some scenery with your rifle, but very little that would qualify as a puzzle. In some ways that's a blessing, as Evil West is less bloated than, say, God of War, but it also feels rather short on aspiration.
This conservatism infects Flying Wild Hog's vision of the west too, which is strangely colourless aside from some striking landscapes, not to mention old-fashioned. The saloon bar that acts as a front for the institute's base, for example, is filled with stock image (white) cowboys and courtesans, while 'Indians' feature only in passing reference to their mystic legends. Coupled with Jesse's distaste for intellectual expertise, quips such as “Welcome to America” when he dispatches a foe, and a government official character who represents state corruption, there's a somewhat politically regressive tinge to proceedings. Nor does the dialogue add nuance, as characters growl at each other in sentences laden with cringeworthy expletives. The aim is to evoke the vibe of macho '80s action movies, but it's a clumsy tribute act.
Fortunately, Evil West is much more comfortable on the battlefield. Its monsters are monstrous and Jesse has a wealth of tricks up his sleeve, or at least a metal gauntlet that adds extra heft to his punches. Regular blows can knock even some of the biggest critters out of their stride, while a charged uppercut launches smaller ones in the air, where you might follow up with a 'cannonball' smash that sends the victim flying into its mates or a conveniently placed stack of TNT crates. At the same time, though, Jesse is also very much a gunslinger, and the game does a sterling job swinging between shootouts and brawls, often within the same encounter. Some enemies have weak spots that are revealed only as they wind up an attack, and if you're quick on the draw you can punish them before they make their move.
Punching and shooting only gets you so far, however, and throughout his excursions Jesse builds up an arsenal that could outfit a whole squad of marines. An electric charge attached to the gauntlet allows you to electrocute an enemy with a magnetic pull that drags it towards you or vice versa, so you can yank a member of the undead from a pack and administer a beating before the rest arrive, or use distant foes as grappling points to zip away from danger. Soon you'll have a shotgun, the first of a string of arms and devices that works on a cooldown timer and helps with crowd control. Eventually you have so many options, it's hard to remember them all while continually dodging and parrying.
The complexity should become second nature, though, because Evil West prompts you to deploy everything in order to survive. The vampires and their buddies, some of them imposingly large, rush and pelt you from all sides, so you have to keep moving, stun them with electric currents and maintain an itchy trigger finger. Then as more powerful creatures materialise, escalating the scale of the fight, you indulge in a battle of one-upmanship, whipping out the big guns in an accelerated arms race until one side runs out of juice. You can't help but smile when you're almost out of health at the tail end of a rumble, but know you've held your last-resort supercharged finisher in reserve to electrocute that final stubborn vamp to pieces.
Sometimes it's surprising just how much Evil West throws at you, and because of the numbers there are frustrations. In general, you tend to get a feel for when offscreen enemies are due to come thundering in from behind, but there are moments when you'll be blindsided by an unreasonable convergence of assaults, or when you can't get a clear shot at a weak spot because there's too much traffic in the way. Also, while performance is far from shoddy, explosions and particle effects can sabotage the framerate sporadically, while rare glitches might leave Jesse irretrievably stuck in the floor, or a monster left floating in the air.
Apart from such minor niggles, though, for much of the game, Evil West's combat remains a robust, gory delight, at times close to brilliant. It's only in the final third that it begins to fade, as the vampires run out of new creatures to throw at you, and instead rehash combinations of familiar ugly faces ad nauseum. As the final showdown approaches, then, you may wish you could 'get on with it' even faster. At least by then Jesse has learned a thing or two. Perhaps if there's a sequel, he'll combine his proficiency in vampire hunting with a desire for a richer, more sophisticated world.