What we now know as the “Western” genre has grown exponentially over the years in both followers and pervasiveness, but what exactly is it that makes the Western so attractive? Older generations seem to come to it for the sense of freedom it bestows, the dark storylines, the chance to see rad dudes do rad things. For a few relative newcomers (such as myself), the genre takes on an extra layer of subqualities, going slightly beyond what is on screen and delving instead into what isn’t; it’s the implications. It’s a glimpse at a seemingly endless landscape, it’s a nod or smirk offering a morsel of a character’s past, it’s the deserted, crumbling town that serves as a camp site on an extended journey. Westerado: Double Barreled recognizes all of these facets and blends them seamlessly into a game far better than it has any right to be.
Before we get too deep into the review, I should be clear about one thing. As the name and publisher (Adult Swim Games) imply, Westerado is not a serious game, nor is it especially deep. It should be approached not with an expectation of genre definition, but instead as something of a humorous love letter. It takes all the aforementioned ideas and boils them down to their essences, leaving behind an exceptionally fun, albeit brief romp.
Oh, also the soundtrack is ten gallons of dope.
So, what exactly is Westerado? To put it succinctly, it’s a former flash game developed by Ostrich Banditos that, in the process of its revamp, gained a local co-op mode. Gameplay-wise, I’d call it a 2D open world shooter, though it contains a number of elements from other genres. You and your co-op partner play as a recently orphaned son and…a fella who looks strikingly similar to him. After his family is murdered at their ranch, the hero naturally sets off on a quest for revenge. The problem, of course, is that he doesn’t know exactly who did it. To track down this faceless killer (represented gracefully in the pause menu as a portrait with a cycling set of physical features), he embarks on a quest to assist any folks who might have an idea of the murderer’s identity. As a reward, they reveal a single physical feature (which then becomes static in the portrait). It’s a clever gamification of the revenge tale and allows for the murderer’s features to be randomized, making each playthrough slightly different.
As I mentioned before, Westerado is an open world adventure. I know the comparison is probably well trodden, but consider it Red Dead Redemption-lite in this regard. However, where larger budget open world games still have a few restrictions to ensure the player doesn’t break the overarching story, Westerado does not. The player is given total freedom as to who they wish to help, ignore, or even shoot. A perfect example of this comes right out of the gate, when the hero awakes at his uncle’s cabin. Even while the uncle is providing some last remnants of the tutorial, the player can draw and (if they’re total jerks) fire away. Complete freedom of choice plays further into the prospect of multiple playthroughs, giving the game some much-needed longevity.
Speaking of shooting, the game offers a very unique take on the good ol’ video game gunfight. For starters, it begins very deliberately. Going from conversation to shootout requires a full three button sequence: once to draw your weapon, once to cock it, and another to shoot. The benefits of this design choice are twofold. First, it gives the moments between drawing and cocking your weapon a classic tenseness. Second, it lets the player feel legitimately quick when they’re able to pull off the entire sequence before their opponent. Once the guns are drawn and the bullets are firing, however, the game delves into well-crafted chaos. See, the player can only fire horizontally. As you might imagine, this means that latter stages of a gunfight are more about ducking and weaving around the environment to obtain an advantageous position on your opponent. When gunfights contain more than a couple combatants (which they frequently do), they devolve into sheer bedlam. It may not be up everyone’s alley, but I absolutely loved going into a gunfight without really knowing the outcome, making the decision to engage even tougher.
Where the game glows for me is in the sublayer mentioned above. While the characters aren’t much to write home about, often serving as little more than clue vendors, the environment is steeped in wondrous implications. It’s a well-balanced mixture of both expanses and landmarks, each offering slight hints as to how they came to be. There’s a great deal to explore here, and just enough to find to keep one’s curiosity piqued. Like the game itself, the soundtrack’s ability to create something resonant out of very little cannot be overstated. It’s the perfect complement to the game’s aesthetic and, as a result of this pairing, I often found myself leisurely walking through certain screens, simply to give myself a little more time to drink it all in.
Of course, the reason you’re reading a review on Co-optimus is to get a feel for a game’s co-op modes. I haven’t mentioned it much up to this point, and there’s a reason for that. The local two player co-op mode, while highly competent, offers little more than an excuse to drag a friend along in your explorations. This is not at all a bad thing, mind. I’d take any chance I could get to take a pal on a brief Westerado tour. In terms of agency, the second player can only interact with the world in one way: bullets (admittedly, this is kinda huge). Otherwise, they cannot speak with NPCs, purchase items, or even play poker. Until any of the three bonus characters are unlocked, the second player doesn’t even look very dissimilar from the hero. I would’ve loved to have seen a little more depth here, which honestly could’ve pushed Westerado into Game of the Year territory, but it’s understandable given the budgetary restrictions that I assume come with porting a flash game.
At its core, Westerado is a parody. It spends most of its time poking fun at typical genre tropes, but with every joke comes a sense of love and respect. It’s my understanding that the best form of parody comes from those who can engage with a topic at its very core. It’s my opinion that developer Ostrich Banditos has this relationship with Westerns. It speaks to the game’s strengths that I wish it were much longer and much deeper, but that doesn’t diminish its accomplishments. A slightly shallow co-op mode should not dissuade you from taking a friend along for the ride in Westerado to see both what is there, and what isn’t.