Home Just Ain’t What it Used to Be
After being gone for a year, cowgirl Anne and her mechanically-inclined brother, Henry Turner finally return home. Unfortunately, they find that in their absence, everything has fallen by the wayside. Both the family-run farm and railroad station have fallen into disrepair, jobs have become scarce, and the train no longer even comes by anymore.
Worse, the siblings’ father disappeared about six months ago, and no one knows what happened to him. Henry and Anne then make it their mission to help get everything up and running again, and figure out what happened to their father.
The story of Westward IV: All Aboard is pretty interesting. It seems a little mundane at first, as we’re largely playing as some ordinary people and not some out-and-out full-fledged cowboys ready to gun down evildoers. It does eventually pick up as the characters’ personalities begin to surface and go beyond their previously routine behavior. And it serves to keep a context for the why of your actions.
Every goal you have to meet isn’t something that just sprouts up spontaneously like in a lot of these games; an in-story reason is always given. One early mission has you mine a certain amount of coal because a group of miners need to meet a quota. Another requires you to build a house to get a pair of loafers to agree to work for you. And so on. It’s a nice change of pace.
Looks Mighty Fine
Westward IV’s visuals have a very charming look to them. They may seem to be a bit primitive by today’s standards, being composed entirely of low-polygon 3D graphics, not at all unlike Warcraft III from way back in 2002, but just like that game, they’re very colorful and textured with ample talent.
The characters, who are capable of a great number of animations, resemble Lego people from a distance, while backgrounds, buildings and trains give off the feel of miniatures and models. Overall, the whole game looks like kind of like a toy, which only adds to the charm.
If there is one niggling detail to the visuals, though, it would be in the character portraits. In terms of style, they’re fine, but for generic characters, which composes of everyone who isn’t Henry and Anne, there are a severely limited number of them to use.
All women, for instance, have the appearance of youthful brunette lasses, including, of all people, the protagonists’ mother, who complains how she’s getting up in years. It’s not a glaring fault that detracts from the game in any way, but a few more drawings could certainly have helped make the world feel more genuine and made some characters more unique.
The music is even better. It contains a nice variety of familiar remixed western tunes. There are some simple pieces composed of banjo strings, and other more iconic ones that you know you’ve heard in your favorite western flick. They also give off a healthy number of moods, including tranquil, upbeat, moody, tense and even heroic. No individual song ever overstays its welcome, and should it end, rather than loop around, it gradually fades and gives way to another song that fits the current situation of whatever you’re immersed in.
Unfortunately, the voice acting could use a lot of work in a number of areas. In terms of actual acting, they either range between being phoned in to downright annoying. Anne’s in particular is especially bad since it sounds like it belongs to a woman about 30 years older than she’s supposed to be in the timeframe.
Thankfully, most of the acting is limited to small voice clips that you hear when you click a character or have them perform an action. Seems reasonable enough, but with such a small variety of clips available, it can get grating very quickly.
Working All the Livelong Day
Westward IV: All Aboard, like its predecessors, blends real time strategy with simulation. The goal of the game, as the title indicates, is to run your own railroad.
This is no easy task, as you’ll come to learn. You’ll need workers to build and maintain everything, food to keep them fed, luxuries to keep them happy, and jobs to keep them active. You’ll have to juggle around five resources, including water, gold and coal. And you need to keep everything safe, secure and ready for a fight because as can be expected, these lands are just crawling with rustlers. It’s a lot to take in.
Learning the Ropes
Thankfully, the first two missions of Westward IV act as a tutorial to help ease you into the adventure. They walk you through the menus, how to build things, how to take control of several units at once, how to purchase blueprints for buildings and technologies, and things of that nature. If you’re unfamiliar with the RTS genre, this section is a blessing and does a decent job at teaching you how to play.
Unfortunately, the tutorial might also be Westward IV’s greatest failing. It’s pretty long, lasting for easily an hour, and very slow-paced. Like in any good RTS, everything takes time to happen, so you’ll end up spending more time than you’d like waiting for the scant number of characters you control to finish their tasks so you can get on with it. And nothing you do is going to be all that interesting either.
Thankfully, once the tutorial finally ends, the gameplay quickly picks up the pace. You’ll arrive at your station and from there, it’s up to you to start getting your railroad up to code. You’ll be given a few goals often as a means to guide you, but it quickly becomes important that you need set up other facilities that aren’t explicitly indicated. If workers aren’t being kept fed, housed, or employed properly, they’ll strike, and eventually set off for greener pastures. So you always need to have sufficient houses, farms, wells and jobs to keep everyone in line.
Perhaps one of the coolest things about Westward IV is how personal it can feel. You’ll effectively be making your own towns and villages to keep your railroad in operation, setting the layout of every individual place. This helps the game feel a bit like a simulator.
And in case building and running a town feels old, Westward also encourages exploration. The maps are sprawling, and there are all sorts of secrets to find, like hidden caches of resources, and even side quests akin to an RPG. Needless to say, despite what the beginning might trick you into thinking, there’s no slowdown or shortage of things that need doing throughout the campaign.
Conclusion - Struck Gold!
Ultimately, despite the slow start, Westward IV is a fun and surprisingly deep game. There are a lot of things to manage in order to succeed, large maps to explore, and a neat to story to follow. Fans of sims, strategy games, or of the Westward series should definitely not miss this!
Review by David Galvin
Dave Galvin is a freelance writer and avid gamer. Somehow, he managed to find a way to combine the two passions.
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