All of us at STP have fond memories of playing the educational game The Oregon Trail when we were younger. The game managed to be fun while still teaching us important lessons about how to wipe out indigenous fauna and barter with Native Americans. We thought Westward might offer a similarly enjoyable pioneering experience, but we found that it’s a little too good at simulating the boring and arduous tasks that occupied the early settlers. This game’s plodding pace and cumbersome controls aren’t a good match for the platform, in our opinion.
Westward is a pioneer-themed real-time strategy game, meaning that you spend your time gathering resources, constructing buildings, and dealing with periodic emergencies. Each level’s objectives usually boil down to equipping your town with certain improvements, or growing your population to a specified size. You will need to build ranches, farms and windmills, in addition to hiring gunslingers and sheriffs to keep bandits at bay and sober up your town’s inevitable drunkards. Visitors will periodically come to your town with humorous propositions or requests, offering money or some other type of assistance in return. The majority of these opportunities involve selecting the proper unit and moving it to the specified location, or gathering enough resources to build or fix a certain building.
You run your town from a God’s-eye view, moving around the map and directing your townspeople to pick up this, build that, and do the other. The controls for this break down a bit on the iPhone’s smallish screen. It’s hard to see more than a few buildings at a time; though this is not too much of a problem while your towns are small, it quickly becomes annoying as your settlement begins to sprawl. Also, you have to manually pick up and move your people to get them to do anything. You do get notification buttons that you can click on to move the screen to points of interest, but this only takes care of half of the problem. You still need to spend much of your time dragging around the map and guiding your settlers. The game’s tendency to get laggy on bigger levels also can make this even slower and more unpleasant.
Furthermore, there is a certain rote inevitability to the gameplay. It feels like you are simply reacting to the events around you, so the “strategy” part of the game is very proscribed: If you are short on food, build a farm! If you are short on water, build a well! While this linearity may be attractive to some players, we would have liked more of an opportunity to build our town as we liked, to avoid trouble down the road. There isn’t much of a chance to find multiple ways around a problem or switch tactics. Westward’s long levels and slow pace also make it a poor fit for players who prefer to game in short bursts. An entire trip to the bathroom might be spent collecting wood, or clicking around until you find a wandering townsperson.
Westward does succeed in generating a solid frontier atmosphere during play. The graphics, which are painted in appropriately dusty browns and tans, have a good amount of detail to them. The interface is built out of planks–a bit of a conceit for Western-themed games like this one, but it works well enough. And the audio is definitely above average; we didn’t immediately hate the music, as is the case with so many other iPhone games these days.
At its core, Westward is a pretty decent, if simple, real-time strategy game, but it’s not much fun on the iPhone–it takes too long to play, and it’s more of a chore than it ought to be. Even the game’s nice graphics and sound are included at the cost of regular slowdowns in frame rate. Only players who have a high tolerance for micromanagement or a real love of the genre will be able to look past Westward’s many annoyances to appreciate its finer qualities. For everyone else, we’d recommend heading for greener pastures.