Dead Man's Rest is a Western visual novel in every sense of the term, from its practical writing to a hearty steeping of cowboy flavor.
Title: Dead Man's Rest
Release Date: March 14, 2022
Suggested Audience Age: R-17 for language, violence, and sexual themes
Time to Play: 4-5 hours to read one story route, 10-12 to read all five (depending on your reading speed)
Availability: Steam & itch.io – Demo available on itch.io
Recommended for fans of: Visual Novels, Handsome Men, and a swig of rough coffee under the desert sun
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title by Argent Games.
Westerns aren't usually a common focus in visual novels. They'll cover fantasy, science fiction, the ol' slice of life… but something so close to Americana just isn't in their usual repertoire.
Luckily, Dead Man's Rest has us covered, and for that, it caught my eye off the bat.
It's a whirlwind, a string of high-tension plot punctuated with gunfire and soft starlight alike. All these brought together with a presentation that leans into the flourishes you'd expect of its setting and genre.
It's a tale of the bonds between men, from those intimate to professional to outright venomous. Of people opening up to each other, and driving each other to fits, and trying to figure where they land in a turbulent time.
What better way to take us from Pride Month into Independence Day than men loving men in 1870s Arizona?
The Ole Chin-Wag
The writing in Dead Man's Rest immediately sticks out with the inclusion of certain period-appropriate lingo. Throughout the text, characters will slip in Old West slang to spice up dialogue and narration alike; these can be as innocuous as calling someone a greenhorn, or as antiquated as “acknowledging the corn“. And each phrase links straight to an in-game glossary, filling you in if you're less familiar with old cowboy jargon.
It's something you see a lot with localized visual novels, many of which contain concepts without a real English-language counterpart. But here it's used for a different take, leaning fully into the time period as its setting and flavor. Still, the writing makes it so you can pick up most meanings by context, and there's an in-game option to remove those glossary links entirely if you want to smooth them over for a more natural read.
This period talk includes, notably, a hearty dose of deliberate mis-speakings and broken grammar throughout. It does a nice job of digging into the rough-around-the-edges talk that these gunslingers would talk; in general, I'm a big fan of how the writer equally steeps protagonist's inner monologues in the exact same flavor. I did catch some less deliberate errors, too; none enough to be distracting, though they do pop up from time to time.
The other quirk that struck me was the exclusion of certain period-appropriate lingo. Dead Man's Rest spends some time with the Native American tribes of the area, which is a tricky line to walk given attitudes typical of the time. The game chooses to acknowledge this in its glossary, leaving a footnote about what the (less kindly) period-appropriate terms would be, but chooses to use “Native American” in the main text.
Without opening the can of worms around whether openly using period-appropriate slurs is appropriate in historical fiction, I appreciate that the writer left that note, neatly rationalizing their choice without interrupting the plot for a defensive aside. Half of historical fiction is fiction, after all; glossing over sticking points with modern sensibility can be a valid part of fictionalizing it.
The text itself plays this fairly carefully overall; our protagonist Lee is the “pragmatic loner” sort, and so luckily is less bought in to the racial divide than most characters. The story doesn't leave him out of it, by any means, and we still get a few flowery Aesops and a heated moment out of the subject. But, that being only one point of a dozen Dead Man's Rest tries to make, there's a nice balance between making a meal of that trouble and softening the blows a bit.
And that speaks for all of the themes in Dead Man's Rest. In just my first playthrough, I ran up against a cur who twisted words to sketch a vile caricature of homosexuality. Then, not two scenes later, I watched two men become vulnerable to each other in building that image back up. This story may be optimistic on the whole, but on the level, it feels like it takes the deserved amount of work to get there.
But most of all, what gets me about Dead Man's Rest is that it's just a good read in these summer nights. There was a point or two where a scheme got too knotted-up to follow, sure. But isn't that just the way of some men, anyway? Moreover, the characters could consistently bring things home, creating both a compelling little slice of this historic American southwest and pockets of a more earnest atmosphere than we often see in the setting.
It's one thing to have a rough-around-the-edges man square off against a bounty. It's another to show him stumbling over his words, unpracticed in expressing his convictions. These moments in equal measure are what make this story sing.
I've only played through a couple of this game's routes, and not even found all the endings in those. But with a consistent writing hand across the whole story, and art and music that speak for themselves? No matter how you get through Dead Man's Rest, you're bound to see something really worth your while.