Many moons ago, when I was a young lad with no money, I strove to find the best ways to keep myself entertained in lieu of actually studying and making the most out of my pending university degree. With a low end laptop and the ability to stare at a screen for hours, I naturally gravitated towards free games, because free is a thing I could afford. And nothing was more free than a browser based RPG known as the Kingdom of Loathing. For years I merrily dumped hours of my day into the game, running through Ascensions time after time until I had a ridiculous number of skills, a full set of plexiglass armor and more meat than I logically knew what to do with. But this old Seal Clubber had to hang up his club quite a while ago (my job doesn’t like me just hanging out with my Clan all day), and I’ve completely lost touch with the game. So when Steam suddenly told me that West of Loathing was a brand new title from Asymmetric, and I saw the familiar stick figure artwork, I knew I had to review it. And I’m really, really glad I did.
West of Loathing is an adventure RPG that takes place in the psuedo Old West, only not really at all. This wild, unclaimed landscape takes place, literally, west of the famous Kingdom of Loathing, and, if you are at all aware of the original game, you’ll be totally enamored and on board out the gate. For new comers, there’s a bit to understand and temper your expectations for. Firstly, the art style has been this way since the games were first conceived. Everything is stick-figure based, and even the more elaborate pieces (such as larger bosses and complex items) are purposely drawn in a light, childish manner. It’s a great exercise in minimalism that lets you focus on the text and dialogue that is the core appeal of the game. If you honestly cannot get over how the game looks based on the initial screenshots, then a.) I feel really bad for you and b.) you’re not magically going to get a huge update patch with “colors!” as the primary change.
West of Loathing is a pretty standard setup as far as things go, but that’s not a bad thing. You, a young…person, decide to venture off and seek your fortune, glory and legacy somewhere out in the untamed wilds. You have only the blessing of your parents and your grandmother’s brass knuckles to guide you, and what happens from there is a series of truly insane and hilarious quests and sidequests. The writing for West of Loathing is full of humor that comes from all angles and walks of life. Puns, deadpan, misdirection and referential ideas come fast and furious with just no stopping whatsoever. The game itself feels like it judges you based on your actions, and that only adds to the lighthearted and enamoring read of the experience. To give you an example, you will, eventually, find an area known as The Shaggy Dog Cave. If you are at all familiar with what a shaggy dog story is, you may (or may not) anticipate what you’ll find there. The referential humor spans decades and continents, so there is almost literally something for everyone, and not every joke is guaranteed to land smack dab on your radar. Even still, this game is sprawling with dialogue that will rival even the most verbose visual novel, with the added benefit that I can break it up by fighting angry cows.
West of Loathing is incredibly ambitious in balancing the adventure and RPG aspects of the game. Though the key story elements are standard throughout, you can choose how to enter the fray as one of three classes, each highlighting a primary stat for your character. Either be muscle bound (Cow Puncher), mystically driven (Beanslinger) or dexterous and underhanded (Snake Oiler). From there, you’ll develop skills and abilities (both active and passive) through exploration and leveling up. I highly recommend turning off the auto XP feature if you’re at all familiar with KoL, as you will want to fine tune your character in the style of play that suits you best. You’ll run into scenarios that require certain traits to be a minimum level in order to activate choices: if you’re not strong enough, you may not be able to intimidate the skeleton to give you his baked beans without a fight. Without a certain amount of mystical understanding, how on earth can you fix the piano player (not a typo)? Even if you’re just planning to smash your way through each and every varmint in your path, you gotta be strong enough to dole out the pain to make ends meet.
And you don’t have to go at it alone, young adventurer! I mean, you totally can, but why would you when you can choose to have a second AI partner along to make things easier? Whomever you bring along serves a valuable purpose as either a healer, a ranged attacker or at least a meat shield that can draw some fire while you get ready to beat heads in. Not to mention that having a partner adds extra chances to interact with someone and have even more humor peppered across the game. I feel like this is late to mention (and silly to put in a written game review), but, if you’re not a fan of reading, this game can easily lose its appeal, especially for people curious but not familiar with the game. West of Loathing want to tell you a lot of stuff, and it’s all worth reading, but my God there is a lot. Where was I? Oh, right, the partner. Partners will also randomly level up as you progress, giving them even more purpose in battle, but you cannot control when they level up or in which direction, so cross your fingers and pray for the best.
Partners are also super, super helpful for keeping you on track with what you’re supposed to be doing. There is a main quest to follow, of course, but that main quest is constantly peppered with requests, pleas and outright demands from side quests to be given attention. The side quests range from simple investigations or fetches to much more complicated explorations that can take up a lot of time. Theoretically, you’re enjoying yourself a ton on this venture through the West and, as such, you won’t mind going on a huge detour to help a ghost remember his favorite granddaughter or see how many hell cows you can slay. But if you’re a simpler person who, say, wants to beat the game, then a partner is great at reminding you that this isn’t a fetch quest, finding a missing library book is imperative to moving along the main story.
What’s really interesting, at least from a veteran player’s perspective, is how they chose to implement some of the classic elements of the Kingdom of Loathing into West of Loathing. Food and booze were used, traditionally, to give you more turns so that you could do more actions in the game and, when you were too full or drunk to consume more, that was it: you had to wait until the clock rolled over at midnight before you could play again and do more. Asymmetric, realizing that they would be burned at the stake for doing that with a game you paid for, decided to take a more logistical approach. Food and drink (as well as spleen-based items) are still limited by your body’s consumption, but they give you effects that last until the “day” is over in the game. These effects can affect your combat, your traits and your general demeanor, and you can stack more and more as you get stronger. Then, when you’re full and drunk enough, you can go out and really tear things up! And by that I mean get into a fight with goblins, skeletons and any other manner of baddies. Let’s take a look at the combat, shall we?
Taking on the appearance of a turn based RPG (because that’s what it is), I was a little confused by how things were handled. For one, you can usually use items an unlimited number of times per round, which was both helpful (I want to heal before I hit) and kind of too convenient (I threw ten sticks of dynamite and killed a big goblin before he could do a thing). Any and all damage that you and your partner sustain in the course of a skirmish is automatically healed before the next fight, so you don’t need to worry about doing multiple battles in a row. You can, therefore, grind in a few places to build up easy XP and quickly push your character to pretty unbalanced unfairness in the eyes of your puny opponents. I have no sympathy for them, and this is a classic RPG trick that I hope anyone would exploit if they have the time and the patience.
One final note for West of Loathing is that the interface is absolutely non negotiable. You cannot, and should not, use a controller to play. Which is great, seriously. The entirety of the interface is made up of a point and click map, long 2D areas and framed, simple combat. This is as good as it gets, folks, and you can drink that up all day long. Although I don’t care to comment on the length of the game (since the main story mode is relatively short if you seriously trim out all the fun fat), I’d like to posit some simple math. The artwork is all stick figures done in black and white. The music, although perfectly fitting for the Old West, is all guitar, piano and rhythm: no long, lyrical breakdowns cropping up anywhere. So, in spite of a seemingly barebones approach to the game, the whole thing takes up a massive three gigs on your computer, and that’s just all quests, enemies and items. You can collect things for days in the game and you might not see them all. The quest list is still being built as we speak by the dedicated players online and at the West of Loathing subreddit, and I can’t believe how much longer it continues to get. It also made me happy, because I saw some mention of El Vibrato quests, and I remember when, by sheer chance, his name became emblazoned on an entire sidequest and it was ALMOST Boozerbear instead.
All in all, West of Loathing is some of the most fun and enjoyable reading I’ve done in a game in quite a while. I loved grinding up my character and exploring different combinations of hats and pants, the humor is spot on and clever and there is just so much to do. I finished my first run and immediately started in on a second, and I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers but my GOD there’s just so much hidden throughout, even hiding in plain sight. I understand and agree that West of Loathing may not be for everyone. The combat is pretty simple in the scheme of things, and the sheer size and volume of the game, combined with how silly the art is, could be a turn off for serious RPG fans. But who the hell looks at West of Loathing and says “This better be dramatic and depressing!”? This is a treasure that just got unearthed, and we are all becoming a rich boom town on this day. If you can find time in your busy life for a game to entertain you on every irreverent level, West of Loathing will ride off into the sunset with your weekend.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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