I had no idea what to make of West of Loathing when it sauntered onto the scene in August 2017. I was only passingly familiar with its spiritual successor, Kingdom of Loathing, and the advance press never managed to pique my interest. Luckily, the overwhelming number of positive reviews persuaded me to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. West of Loathing turned out to be exactly the kind of thing I enjoy. I urge you to read our review for more details, but one thing I would like to drive home is that the game hides an impressive amount of craft under its unimpressive exterior. The simplistic monochrome environments are packed with neat details that make each environment unique. The stick-figure characters are charming in motion and surprisingly varied. The writing is breezy and frequently hilarious, but it’s also peppered with effective moments of pathos. Despite its apparent simplicity, West of Loathing is actually quite clever, and Ryan Ike’s rollicking soundtrack is the glue holding these contradictions together.
Following the inexplicable 4-second opening track, appropriately titled “What in Tarnation,” the album immediately pulls its six-guns with the main theme. It opens in true Spaghetti Western fashion with a lone whistler accompanied by guitar, timpani, and a single snare drum. The soundscape then expands very gradually; first by adding more layers of guitar and drums, then adding background chants, strings, castanets, and trumpets. Then it brings all of these elements together before closing out with a single snare drum and guitar. It’s an evocative piece that immediately pulls the listener into its setting. It also establishes Ryan Ike’s stylistic blueprint for the rest of the album. You’re going to hear a lot more of that guitar.
Admittedly, you’re going to hear a lot of xylophone, too. It features prominently in exploratory tracks “A Cave is a Sideways Hole” and “The Quick and the Undead (Spooky).” It also features on the game’s one battle theme, “Draw!” and boy howdy is this track a gem. It starts off relatively unassuming, but it ratchets up the drama to epic levels by the end. It’s intense, it’s well-paced, and it’s fun. I also want to draw attention to how this plays out in-game. This gradual increase in tension makes the track work equally well for short encounters with weaker enemies and long encounters with more powerful enemies. It’s a clever and practical bit of video game composition.
As a whole, the compositions in West of Loathing feels strongly reminiscent of Michael Land’s (excellent) work on the Monkey Island series, despite the fact that both games take place in very different settings. It deftly balances the comedic and adventurous aspects of the game’s world, and it lays down a pervading signature style which conjures a strong sense of place. However, I imagine this unified style might be a drawback for some listeners. The soundtrack to West of Loathing is the musical equivalent of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate cookie crust. It’s great if you like chocolate, but it might be disappointing if you expect more of a buffet from your soundtracks. For me, there is just enough variety here to keep the tracks from running together, and at 43 minutes, the album does not overstay its welcome.
It helps that the album’s stylistic outliers are uniformly fantastic. “The Sticks-for-Hands Rag” is a surprisingly authentic serving of ragtime, complete with a thin layer of honky-tonk distortion. The new-age ambient sound of “Newfangled Contraptions” is so far from the album’s established style that it almost sounds like it snuck in from another game. “Misbehave (In This Cave)” is an absolutely delightful bit of…bluegrass disco? Blisco? I don’t know, but it’s one of the best tracks on the album.
Overall, the soundtrack to West of Loathing is a strong dose of two-fisted, straight-shootin’, Wild West fun with tongue planted firmly in cheek. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, then I have not seen it done better.