Your main objective in this review is to inform readers of the clever, irreverent Loathing game series and discuss its latest installment, Shadows Over Loathing. They’re a little skeptical because they only heard about Kingdom of Loathing in passing as “that funny stick-figure game.” What’s your approach?
- [I will physically make the readers sit down and play this game now. (10 Muscle)]
- [Pen a review that will make all the morning editions and may even be mentioned on the wireless! (7 Moxie)]
- [Magically transmit the game directly into their minds. (10 Mysticality, 5G Mind Control Ring)]
- [Buy a copy for everyone who’s still reading this. (More Meat than you currently have)]
- [Oh yeah, I played West of Loathing. It was pretty entertaining and there were a lot of spittoons. It was alright, I guess. (Leave)]
As you probably gathered from the intro above, Shadows Over Loathing is an adventure RPG by Asymmetric. It’s based on their flagship free-to-play online adventure RPG Kingdom of Loathing, which is still going after over a decade. (If that doesn’t convince you to try their games, I don’t know what will.) The main stats in the game are Muscle, Moxie, and Mysticality, and the currency is Meat. Fortunately, in my time with Shadows Over Loathing, I played the Moxie-based Jazz Agent class, so let’s dive in, and hopefully, I can deliver on my Moxie-based choice.
As someone familiar with the series, seeing those stats, that currency, and the comfortingly simple yet refined stick-figure art was like greeting an old friend. Albeit, the way Asymmetric has slowly been refining their storytelling and mechanics toward cohesive narrative experiences rather than MMO-style quests, it’s a friend with some exciting news and life developments. West of Loathing was their first attempt at this type of experience, and though there were some growing pains, it was an extremely successful step. They refined their browser-limited adventuring and combat, implemented a Pardner system for questing with other characters, and introduced a narrative framework around a young adventurer in a troubled world heading West to find their fortune and loosely tied the sidequests into that framework.
Shadows Over Loathing feels like a logical follow-up step in many ways. Chronologically, it’s set roughly 30 years after West of Loathing, which not only simplifies tie-ins to the previous game, but allows for an extremely fun 1920s aesthetic. Expect a lot of references to Agatha Christie and Lovecraftian horrors, as well as speakeasies…right alongside a ton of anachronisms. Somehow this still blends into a cohesive backdrop as your character works to rescue their uncle, who mysteriously disappeared in his mission to find and un-curse cursed artifacts. Shadows Over Loathing organizes this quest into chapters—one per artifact—punctuated by dream sequences. You can still wander through entertaining locales searching for sidequests, but this extra level of organization gives the game slightly more momentum and narrative weight than previous games. I still definitely became a mobster and regularly took assignments from a mob contact with a surprising penchant for verbosity, but I felt motivated to move the story forward to a strong degree.
Much of the draw in Kingdom of Loathing was the off-the-wall sidequests, locations, and dialogue, and I can safely say that remains largely intact. The majority of Shadows Over Loathing is going through situations and getting items or effects to improve either those base Muscle, Moxie, and Mysticality stats or grant armor from status effects (environmental and battle) like Sleaze and Spooky damage. Humor, references, and jokes are 100% the fulcrum of this series, so it’s critical to maintain consistent quality while providing a foundation via gameplay and worldbuilding to have those elements land. Once again, the Loathing team knows what they’re about, setting up these scenarios and delivering punchlines to suit most tastes, from high-brow references to Chekhov to an assortment of silly walks you can change by equipping different shoes.
There’s a Wander feature that allows you to wander the map in each area and discover these things, and doing so felt rewarding for its own sake, but also because the rewards and results tied into your main objectives just frequently enough. Often, that was in the form of greater knowledge of the breaks in reality allowing monsters to roam the land and other disturbing effects like the artifact curses and time travel. On top of this, the crafting systems in this installment cut down on unnecessary items and make the sidequests feel less overwhelming.
One common complaint about the series is that the battles and combat are quite simple, and that remains true in Shadows Over Loathing. If you want complex special attack meters and intricate inputs to execute combos, that simply does not exist here. You have several special skills and an extreme variety of food and potions to affect your party’s stats, but it is all straightforward and turn-based. One way this game addresses that complaint is by setting expectations so you know the focus is instead on the world, exploration, dialogue, and puzzles. Most of the combat improvements Asymmetric made serve to streamline it, in fact. I particularly enjoyed that no matter what class you choose, they find a use for all of the major stats instead of the fighting class focusing on Muscle, the rogue class focusing on Moxie, and the magic class strictly focusing on Mysticality. This means it’s easier to keep your stats balanced and function in and outside of battle, which makes combat smoother and reduces the need to spend time improving stats you don’t use just to unlock a desired puzzle solution or dialogue option.
Upon glancing at Shadows Over Loathing, another concern arising may be the graphics. Some RPG fans may not have much tolerance for the stick figure simplicity, but it’s clear the visual team has really refined their art with this title. The art looks clean and polished, and one benefit to the simplicity is that the game runs incredibly smoothly at all times while remaining true to its browser-based roots…because you had to find a way to get around those connection speeds, am I right? I was continually impressed with how expressive the art depicted both locations and characters. The animations are highly effective, and I love the flashlight and cosmic/mysterious effects in the dream and time-travel segments.
The sound design and music are equally dynamic and complement the visuals to create a deeply engaging atmosphere. The music isn’t quite as catchy as West of Loathing, which had disco banjo, for crying out loud, but it is definitely eerie and appropriately dramatic and still has some standout tracks. I found myself humming the birdsong version of the battle music when not playing. It’s also incredible how some Jazz Agent attacks add instruments to the score for ongoing battle effects. There’s something uniquely satisfying about afflicting an enemy with an over-the-top sax line in the battle music or healing yourself by adding a flute line. Not to mention how standard attack and battle noises are depicted with various percussive instruments timed perfectly with the music.
As a whole, Shadows Over Loathing provides a highly entertaining and intriguing experience. If you’re looking for a game that brings positive aspects of old-school, text-heavy games forward, this is a good bet. It has all the charm of those types of games while being far more accessible. There are even non-combat and arachnophobia options for accessibility, with some bonus options related to the latter that seem to serve as a reward for investigating the accessibility options. It may go some way toward filling the void left by earlier graphic adventures while eliminating some of the frustrating puzzle-solving and downtime. Or you could, you know, just close that void with your shadow pliers. Be sure to pick up this game and get those, by the way. Leaving a void around would probably be bad.