Editor’s note – 2/15/19: This review has been updated following the release of Reckonin’ at Gun Manor, the game’s DLC, released on 2/8/19. The DLC code was provided to us for free by the developer for review purposes.
When I first saw a screenshot of West of Loathing, I thought, “It looks like a five-year-old drew it.” Then, once I got a bit deeper into the game, I thought, “Wow! This five-year-old is one heck of an artist!”
West of Loathing is a western-inspired game based on the long-standing browser MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing. Like many of the best RPGs, it simply drops you into the world to find your own adventure. Your primary goal is to help the Manifest Destiny Railroad make its way to the City of Frisco on the coast, but during that journey you may find yourself knee-deep in a massive conspiracy of necromancers, cultists, and murderous cows. If you’re looking for a central, all-encompassing story, this isn’t the game to play. It’s more of a collection of engaging side quests that combine to create a cohesive role-playing experience.
The stage is set perfectly in the prologue section where you learn all of the systems and mechanics. Stuck in a tumbleweed of a town, you must solve the problems of the townsfolk, eventually picking your “pardner” from a variety of companions. These genuinely interesting characters hook you immediately with believable motivations, ranging from tragic (a woman whose entire family was slaughtered by cows) to ridiculous (a non-violent goblin who just wants to see the world).
You also get to choose your horse, selecting from a black horse (nervous), a crazy horse (crazy), a white horse (a ghost), or a regular, boring old horse. This choice will impact the random encounters you find as you travel across the world map. You find map markers in one of three ways. A character may send you to a location on a quest, you may spot a site while you’re wandering around, or you can scout them from the top of a lookout tower. There are dozens upon dozens of unique locations and finding new ones was always a delight, if only because I couldn’t wait to see what wonderful ridiculousness awaited me.
West of Loathing’s visual style looks stark and simplistic at first glance, primarily consisting of stick figures on a black and white background. But after just a few minutes, I really started to appreciate the effort put into its unique visual design. In caves, lanterns cast realistic shadows against objects. There is a sense of depth in the back and foregrounds. Character designs are basically stick figures, but they are all well animated with a defined look and style. Anyone who has discovered a certain character trait will know precisely what I mean! They might look like stick figures, but there’s a lot more going on here than scribbles on the back of an elementary school binder.
The combat system is one of the few weaknesses in the game. It’s basic, turn-based combat in the classic Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest style. Commands are issued to party members, using up action points for complex actions like casting spells, then it’s the enemies’ turn to attack. Repeat. Grinding is rarely required, as the game isn’t particularly challenging unless you are playing on the hard setting hidden in the prologue. By the end, you will find yourself barrelling through just about every random encounter on the map in one turn or less. In short, the turn-based system works perfectly fine, like it does in countless other RPGs. It’s also possible to avoid combat entirely if you have the right perks and pardners. If you want to handle the “final boss” by talking it out or through puzzle solving, you have those options!
While there is no voice acting in West of Loathing, the music is perfectly selected. It never gets annoying and creates an authentic Wild West atmosphere. It’s one of those games where the music seemed to keep playing in my head, even after I turned in for the evening. The accurate sound effects of guns, horse hooves, and moos are also much appreciated! All of this combines to make the experience sound like a genuine, rip-roaring Western adventure. It might not look like a John Wayne film, but it certainly sounds like one!
Without question, West of Loathing is the smartest, funniest, silliest game I’ve played in many years. Everything, including item descriptions and location names, is written with so much wit and humor that I frequently burst out laughing. From the sublime absurdity of the world using actual “meat” as currency to demonic cows from another dimension appearing as the main antagonists, I marathoned the game for the simple enjoyment of seeing what hilarious situation or written description/scene was around the next corner.
This sense of humor is complemented by the surprisingly deep level of roleplaying. Despite your character being pretty much a blank slate, the choices presented to you throughout genuinely immerse you in the world of Loathing. Decisions made in the first few minutes will impact the final moments in hilarious and ending-altering ways. Picking your character class is only the beginning, as you also have a ton of choice when it comes to your stats and traits. You can set the option to upgrade your skills and abilities automatically upon leveling up, but I immediately turned this off, wanting to personally customize my character as much as possible. Do you want to learn necromancy skills? Find the hidden Nex-Mex books and you’re all set. How about becoming part-murderous demon cow? Find the right option and the unlimited bovine powers of darkness could be yours. There are so many different paths to explore that you’ll restart multiple times to see what you missed on your last playthrough.
And all of this isn’t even including the DLC! Having run an active MMORPG for over 15 years, the team at Asymmetric knows a little something about creating compelling additional content. Reckonin’ at Gun Manor has you busting ghosts with brand-new items, enemies, locations, characters, and the same sense of humor that makes the base game so great. While the price may look a little steep for DLC, the content is more than worth it.
West of Loathing is a rare treat of a video game — one that compels you to restart it immediately after you finish. With some of the best comedic writing ever found in an RPG and a truly unique and timeless visual style, you’re going to have a hard time forgetting this one, pardner!