Minor game spoilers follow:
West of Loathing is the follow-up to a free-to-play turn based RPG called Kingdom of Loathing. Though maybe not on everyone’s gaming radar, Kingdom of Loathing had and has a very loyal cult following, largely due to its incredible sense of humor and, surprisingly, its depth of gameplay. Though it uses a very minimal, stick-figure based art style, it was easy to pass days and hours as an adventurer exploring locations like the Orc Chasm or the Copse of the Deep Fat Friars. I played Kingdom of Loathing extensively ever since its 2003 release and have many fond memories of my time there with friends. So when Asymmetric Games’ Zack “Jick” Johnson, the amiable and admirably passionate developer of the original announced a fully fleshed out PC game, I was more than a little excited. As it turns out, I had good reason to be. West of Loathing is every bit as funny, endearing and deep as its predecessor, even refining any rough corners of the first, and the 30 hours I spent in-game produced some of the best laughs and most fun moments I’ve had in games recently.
Presented in self-described “glorious black and white,” and keeping its stick figure aesthetic, West of Loathing has an “Old West” theme while remaining in the same universe as the Kingdom of Loathing. This time though, gameplay has changed some. Characters are still separated into classes, though there are less of them. Players can choose to be a Beanslinger who primarily uses magic, a CowPuncher, whose focus is primarily brute strength, or a Snake Oiler, who uses ranged attacks to get along. Combat is still turn-based, as it was in Kingdom of Loathing, but there’s no longer a grind to acquire adventures used to explore the kingdom. Elements like booze and food still aid you in your journeys, but players no longer have to farm for them just to be able to go from place to place freely. You can also more easily choose to engage in or avoid combat, with special “perks” that you acquire like Goblintongue or Outfoxin’ allowing you to talk your way out of a situation where you might otherwise have had to fight. Some are useful, and others, like Stupid Walking, which turns your character into a one-person “Ministry of Silly Walks,” are just meant for fun.
The game starts you off in the lazy little town of Boring Springs. Here, you’ll get acquainted with your chosen class and the various functions of the game, including gear, questing and levelling up. Whether or not you’re a veteran of Kingdom of Loathing you’ll find the game easy to pick up. If you don’t relish managing stats you can even choose to have the game do that for you. Also new with West of Loathing is a “pardner” system, which allows you to choose and adventure with one additional character whose abilities you will also control. You’ll first encounter this in Boring Springs, where there are several townsfolk who, if treated correctly, will offer to accompany you on your journeys. Some offer DPS, some healing abilities, and still others elemental damage against your foes, and all have their own unique personality and backstory.
There’s a lot to see and do in West of Loathing. As you travel you’ll encounter a vast array of locations, often with their own stories and side quests. You can choose to go where the wind takes you or follow the main quest, which has you leaving your family home to seek adventure in the Wild West, which has an unfortunate infestation of demonic cows. Just as he’d done before, developer Jick made West of Loathing a labor of love, and packed every square inch with intrigue and humor. If you choose to explore, you’ll find all sorts of strange things, from alternate dimensions and mini-games to unique items and puzzles.
One of my favorite things about the gameplay is the variety. While combat itself follows the same rules- with each class having a set list of skills they can employ on a variety of enemies, there are plenty of puzzles you’ll have to face as you travel. Some involve classic logic puzzles, metaphors or combining the proper items, and some are complex math problems or even legitimate ciphers. This is part of the game’s richness but particularly difficult puzzles can also create a sticking point where players get bogged down. In addition, there are some puzzles that, if not done correctly, cannot be repeated. This can be frustrating, but it also encourages players to take on another playthrough.
What really hooks me, though, is the humor. Many games have a sense of humor, but few are so entrenched in the comedy genre as West of Loathing. Its general atmosphere is one of absurdity, but you’ll find plenty of other gags, from a running misspelling of sarsaparilla, double entendre and puns to plenty of ridiculous encounters with everything from hellcalves to drunk horses. Sometimes, the joke is so intertwined with the gameplay that the entire point of a quest is its punchline. This is where the series has always excelled and why it gained such a cult following.
While on the surface, West of Loathing may seem like something of a novelty, it’s in fact an amazing addition to an already rich universe, featuring a sharp wit and in-depth gameplay. West of Loathing is accessible to gamers of all experience levels, provides plenty of content to keep players engaged and even anxious for another go-round, and has the same unique humor that kept me coming back to Kingdom of Loathing for the past 14 years. At $11, it’s a steal, and will likely be a highlight in a year already full of great games. West of Loathing is available for PC, Mac and Linux and is available on Steam now.