West of Loathing

This review may have some very minor spoilers for the game West of Loathing.

It was sometime in the late 1990’s that my friend Zarf introduced me to Kingdom of Loathing, a humorous stick-figure MMORPG that you could play in a web browser. Possessed of both a ridiculous amount of whimsy (classes in the game included Pastamancer, Sauceror, Disco Bandit, and Accordion Thieves, among others) it also had a surprisingly deep number of game systems. I spent a few months exploring the Kingdom, and had a few good laughs along the way, but eventually wandered away once I felt that I had gotten the joke.

West of Loathing is a sequel of sorts that takes the core ideas of Kingdom of Loathing, removes the time-based action limitations, and reframes the mechanics inside a purely single-player game. This seemingly small change in point of view makes the experience stronger, and richer.

Other changes make the game richer as well. Most obviously, rather than seeing static images of crudely-drawn stick figures, now you can see very smoothly animated stick figures doing silly walks around your screen in 4k resolutions. And I’m not being snarky: the combination of simple line art, beautifully animated does something wonderful and strange to your brain while you play.

The the West of Loathing world is similar to the American West from the mid-1800s, with some notable differences. The most obvious is the great tragic event of the timeline, known as When The Cows Came Home. Cows in West of Loathing may be one of your most dangerous enemies, and come in a variety of flavors including stone cows, fire cows, skeleton cows. I haven’t yet encountered a cow made entirely of bees, but frankly if and when I do it will not surprise me.

Upon starting, the game asks you to choose from three classes - Cow Puncher, a fighter-type who uses the Muscle stat to clobber folks, the Bean Slinger, a wizard-type who uses Mysticism to cast spells, or the Snake Oiler, a gunslinger based on Moxie, vaguely analogous to dexterity.

Character class is only part of the story. The first time through the game, you spend some time in a tutorial area where, in addition to gaining some experience and learning the combat system, you also meet a number of companions, NPCs who have unique skills that join your party and bring with them various advantages or penalties. For my first playthrough, cow puncher Sergio Leone brought the local hard-drinking doctor with him. This gave him a big advantage against skeletons, who Doc could dissect quickly, but also closed off the possibility of becoming an ominously powerful Nex-Mex necromancer who can summon undead minions. (I think. Maybe I could do it anyway, but I’m sort of scared of Doc. She’s tough.)

The game proper plays out a bit like the meeting of a LucasArts adventure game and an mid-era Final Fantasy game. You’ll mosey around sleepy western towns, pick up quests, and go looking for key items. In the course of your adventures, you’ll periodially find yourself in combat with enemies which are resolved through a turn-based fighting system where each combatant takes a turn to perform an action. You’ll start the game with only a few combat options (e.g., punching and shooting) but as the game progresses you’ll learn skills that expand your choices considerably. Completing quests and winning combats nets you XP and meat; XP is used to buy skill points, and meat is used to buy items.

In fact, “Expand your choies considerably” could be the unofficial motto of the game. The amount of content, for a game of this type, is staggering. The map of West of Loathing is large and empty at the start of the game, but by the mid-game you will have an embarassment of locations available to you, and an inventory full of an overwhelming number of weapons, clothing, items, food, potions, strange alien devices, and of course, booze.

The true reason to play, however, is not the game mechanics, but the writing. This is tricky to talk about because, obviously, I don’t want to ruin the fun of discovering the game for yourselves. The writing is consistently funny, consistently fast-moving, and has the same quirky sense of humor that suffused the earlier game. There might be someone, somewhere, who won’t be amused by this game, but I hope I never meet that person.

West of Loathing

As for the rest, I will leave you to discover it for yourself. West of Loathing was definitely worth my time, and I believe it is worth yours as well.

West of Loathing is available on Steam for Mac, Windows, and Linux, for $10.99. If they don’t eventually release an iPad version, I will eat my proverbial 10-gallon hat.