When I was in college there was this game called Kingdom of Loathing that many of my friends and acquaintances played. It was a simple game filled with stick figures and a love for puns and absurdist humor. Kingdom of Loathing still exists but I’ve long since moved on. The game’s biggest strength was it’s writing and sense of the absurd – and the fact that you could try and beat it while under ridiculous restrictions, like teleporting at random all the time. Problem was, once you’d experienced all the humor a few times the charm rubbed off and only the silly challenge plays were left. It wasn’t my cup of tea.
When I heard that the same writing and development team was putting together a single player game full of their stock in trade humor called West of Loathing I got a little excited. And when it finally came out I ignored my usual policy of waiting for a sale and bought it at full price, just so I could see if it was everything I’d hoped for.
The game’s graphics menu has a colorblind option. The art consists entirely of black and white stickfigures. Toggling back and forth between colorblind and normal does nothing. And with that I knew we were off to a good start. The “Best Font” option sets all text in the game to the Ariel font and comes with a request that you please, please don’t use it. Yes, Loathing is here in full force.
West of Loathing does not have a story per se. The only goal is to go from the east side of the map to the west – just like people in the Old West, you’re looking to Go West. There will be goblins and aliens and practitioners of Southerwestern Bean Magic Cooking – the Nex-Mex. But for the most part, except for a single sequence at the very end of the game, you’re left to wander wherever you want to go and see what you want to see and however much or little of it you see you’ll still be able to finish the game. There’s even a “ending cutscene” that sums up your adventures and then leaves you to go wander some more if you want.
And in spite of being an RPG the game has very basic combat. Your character and one of three “pardner” NPCs square off against hostiles and flail at each other a bit, balancing equipment and stats in pretty straightforward ways. It’s straightfowardness is actually kind of dull. But it is fair and is typically pretty easy so at least you won’t get caught up in a dull combat encounter and not be able to get past it.
Where the game really shines is in the problem solving. West of Loathing is stuffed full of weird puzzles and strange characters you can choose to outwit, rather than outfight. Whether you’re wandering through a graveyard, decoding messages on tombstones, trying to work out a grim Nex-Mex formula from the snatches of dialog overheard from cultists while hiding in a wardrobe or just swindling a stupid goblin out of his own pants with your Hornswogglin’ skill, every situation West of Loathing has a creative bent to it that will let you do things more graphically impressive but less ambitious games never attempt. What other game will let you fight bandits, trick them, or release a giant spider to eat them?
The other great point of West of Loathing is the writing. While there’s no story in the game there are stories. The first thing you learn about the world is that The Cows Came Home. A few years back all those cows humanity ate opened portals from hell and wreaked a horrible revenge upon the ranches of the west. It was horrific and hilarious at the same time, I’m sure. You find hints as to what happened scattered all throughout the world as you travel and each one is a delight to poke through. You can also choose to do weird stuff like dig through every spitoon you find for treasure. It’s disgusting and the game makes sure to shame you for it every time in lengthy and increasingly creative ways until, finally, at the end, you break its will and and it gives up on you. But my favorite part of the game is Ghostwood, where you have to help the town of Breadwood secure a logging permit. It must be experienced to be believed.
West of Loathing is crafted with care. From the Shaggy Dog Cave, which is exactly what you think, to the El Vibratto, which is not, Asymmetric Software has paid careful attention to making the weirdest, funniest, most tongue in cheek Western post apocalyptic stick figure game you have ever played. If you’re looking for a light hearted laugh while you romp through a world that never existed – but maybe should have – West of Loathing is for you.