Don’t let West of Loathing’s web comic visuals fool you: there’s depth in them thar hills.
The first time I heard about West of Loathing was at this year’s Game Developers Conference, when I covered a fascinating talk by Asymmetric’s Zack Johnson on humour and jokes in video games.
I have to confess my complete ignorance of the studio’s prior work, including Kingdom of Loathing, the long-running browser RPG from which this Western yarn was spun.
In early June I was then fortunate enough to be sent a review code for the game, something I was excited to receive having been so impressed by Johnson’s behind-the-scenes insight. Unfortunately, due to E3 commitments – and my innate inability to organise a bun fight in a bakery – it has taken me much longer to review West of Loathing than expected. So, an apologetic tip of my Stetson is due to Asymmetric.
Another contributory factor – and one of little comfort to the studio, I expect – is that West of Loathing really does lend itself to being played at a slow burn. There’s a surprisingly generous amount of content here, and it pays not to blitz through it.
The game is heavy on dialogue, sight gags, and witty asides to the player. To rush West of Loathing is to miss much of its nuance. It’s an experience to wallow in, and to absorb. An adventure that encourages the player to explore every corner, safe in the knowledge that their curiosity will be rewarded a sharp one-liner, a flavourful item description, or an entertaining encounter with an oddball NPC.
Set in the Wild West – and presented with the same stick-figure economy of its medieval predecessor – West of Loathing is best described as a comedy RPG. On the gameplay front it can often feel rather rudimentary, evoking the simple pleasures of the Pokémon series. The game is predominantly structured around collecting missions from NPCs – often fetch quests – and visiting towns, camps and dungeons with your trusty steed and pardner.
These adventures are peppered with breezy combat encounters against a cavalcade of foes that include a motley collection of cowboys, zombies, outlaws, ghosts, and some weird trans-dimensional beings.
Like the game’s visuals, it’s simple on paper. What elevates West of Loathing into something really special is its writing. Humour in games is hard. Heck, humour is hard full-stop, but West of Loathing manages to expertly balance comedic absurdity with a down-to-earth honesty about life on the frontier. The use of language is a constant delight, performing linguistic gymnastics that rarely fail to raise a smile. It’s droll, dry, and sometimes cruelly authentic, but it’s also reckless and playful in equal measure.
There’s also humour to be found in the visuals. In static screenshots West of Loathing may look like a notebook sketch, but the game’s animation brings everything to vivid life – the sneaky walk is priceless, for example – and despite the simplicity of their design, each character you meet is imbued with personality. My personal favourite? A shopkeeper who plates things in silver, including his own fixed grin.
Combat is also simple, but, with a wealth of different items and buffs to employ, the system encourages experimentation and provides continually satisfying results. Even random battles are a pleasure, with their brevity and generous rewards gratefully appreciated and often making a helpful contribution to the overall quest.
With its hand-drawn aesthetic, West of Loathing could easily be mistaken for being a paper-thin role-playing experience. However, the richness of its text, the depth of its world building, and the incessantly entertaining cast of characters make it an experience to treasure.
Like Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods – another game that blew me away when it arrived on the Nintendo Switch – or the charming Undertale, West of Loathing succeeds in creating a fully developed world through smart writing, smart design choices, and an understanding that you don’t need detailed textures and volumetric lighting to create atmosphere. Economy is king, or at least, the sheriff round these parts.