West Of Loathing
Publisher: Asymmetric Publications
Release Date: 31 May 2018
Price: $11.00 / £9.00
Reviewed by Pat Lunn
Whether it’s Guybrush Threepwood's calamitous voyage across Monkey Island, Conker’s epic bout with the Great Mighty Poo or even the slapstick humour of the recent LEGO games, there has always been a place for laughs in video games.
In recent years there’s been a lot of indie titles that have attempted to fill this niche. However, comedy in video games can be a tricky prospect and few have managed to induce the same belly laughs that Theme Hospital or, more recently, South Park: The Fractured But Whole achieved.
This drought of humour in the indie market might be about to change with Asymmetric Publications’ West of Loathing, a western-themed spiritual successor to their browser-based RPG, Kingdom of Loathing.
Moseying about town
The premise is simple: you are a character of your own creation who sets off from their dead-end ranch to discover fame and fortune in the Wild West. You choose one of three classes (Cow Puncher, Beanslinger or Snake Oiler) and some backstory elements that generate a set of random stats, and then head out into the world. The character creation is average compared to your usual RPGs, but the comedy flavour adds a lot, moving away from the stuffy old knight, rogue and wizard archetypes.
I created noughties pop star Nora Jones for my play through, making her a cowpuncher because I feel she hides a lot of repressed rage behind the melodic beats of Sunrise and Come Away with Me. Nora left her family’s ranch and headed to the town of Boring Springs, which serves as a hub for the tutorials and prologue of the game.
From Boring Springs you learn the basics of questing and the map system. The latter is essentially the connective tissue between the game's various locations, with a couple of random encounters sprinkled across for good measure. It’s here that the lack of a quest log became all too apparent.
I found myself often losing track of all the various missions I had undertaken. I would start one event, and as I was walking on the way to the next location in that questline, I’d have a random encounter that would take me off in a completely different direction. The game makes some effort to help once you leave the starting area by giving you a buddy who reels off all your currently open quests through a dialogue tree, but a tidy log would have been much more efficient.
Despite the lack of a quest log, Nora Jones triumphed in the tutorial and chose her ‘Pardner’, Susie Cochrane (who I began to refer to as Suzi Quatro to continue the laboured British female artist theme).
Dirtwater and Beyond
Nora Jones and Suzi Quatro rode across the desert and came to the town of Dirtwater, which serves as a base for the rest of the main story. From Dirtwater you begin to discover large swathes of the map and rack up side quests. This is where West of Loathing really comes into its own, as each side quest rewards you with hilarious scenarios, as well as experience points (which you can use to boost your stats) and combat buffs.
You might help disband a nightmarish fitness cult, then tangle with a horde of demon cows before going on a quest to fill in a series of super-important acquisition forms. This was really the highlight of the game, and I found the hours slipping by as I charged into quest after quest with Nora and Suzi.
Unfortunately, my favourite aspect of the game comes with my biggest bugbear. I hate West of Loathing’s combat mechanic (yes, you could even say I loathe it). It’s essentially Final Fantasy-esque turn-based fighting, however the challenge has been dialled back to the point that anyone who knows what they’re doing will never lose. I died once across my twelve hours of play and that was due to an attack that damaged myself instead of my foes.
Pistols at Yawn
After a while, it became a real slog to keep fighting, and I decided to focus any experience points I accumulated into skills like intimidation that allowed me to avoid combat. There is a nice veneer of jokes that keeps the combat bearable but, for the most part, it was the only part of the game I was disappointed by. Especially in the final boss battle.
What should've been an epic final battle turned out to be a damp squib as Nora Jones had learnt enough skills to bring the fight to a close in just three moves. And so, Nora’s quest ended with a short cutscene visiting each location and seeing what effect the events of the game had, in the style of a classic American comedy with a handful of final laughs.
A post-release update incorporates the Switch’s HD Rumble technology, and while it doesn't add too much to the game, it definitely enhances certain puzzles and challenges, making the Switch version the one to get.
Were it not for the comedy stylings of the writing team and the ingenious quest design, West of Loathing could be written off as a humdrum RPG. However, with some really engaging narrative design, the game is worthy of recommendation. If you’re someone who enjoys interesting puzzles, outlandish humour and isn’t too concerned with tactical gameplay, West of Loathing is worth your time and attention.
Pros & Cons
+ Fantastic writing
+ Great quest design
+ Good use of the HD Rumble
- Weak tactical combat
- No quest log
- Slow paced in parts