Wot I Think: West of Loathing

wolr

When I play games, my face (oh, it is tired) spends 90% of the time entirely inert, and the remaining 10% wincing or eye-rolling when something kills me and/or I fall off some ledge to my doom. Neither is from a lack of enjoyment, but just from being lost in an internal world of pursuing goals. You almost certainly look equally unsettling when you’re gaming.

In West of Loathing [official site], I would estimate I spent 95% of the time smiling. If you knew me (and you don’t – only my cat truly knows me) you’d know that’s highly unusual. West Of Loathing, a lovely, warm comedy RPG set in an only slightly supernatural wild west, makes me feel so happy.

It’s the follow-up to noughties sleeper hit Kingdom of Loathing, a browser-based semi-massively semi-multiplayer RPG that managed to be a satire of roleplaying conventions, a gleefully surreal comedy, a precusor of today’s idle games and a genuinely compelling minimalist Zelda-like all at the same time. If you’ve played that, then you’re surely already all over West Of Loathing like bugbears on Meat. You know the pedigree, you know how delightful it is.

If KOL passed you by, fear not. All you need to know is that a) Meat is currency and b) yes, it’s all stick figures. (You’ll grow to love ’em, within about, say, three minutes.)

West Of Loathing isn’t just KOL with a cowboy skin – it’s a full move to what we might sneerily call a ‘proper’ game. No more autoresolving battles with text boxes, no more clicker-style grinding for numbers, no more static art and no more locations that are just clicky icons on map.

It’s an extremely accessible and even easy RPG now, with dozens of locations scattered across a large-ish map, with various quest hubs and shops to revisit as you take on missions in suitably Western-themed mini-dungeons, gear up and battle demon cows, skeleton militia and assorted black hats. Some missions involve mild and often ingeniously comic puzzling, but again these are about grinning your way to a solution, rather than frustration.

wol5

Is it a good RPG? Dunno, really. Don’t care, either. To apply the usual expectations of balance and depth and internal logical and narrative pay-offs to this would be like turning up to a nightclub and telling everyone exactly how they should dance. Everything in WoL is there to serve a single, infinitely noble purpose: have a good time, all the time.

It isn’t very hard because dying and repeating stuff isn’t a good time – or at least not the kind of good time WoL has in mind, which is to be smiling, occasionally laughing and generally feeling all warmy and fuzzy. Challenge games like Dark Souls are a good time too, obviously, but WoL wants to be comfort food in a way I think precious few games really grasp.

Something like the pleasantly mindless carnage of Diablo, or perhaps the shallow bluster of a COD singleplayer campaign, is comfort food in the sense that it chews up large amounts of time harmlessly – Grisham novels on the plane, House boxsets. But they’re not comfort food in the sense of making you feel like existence is a little bit rosier while you’re in them. WoL does: the word I keep coming back to for it is ‘warm.’

wol3

Yes, it has a steady stream of jokes, and many of them are very funny (to name but two examples: graphics options are good/bad/ugly, and at one point I ended up with a pope’s skeletal pelvis in my inventory, the description of which read ‘it’s never been used’), but it does something more important than trigger belly laughs.

It makes me feel welcome, the game and I on the same page, having a lovely time together in this silly black and white world of stick figure cowboys and bandits and nightmare cattle and evil skeleton popes. The central message of WoL is “hey, let’s go over there and see what we find!”

It’s this ongoing shower of gentle invention, of ideas thrown like confetti, each one treated as a reason to smile, not as anything that needs to go anywhere. Every inventory item has a gag attached, almost every NPC greets you companionably, and everything you do has a payoff.

wol2

Maybe, perhaps this amiability goes a little too far – I seemed to level up almost constantly, and very few fights presented any threat or challenge, which, though it spared me the repetition of redoing them, gave me the repetition of breezing through them without thinking.

The battles are the weakest link in this delightful chain, in all honesty. They’re JRPG-style, turn-based affairs, and do feel like the most obvious approach WoL could possibly have taken on that front. Sure, it’s fun to face down new enemy types when they crop up, and you wind up with plenty of slightly silly abilities to use, but really it’s just taking turns to make some hitpoints go down until everyone on the right side of the screen falls over.

wol4

There are a few tougher fights – not quite bosses, but in that ballpark – which require the smallest modicum of strategy, and you’ll wind up with so many different powers and items to use that there’s usually an option to try something new. These are exceptions rather than rule, because WoL wants you to amble through it with a smile on your face, not ever dash you against the rocks.

In the main, I absolutely endorse this approach, but as the game wore on the fights did get a little numbing. (Usual proviso though: I have to binge-play games for these write-ups, so I’m likely to see orders of magnitude more fights in the space of a day or two than you will).

wol6

This doesn’t stop WoL from being a joy, though it may mean I drift away from it after a while. For now, whenever I fire it up, I hear the bouncy cowboy soundtrack (itself full of gags, like a tiny wind-up piano you can carry around to play a different, tinnier soundtrack), I see the scribbly art whose looped, toonish animations conjure a thousand times more character than almost any multi-million photorealistic megahit I can think of, and I feel warm and welcome and happy and where I’m supposed to be.

WoL is most easily described as a comedy game, and though it is indeed a prime-cut ribtickler, that can be a backhanded compliment – as if jokes are all it has. WoL does something far more accomplished, far more rare, which is to be joyful.

West of Loathing is out now for Windows, Mac, and Linux on Steam. Right now it costs £7.19/9,89€/$9.89, which includes a 10% launch discount offered for the first week.

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    I play as a long-haired dude, too.

  2. fabrulana says:

    Loved that intro paragraph… Game sounds like fun. Will check it out.

  3. TimePointFive says:

    This is as glowing a review of any that I’ve read, so why no “Recommended” badge?

    • Gribbins says:

      My thoughts exactly. I’d really like an answer to this. The review makes it seem as though the only potential “problems” with the game don’t even count and are in service to some greater joy.

      The lack of the badge is making me more hesitant to pull the trigger on the purchase because I worry that maybe the flaws were understated?

    • Sarfrin says:

      I wondered that. Because of the combat, maybe?

      • Alec Meer says:

        Just an oversight on my part – it needs/deserves the badge, and I’ll be adding it tomorrow.

        • Gribbins says:

          Oh ok cool!

          Might I also say that as someone who was only SLIGHTLY CURIOUS about the game I almost passed by the review, thinking that the lack of badge meant it wasn’t great enough for me to look into it any further.

          It might be nice to bump it back up to the top of the list of articles when the change has been made.

          (Also I did want to say – your review took me from uninterested to probably-going-to-buy-it. Not just the fact that you liked it but your wonderful choice of words. It was a really lovely review.)

          • hfm says:

            No knock against reviewers, but passing everything with the lack of a badge you will most likely miss out on some good gaming. The badge is only one opinion.

        • Sarfrin says:

          Cool. Your review has convinced me to get this straight away. A joyful game sounds wonderful.

  4. caff says:

    Oooh YES! I want this right NOW!

  5. udat says:

    That infinitely noble purpose sounded like a Spinal Tap quote :)

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    It’s important to note that if you’re not playing this game with Stupid Walks mode on, you’re playing it wrong.

  7. malkav11 says:

    I’d still highly recommend trying Kingdom of Loathing, to be honest. It’s only become crazier and more full of cool stuff over the past, gosh, 13 or 14 years, and they keep remixing it with new challenge paths.

    But West of Loathing represents an attempt to branch out so that they don’t have to rely solely on an ancient browser game with an extremely dedicated but slowly dwindling fanbase to support themselves, and I really hope it does well for them. I know I bought it immediately the very day it came out strictly on the strength of their prior work, and although I had no real doubt about that purchase, I’m glad to see it getting critical love as well. :)

  8. malkav11 says:

    One of the settings, for this black and white game, is a colorblind mode. So thoughtful! :)

  9. FreshHands says:

    If you don’t like this game, you are dead inside

  10. Premium User Badge

    cairbre says:

    Read the review, bought the game, can’t go wrong for less than €10

  11. dreadguacamole says:

    Bought it on the strength of KoL, not regretting it for a minute.
    It strikes pretty much the same tone as Kol did, or Jonas & Verena Kyriatzes’ Land of Dreams games. And that’s a very good thing.

  12. ariston says:

    Instabuy after this review. 3 hours into it and I love it! It makes a very simple yet necessary point: games need to be fun. I’m currently hacking away at Batman Arkham Knight, and that’s okay. The rain effects! Thousands of missions! The Batmobile! That cape! The Joker! What happened to Barbara? Who is the Arkham Knight? Swoop slam bam pow! Fiddly key combos! And yet, I somehow need to push myself to continue playing.
    Welllll….. West of Loathing has managed to captivate me with stick figures, lots of text, and children’s drawings. Makes ya think, don’ it?

  13. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    It’s been donkey’s since I played KoL, which technically was my first F2P MMO (yet with none of the nasty microtransaction baggage such things are known for these days). And it’s an absolute joy that this thing is here reminding me about the joys of meat, moxie and martinis.

    I hope they get stupendously rich off of this and make many, many more wonderful things.

    • Nixitur says:

      That’s not quite true. There are microtransactions in KoL. You can buy a Mr. Accessory for 10 dollars or an Uncle Buck for, well, a buck. You can trade in Mr. Accessories and Uncle Bucks for things like quite powerful weapons, temporary boosts to stat gains or even exclusive combat skills.
      This doesn’t personally bother me that much, especially since the game doesn’t bug you about any of this. But saying that there are no microtransactions is not true.

      • Premium User Badge

        Mungrul says:

        Hah! My trap worked!
        That claim was to distract you from the real error in my post!
        There are no Martinis in West of Loathing!
        Nyah!
        HORNSWOGGLED!

      • malkav11 says:

        It is, though. $10 is definitely a macrotransaction.

        But seriously, they’re as classy and awesome as a pay-to-win purchase could possibly be. I rarely actually play the game these days but I’m still forking over $10 every month to see what they’ll come up with next.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>