Review of ‘West of Loathing’ by Asymmetric

West of Loathing is a comedy western fantasy science fiction role-playing game featuring turn-based combat, open world gameplay, and a ton of replayability from Asymmetric, the US-based company that brought us the ever-enduring Kingdom of Loathing, as well as a word-game single-player RPG Word Realms along with a kid-friendly edutainment version called Master Swords. In it you play a protagonist leaving your home in Boring Springs to seek one of several possible fortunes out west. In typical Western fashion, you’ll contend with cowboys, sheriffs, rustlers, hostlers, demonic cows from a Hell portal, inscrutable alien technology and, well…maybe you don’t really do so much in typical Western fashion. I’ll level with you even in the intro here: This game is frigging amazing. This is one of the best game experiences I’ve had in years, and I’m going to gush praise all over the next several paragraphs. So if you’re in the three front rows and want to keep your clothes praise free, you can probably just go now and buy this game.

Say howdy to West of Loathing — a single-player slapstick comedy adventure role-playing game set in the wild west of the Kingdom of Loathing universe. Traverse snake-infested gulches, punch skeletons wearing cowboy hats, grapple with demon cows, and investigate a wide variety of disgusting spittoons.

Talk your way out of trouble as a silver-tongued Snake Oiler, plumb the refried mysteries of the cosmos as a wise and subtle Beanslinger, or let your fists do the talking as a fierce Cow Puncher. Explore a vast open world and encounter a colorful cast of characters, some of whom are good, many of whom are bad, and a few of whom are ugly.

Oh man, where to start. I’ve been playing Kingdom of Loathing off and on for well over a decade (I have a 5-digit player ID where new accounts are up around #3,000,000), backed rather a lot of money into World Realms’ Kickstarter, and bought West of Loathing the day it came out. I am a bit of a fan of this company, so feel free to take some of what I say with a grain of salt as coming through the lens of somebody -invested- in what Asymmetric does with their time. But that potential bias aside, this game was absolutely incredible. I haven’t laughed out loud at a game screen in five years combined as much as I did in the 14 hours I put into my first playthrough of this game. I took screenshots of individual jokes to share with people. The Asymmetric team has a somewhat particular brand of humour that tends to revolve around a combination of pop culture references, and one step more obscure-than-usual plays on words. You can miss jokes, and I don’t know if I believe any one person has the knowledge set to find and understand every single joke in this game, but that makes the obscure jokes you do get even more hilarious.

The plot of this game is ostensibly one where you’re forging your way out West helping to lay train line out to Frisco, and you can definitely do just that and be done the game pretty quickly. But in the nature of an open world game, the main plot is probably 5% of the content, maybe less, and the rest of it is all great stuff. There are whole plot lines you might not even stumble upon, or you might find one thing and just decide ‘yeah I don’t want to interact with this’ and you can do that. Nothing forces you into doing anything, and even the ‘main’ quest, when completed, is just completed and you carry on doing whatever you want. There’s not really an ‘end’ point to this game even in one playthrough. You can watch a movie in Frisco called ‘The Final Cutscene’ that tells you about all the things you did and their aftereffects, and then you just step outside and can continue doing whatever. It truly is a fully open world, and you’re only done when you decide to be. And the game is BIG. The map feels small and often cramped as you discover locations, but there are a lot of places to find and explore, and a lot of content to be seen and interacted with.

That actually leads up to the one…I don’t even want to say ‘flaw’ I found with this game. There is SO MUCH GOING ON and so many places where you find a person or object you can’t interact with yet, and 10 hours and 50 locations later you find a thing, or learn a thing that calls back to that previous place, and it can get very tricky to remember what was where. I 100% seriously suggest anybody playing this game take detailed notes. Like, buy a spiral ring notebook and just write down everything. Found a safe you can’t open yet? Write down where. As the game spends more time released, there’s guides and hints available on Reddit and I’m sure if there isn’t soon, there will be a wiki which could offload a lot of that work, but for a truly personal experience of feeling really accomplished finding the maximal amount of stuff, take notes. There is a lot to keep track of and I’ll tell you a little story to describe what I mean.

I found a place where I needed to pull a stuck lever, and remembered that I had found previously a barrel full of grease but I couldn’t pick any up because I didn’t have anything to put it in. Playing the next day, I found a waxed paper bag and thought to myself ‘Yes! I can put the grease in the waxed paper! Now…where was that grease again?” and wandered around for almost 40 minutes before realizing that the barrel was, in fact, in the same location as the lever, but since I had found the waxed paper elsewhere, I assumed the grease was elsewhere too and could not for the life of me remember where. So yeah…take notes.

Another place where this game really shone was the soundtrack. This is a comedy game at heart. Even the ‘serious’ Western tropes are still done humourously, and absolutely the overall tone of this game is ‘silly, bizarre and obscure’ Composer Ryan Ike did exactly the right thing with the soundtrack which was to play it (mostly) completely straight serious Western. It was the glue that held all the comedy together without it feeling like farce. For me one of the hallmarks of a really great soundtrack is my desire to listen to the music in isolation of the game-play. There aren’t many games that do that for me. Diablo 2’s Tristram theme remains one of my favourite pieces of music in general. The soundtrack to Mechwarrior 2: Ghost Bear’s Legacy was another, along with the Terran themes from Starcraft. The combat music from West of Loathing which is titled ‘Draw!’ is actually playing as I write this, and the primary underground music ‘A Cave is a Sideways Hole’ is also one I enjoy listening to. In terms of matching music to gameplay as well, Ike hit it out of the park. There is a track ‘Panic! South of Frisco’ (Man even the name is amazing) and when it first started up, it was so alarming that I think my blood pressure spiked 15 points.

I’ve gotten to the point where to continue to talk about why this game is so great would require spoilers, or just be me telling you the jokes from the game, so I think I’ll wrap it up. These things are all best experienced first hand, preferably without a mouthful of anything you don’t want all over your keyboard or screen when you burst out laughing. The game-play is great, the writing is great, the music is great, the comedy is great. I’d have used different words for each but I’d be afraid to get the intensifiers wrong and imply one was better or worse than the other, when they’re not. All of it is brilliant. Asymmetric, who already made and continue to make one of the best and most enduring games I’ve ever played, ran the very great risk making West of Loathing that trying to condense what they do in a decade plus sprawling game into a single player experience would leave them with something that felt either cramped and forced, or empty. Instead I feel like they distilled what makes their humour and game design great and ended up with something quintessential. This is a puzzle game that doesn’t suffer due to being funny. This is a comedy game that doesn’t suffer due to being deeply mechanically designed. This is a strategy game that doesn’t suffer due to being silly. This is a very very carefully seasoned soup, and like the best cup of coffee of your life, this might well be a once in a lifetime thing.

Play this game.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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