The legends of the American West are already absurd — men and women with quick hands and lots of luck strolling through places with names like “Hell’s Half-Acre.”
Suppose you take those puffed-up romantic stories, the big Technicolor dreamscape of the plains and deserts, and you condense them all into a doodle in the margin of a spiral notebook. You might think you’d lose what makes the West matter, all the drama and all the open space. Developer Asymmetric’s West of Loathing proves that you hardly have to lose anything at all.
West of Loathing is a follow-up to the browser-based indie hit Kingdom of Loathing, a stick-figure fantasy adventure where absurdity and jokes did all the heavy lifting that graphics might in a higher-budget game. West of Loathing keeps some of the same mechanics, like using meat as currency and forcing the player to contend with extremely silly goblins, and it sticks to the same aesthetic approach. But this is no cookie-cutter sequel.
Instead, West of Loathing does what made the original so widely liked: It takes a stock-standard genre setup and then adds joke after joke until the conventions teeter and fall over like a badly balanced Jenga tower. West of Loathing couldn’t have a more cliché Western setup. You’re bored of Kansas and so, as the old romantics always advised, you head west to seek your fortune. You help the railroad move through the mountains and over the valleys to Frisco. With the railroad uniting the continent, the West has been won — and so has the game.
That description, while technically accurate, leaves out everything that makes West of Loathing worth playing. The West you’re stepping into is much more Weird West than Wild West, more in the vein of the old Mad Amos short stories or the Deadlands: Doomtown trading card game. When you enter a saloon fresh off the prairie, the first thing the barkeep asks you to do is venture down ’neath the bar and get rid of the goblin down in the basement. While the game ends on the historical note of completing the transcontinental railroad, it also tells you the epilogue of how you dealt with roving necromancers.
The game further mashes in fantasy elements with a class system that asks you to choose between fighter, wizard and rogue. Or, as the game labels them: the “Cow Puncher,” who’s phenomenal at punching cows and other things; the “Beanslinger,” who takes campfire cookin’ to a mystical and magical level; and the “Snake Oiler,” who twirls a six-gun and carries a briefcase full of live snakes. As with everything else in the game, it takes a standard adventuring setup and adds an absurdist Western twist.
Then there’s the lore. West of Loathing takes place after a major magical disaster: the Day the Cows Came Home. Portals to hell turned the cows demonic, and great darkness spread across the West.
Or take the game’s Ghost Town. First, all the buildings are ghosts as well — har har. But then there’s the second layer of joke: The ghosts love their bureaucracy, and the whole town is a hilariously infuriating puzzle involving resizing pencils, having staple removal approved and more. Instead of being empty of people, the ghost town confronts you with the most boring problems of civilization. And the dead can wait a long while for you to properly authorize the collatin’ of frontier documents.
Even the screens that tell you about the items you found and the XP you’ve gained have some real crack-ups written into them. There’s no escaping West of Loathing’s relentless humor, but that humor is so warm and clever that it never gets old. The writing aims to subvert its own tropes at all times and in all ways, and there’s simply no way to see all the punchlines coming as a result.
The other major reason the humor works so well is its easygoing playfulness. It’s easy to take all the romantically ludicrous things Western stories do and say that “these things are ridiculous”; it’s harder to lovingly reproduce them in subversive ways.
The music is the best example: It’s a straightforward series of twangy instrumental reels that end up tying the whole vibe together into something consistent. A cavalry fort full of ornery goblins seems, somehow, perfectly reasonable with a banjo riff and a lonesome whistle in the background. There’s something both self-assured and winkingly goofy about the soundtrack that soothes any discomfort the wild mashups of genre and reference in the rest of the game might cause.
West of Loathing also relies on a surprising intricacy of design. You’ll find dozens on dozens of things that seem completely arbitrary and useless … until you stumble on an interactive use for them elsewhere in the game world. The way characters, objects and locations crisscross and interconnect is consistently delightful, and makes exploration compulsive for reasons beyond wanting to get hit with another dry pun.
Combat is turn-based but pleasantly fast: Someone usually loses, one way or another, within the first five turns or so. Keeping things tight and dangerous is a solid choice, as it prevents the battle from dragging out over too many turns and pulling focus from the jokes. Items usually become necessary in combat, whether it’s using dynamite to whittle down a dangerous foe before your primary attack, or using food and drink to provide powerful, long-lasting bonuses. This balance of inventory and abilities makes it so you usually see something new and try something new frequently.
If this is too simple, you can always find the optional Hard Hat, which is, of course, a hat that makes the game harder. The game boasts of its wide array of fine hats, a hat for every type of player, and it follows through on this promise. Different character builds can approach situations in different ways, with different skill checks, and no one playthrough will reveal everything. There are even three distinct NPC companions to choose from, each with a different backstory and narrative focus.
West of Loathing is a great Western game, and it isn’t even in color. It’s evocative of all the ambitions and moments that make a cowboy story worthwhile and engaging, while at the same time gently mocking the entire affair from start to finish. But for me, the most significant success was at the end. Once you help build the railroad into Frisco, you can go watch “The Final Cutscene” playing at a movie theater. The epilogue wasn’t even finished yet in the review build of the game (unless that was a joke, too), but I got to see the threads of plot I’d been tugging on — even some truly obscure and flippant ones — get all tied up neatly. I saw my work upon this weird West, and I felt sincerely bittersweet to mosey on from a world I hadn’t quite realized I had been becoming more and more affectionate for.
West of Loathing elicits this powerful emotional connection with stick figures. It bonds you to its world with nothing more than doodling and dialogue. There’s a pretty good turn-based adventure game there, under the hood, but West of Loathing’s many strengths are all personal: connections made between developer and player when you both laugh at the same time. Absurdism aside, there’s something fundamentally human and direct baked into the game’s whole design from aesthetic to script. On top of it, you can dunk your hand into a spittoon of caustic toxins to pull out an enchanted sword. That’s the kind of player choice I didn’t even know I wanted in a Western RPG.