West of Loathing Review

To anyone who contends that video games need up-to-the-minute, bleeding edge graphics to be effective, West of Loathing rides into town on a stick figure horse and says, "Naaay." Moving from the browser-based Kingdom of Loathing to a full-fledged, by-gosh game, West of Loathing retains the same stylized aesthetic and irreverent approach that made Kingdom an indie hit. This time around the target is that most cliche-laden genre, the Western, with its heroes and villains, ghost towns and lawmakers all ripe for satirizin'.

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Structurally, West of Loathing is a pretty straightforward, turn-based RPG, with combat, loot collection, character progression, and puzzles all scaled back to basics, which is not to say that everything is simplistic or irrelevant. The tutorial town sets everything up pretty well, teaching the basics of combat, puzzle solving and exploration before plopping the main character on a horse -- accompanied by one of three possible companions -- and sending him West, always West. Each new main area has a hub and lots of missions and places to explore and there's usually some flexibility about the order in which they're completed.

Three motifs inform West of Loathing: humor, the supernatural, and the traditions of classic Westerns. What makes the recipe work is the way the game switches between and combines them. For instance, your starting character can be a Cowpuncher (fighter), Beanslinger (Wizard) or Snakeoiler (Rogue) and in traditional RPG fashion, you spend upgrade points to bolster class abilities. Like Kingdom of Loathing, the game's currency is meat, which you earn for completing missions, selling items, or killing enemies. The game's turn-based combat is fast-paced and encounters are snappy and rarely protracted. Death doesn't have much of a sting but mission and battle success are the keys to moving forward or finding that important item that solves a puzzle.

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Where West of Loathing really stands out is not in its RPG-mechanics but its visual style and sense of humor. The game manages to load an impressive amount of character, charm, and information into its hand-drawn, stick figure art and there is much to learn from the effective placement of telling detail. Animations are relatively primitive but quite often amusing in their own right. It only takes a few minutes for the art style to fade to the background but now and then, you'll be surprised that you laughed at some character's expression...made up of a few squiggly lines and not much more.

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West of Loathing packs at least some degree of humor into each frame. Every sign, object, mission, dialogue, character, and enemy contains a joke, reference, pun, or satiric jab at Westerns, games, movies, or all of the above. This is a West populated equally with barflys, gunslingers, goblins, and necromancers. There's a story, there's consistently absurd lore, but not unlike South Park, the game wants to keep you laughing and a little surprised by the weird and unexpected visual joke or silly throwaway line. By and large, the jokes are pretty smart, too, but not all of it lands all the time. That's humor for you.

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If there's fault to be found in West of Loathing it can be in the RPG elements and mission structure -- which are fairly perfunctory -- and maybe a whiff of the belief that when it comes to comedy, quantity beats quality. That's ok. We probably need more games that don't rely on videocards being pushed to their limits or over-emoting mo-capped heroes, games that can tell a story or sell a joke with a straight line, a circle and some dots.