West of Loathing Review
I tend to be sceptical of games which advertise humour as a feature. I also am turned off by cartoon graphics. I nevertheless decided to buy West of Loathing when it was on sale for three reasons. First, the reviews were excellent, and it got a number of RPG of the year votes from people on this site. Second, it is a very reasonably priced game, even if its not on sale. And lastly and most importantly I was looking for a game that would run smoothly on my slowly dying and soon to be replaced 5+ year old computer. West of Loathing is a supernatural comedy western. So its not your typical RPG, let alone your typical computer game. Therefore, I've decided West of Loathing deserves a somewhat atypical review. So here it goes.
This picture captures the essence of West of Loathing. Its a silly strange western with stick figures.
Is West of Loathing really an RPG?
Everything these days is considered an RPG if it has an inventory and some character developement. But, yes, I'd say West of Loathing really in an RPG, and not just superficially. The game starts in your house, where you say farewell to your family before heading out west, and continues in the town of Boring Springs. This makes up the prologue chapter. You are given a number of choices as you progress through this chapter. First you can choose from one of three classes that are typical RPG fare, namely a ranged fighter (the snake oiler), a magician (the bean slinger) and a melee fighter (the cow puncher). Each of these classes offer some nice twists, though. The snake oiler, for example, cannot only poison enemies with his snake lasso, but can also summon snakes to fight for him. You are also given a choice of one of three non-combat skills (lockpicking, foraging, or haggling).
Depending on your actions and how you solve the quests you will also end the chapter by choosing a horse and a partner, each of which have their own special characteristics. Your partners join you in combat, and each has a unique set of combat skills. Also some partners can help you explore in that they will alert you to nearby areas. My partner Susie told me whenever we were in a location near a ranch, and that was added to the world map. Other partners can help you locate other areas such as cemetaries, or mines.
West of Loathing also has a nice character building system. The game features a classical open point based system with a number of skills and six attributes. Three attributes are class oriented (muscle, moxy, and mysticality) and raise not only the offensive ability with melee, ranged, and spell attacks, but also your character's resistance to each of these types of attacks, which makes it desirable for example, for a melee fighter to buy at least low amounts of moxy and mysticality, in order to reduce enemy ranged and magic damage. The other three stats (grit, gumption, and glamour) increase health, speed and action points, and the amount of meat(money) as well as the quality of items you find, and are therefore useful to all characters. Each skill in the game also has multiple levels. The costs of skills and abilities rise exponentially, making it very costly to be super good at everything and encourages investing in more things across the board. Also each character only starts out with a fraction of their class skills. Additional skills are found in skill books, which you can buy or stumble across during your journey. Each of these books gives you a choice of one of three new skills, which seem to be chosen semi-randomly from skills you have yet to learn.
The character building system is interesting enough. Just make sure to turn it on in the settings.
Like any good RPG, West of Loathing has a number of quests, and the vast majority of them are side quests. Many of these quests are solvable with a variety of methods, including using inventory items, skills, solving puzzles, or engaging in combat. The quest design in general is well done and while there is plenty of fighting in the game, many locations offer NPCs, puzzles, or other forms of interaction, which gives the game a very pleasing pacing, and keeps the gameplay fresh. The game also features a world map, in which locations are unlocked over time. While many locations can be unlocked by talking with NPCs, others can be discovered randomly when traveling between locations. There are also random encounters which occur when travelling, many of which do not involve combat. In addition you can choose to “wander” instead of travelling to an unlocked location, which gives a chance of a random encounter or discovering a new location.
In short, West of Loathing doesn't only give a number of mechanical options for your character, but also a lot of gameplay freedom as well.
Is West of Loathing a Casual Game?
Well yes. . . or sort of. When I first started playing I noticed that my character automatically seemed to receive increased stats. Then I went to the options menu and saw that in West of Loathing the default mode automatically spends your character's xp for you and turns off the combat grid. So in other words, West of Loathing's default mode for combat and character building is casual, but you don't have to play that way.
Also combat is in general very forgiving. The combat system is turn based and most mandatory battles aren't very hard. If they still are too hard for you, there are a number of locations which allow you to grind out battles against an almost unlimited number of enemies. Grinding is definitely not mandatory, and you can make the game a bit more difficult by simply avoiding it. There is no grinding down of character's resources like in many RPGs. You are fully healed after every battle, and your action point pool (which powers your class skills) is automatically refreshed. There are still consumables, which your can use to improve your chances in combat and these you can use up. Also losing a battle has no terrible consequences. Lose once and you just get “angry,” which gives you an extra combat buff. If you lose when “angry” you are sent to the hotel where you go to sleep and loose any daily buffs, but also have your daily buff allowance (provided through drink and food- which act like potions do in many other games) refreshed.
Difficult battles like this one are pretty rare and surprising. By the way, there was another way to solve this quest.
Nevertheless the game does feature a few challenging combat situations. Most of these are in non-mandatory areas, or are avoidable by completing a quest in another manner. In short anyone looking for extremely challenging combat such as found in Age of Decadence or Underrail will not find much satisfaction in West of Loathing's combat system. Still, like in many classic RPGs, combat rarely takes long and death is quick if you or (more often than not) your opponent is outclassed.
The puzzles in West of Loathing are also in general relatively straightforward. Some of them are also avoidable by simply engaging in combat.
Is West of Loathing Funny or Just Full of Lame Jokes?
If you've followed me so far, then you should have come the conclusion that the game is full of jokes. The names of the classes, locations, and attributes are all intended to be humorous. Afterall, West of Loathing is a supernatural comedy western. So what does that mean? First let's look at the supernatural part. Obviously the beanslinger class can use magic. Also you have three primary groups of enemies in the game. The first are bandits, many of whom have a large deficit in intelligence. The next are undead, who have been raised by a travelling necromancer. The last are the cows, who have apparently made some sort of diabolical pact to gain supernatural powers and who are bent on destroying their human oppressors. There are also other enemies, including giant snakes, robots, goblins, and killer clowns. Obviously many of these opponents have unnatural origins, and you come across many things that might be disturbing if it weren't for the game's light tone and cartoon graphics.
One of the more amusing side quests in the game lets you replay historical battles between the diabolical cows and the army. You get to play the cows.
The game is a western, in the usual sense. You are a cowboy (or cowgirl) and you will explore backwater western towns, mines, bandit hideouts, railways, and other typical western locations. You will meet sheriffs, ranchers, frontier doctors, and outlaws. You will also run into a few historical characters, like Josua Norton and John Harvey Kellogg, which shows the developers do indeed know a few things about 19th century America. The main story of West of Loathing reminds me of an Elder Scrolls game. Basically you want to go (further) west, but your way is continuously blocked for a variety of reasons. In trying to overcome these impediments, you discover a variety of new locations and npcs, all of which have things for you to do. It flows naturally then that you get involved in a number of side quests, and even though solving them makes getting through the main quest easier, the principle reason to do them is that they are actually more entertaining the main quest.
Much of West of Loathing's charm is bound up in its quirky quests and characters and you never know what to expect. For example you will visit many ranches during your path across the west. However, what awaits you at any given ranch is not really predictable. Some are full of combat, others hold a puzzle, and some even have interesting NPCs and quests. That makes the game fun to explore and never did I think to myself “Oh! Another bandit hideout. I've been there and done that. I think I'll pass.”
You can deal with this bandit in a number of ways, provided you have the right skills and the right horse.
You'll also run across areas and objects which are closed off without the right skills. For example, I ran across many safes throughout the game, but since I didn't have the safecracking skill, I couldn't open them. I also ran across a mine where I need lockpicking 3 to enter, but didn't have my skill leveled up at that point.
Obviously West of Loathing doesn't take itself seriously, and that gives it a freedom to do things that other games wouldn't. I had a smile on my face throughout most of the game, but I rarely found the game so funny that I laughed out loud. Still most other comedy RPGs I've played (Grotesque Tactics or Cthulu Saves the World come to mind) haven't exactly set a high bar for good jokes in computer games, so for the computer RPG game genre, West of Loathing is pretty funny, at least in my opinion. Obviously humour is very subjective, so you can take this with a grain of salt depending on how much humour you like in your games.
You'll run into a whole bunch of unusual people on your trail west.
Does West of Loathing really look as bad as in your screenshots ?
There was a time when most people got daily newspapers and somewhere in those newspapers were black and white cartoons, the so called “funnies.” I know I'm old, and many younger people might not have any idea what I'm talking about, but I do have a point. West of Loathing looks like a good old fashioned newspaper cartoon. And while stick people and horses with rolling eyes might not appeal to everyone, the developers of West of Loathing seem to have made a purposeful choice to capture that kind of cartoon atmosphere. I would also say it goes well with a game that's scenes and events are often ridiculous. I think the game would have sacrificed a lot of its atmosphere if the developers would have gone with 3D colour art and say generic Unity Engine assets.
The game does look better when you play it, then it does in the screenshots. That's because the said stick figures and rolly eyed horses are lovingly animated. Also the game features nice, appropriate music and sound effects. That doesn't change the fact, in the end, that West of Loathing's visuals are primative, or that it is a colourless, sidescrolling, 2D game. While I found it more visually appealing to a lot of indie games I've played recently and reviewed here (such as Dungeons of Chaos and Battles of Norghan) or that I didn't bother to review (such as Bastard Bonds, Dr. Dungeon's Madman, or Zavix Tower) I wouldn't call them good. They also will certainly be a line that some gamers can't cross and that will prevent them from buying West of Loathing. I'd actually qualify, to some extent, as one of these people, as the sceenshots prevented me from picking it up earlier than I did.
The game is full of unusual items.
Was West of Loathing Robbed of Rpg of the Year 2017?
Opponents of such an honour would have a number of arguments. First the game's visuals are an obvious point against it. Second, many gamers want challenging combat and West of Loathing is lacking that. Third, the game consists of about 10-15 hours of game time, depending on how thorough you are doing side quests and exploring, and how much grinding you choose to partake in. So its pretty short for an RPG.
Still I can understand those who gave West of Loathing one their top 3 votes for 2017. (And, no, its not a joke. The game came in at 10th place in the year's voting.) West of Loathing does a very good job with exploration and gameplay pacing. More importantly though is its charmingly unique atmosphere. After all how many other supernatural comedy western RPGs can you name? And not only is the atmosphere unique, but its also well done. How much you value that will go a long way in how good of a game you think West of Loathing is.
In the end I have to weigh in with my personal opinion. For me West of Loathing was a game I enjoyed playing from beginning to end. However, it was not a game I couldn't put down, nor one which I couldn't take a few days break from. I think that might be because when one strips away the atmophere and nice pacing, there isn't a whole lot the game does better than average. For me that makes it a good, but not a great game.
- Unusual setting
- Charming atmosphere
- Nice exploration
- Good pacing
- The visuals (yes, its black and white)
- Easy combat
- Modest playtime (10-15 hours)
- Character development turned off by default