Review: West of Loathing
This game was selected as one of our two August 2019 Reader’s Choice Reviews. Learn more on our Patreon page.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s become harder and harder for me to crack into a good RPG. They’re huge time commitments to someone with less and less free time as my kids also inexorably grow older, and they also don’t lend themselves well to quick sessions when I just want to wind down for a bit. West of Loathing, though, transcends these concerns and finds a way to be the perfect game for any leisurely occasion. When I want deep lore and grand quests, there are plenty to choose from. When I want to relax and dink around for twenty minutes, there are little camps and caves to explore. And when I want to enjoy some excellent writing and laugh-out-loud comedy, I can get plenty no matter where I am in this incredible adventure.
The weird, wild west needs a hero, and some random schmuck from a dinky farm on the edge of civilization like you is as good as any. Seeking fortune, fame, or just some raw, undiluted adventure, you set out into the vast prairies and plains of the west for whatever awaits you. But these are dark times, now that the hellish cows have come home. The dead walk the earth, necromancers are in high demand, and every unseemly type from cultists to clowns have found a place to ply their nefarious trades. A lot of people out here need help, and a lot of mysteries need to be solved, and fortunately there’s plenty of meat and merriment to be found in doing both.
West of Loathing is indeed an RPG, with pages of stats to study, perks to learn that grant new options in adventuring and dialog, and scads of equipment and items to make use of. From your humble homestead to the first sleepy town you reach, the game will subtly educate you in its mechanics, including turn-based combat, dialog options, bartering for meat (the de facto currency of the wild west), and completing quests. When you’re done there, the game deposits you in the proper west, a vast, open map filled with dozens of towns, caves, canyons, graveyards, forts, circuses, jellybean shops, and giant poop piles to explore. Outside of the battle system which borrows liberally from JRPGs, this feels very much like an off-brand Fallout in terms of quest structure and world map.
As good as the classic Fallouts were, though, they were never this funny. You could almost consider West of Loathing a text adventure first and an RPG second, because most of the good stuff you’ll encounter comes through in pages of text, item descriptions, and dialog. The writing here is as sharp as a diamond-tipped tack, with punderful item names, snappy, self-aware dialog that never gets grating, hilarious concepts like literal ghost towns with ghosts of buildings, petting cemeteries, and haunted pickle factories, and countless little charming details. Just to give one isolated example, your character will always shout “Ouch!” or something similar if you brush them past a cactus, and if you do it enough times (a lot), you get a unique perk with a pretty significant effect.
Silliness is the heart and soul of this one, from the silly walking option you can activate from the game menu to the increasingly desperate, fourth-wall-breaking pleas of the narrator every time you try to search a spittoon. Every single thing you do in West of Loathing is at least going to make you smile, because it’s all presented in such charming, funny ways. And not only is it funny, it’s meaningful, too! When you leave the intro town, you can choose to bring a partner on your adventures. Because I worked out a special encounter I was able to choose a goblin, with an adorable broken speech pattern and a great hunger for fungus. Gary has proven to be one of my favorite parts of the game, not only for his precious, child-like wonder at every location we stop at, but also because he grants dramatic new options in every goblin encounter in the rest of the game.
What’s really amazing, though, is how the writing is somehow even better on the rare occasions that it breaks from the humor. There are a few encounters in the game where the light, slapstick atmosphere gives way to serious threats or even horror, and it might partly be the juxtaposition of tones that makes them so effective. But it’s also very much the writing, with perfectly evocative lines that somehow conjure actual dread and tension from this game about filthy stick people. There’s one meeting you have with a powerful figure that has such an effective build-up and confrontation that I was scared, literally scared, to choose the joke dialog options for fear of what he might do to my character. It’s brilliant writing from top to bottom, and something that folks who like good story moments will not want to pass up.
The gameplay ultimately proves to be a great compliment to the writing, thanks to how generous it is with progression and surprises. You gain experience from virtually everything, from battling hellcows to flushing toilets, and level-up will come fast and frequent. By default you can let the game level for you, picking a wise spread of stats and skills based on your character class (including cow punchers and beanmancers) that has remained effective all the way through the adventure. You can level yourself too, if you want specific skills raised for the many checks in dialog and exploration, but there are so many ways to approach situations and experiment that you’ll never really feel like you’re missing out. Plus there are hundreds of items to wield, wear, read, eat, drink, and rub on yourself, all of which affect the clever stat systems and daily buffs that have a huge impact on gameplay.
Honestly it’s just fun, a degree of unreserved, jubilant fun you don’t really get with other RPGs. Everything is funny, clever, or simply absorbing, and you will never, ever feel like there’s nothing to do or nowhere to go. There are bounties to hunt, ghosts to help, rockslides to dynamite, bridges to build, towns to save, portals to activate, and a grand adventure to save the west by combing every corner of it for the evil lurking just over the horizon. West of Loathing looks every bit the part of a silly comedy RPG, but gets there by way of incredibly good writing and a nearly perfect sense of humor that will never stop entertaining. And with twenty to thirty hours of questing and exploring ahead of you, that’s one hell of a feat.