The Best RPG This Side Of The Pecos
HIGH Shockingly nuanced and detailed, both in writing and game design.
LOW My failure to figure out Stench resistance for far too long.
WTF The obsession with spittoons, but in the best possible way.
I’m not one who generally judges a book by the cover, but I’m only human. I make mistakes. Case in point, West of Loathing. I don’t know how many times I’d seen or heard about it, but time is at a premium for me these days. Sometimes a quick glance is all I can spare when deciding whether to play a game or skip it.
To be fair, it’s easy to get the wrong impression based on screenshots — West of Loathing uses literal stick figures for its characters, and every environment is made of simple line drawings. In fact, it looks so sparse that it’s shocking. Little touches like a surprising diversity in animation and clever use of shadow can be noticed later on, but first impressions don’t even begin to tell the whole story. Thankfully, the Switch was the perfect opportunity to see what West of Loathing was about, and it only took me three minutes of hands-on time to fall in love.
Once past the visuals, WoL is revealed to be a turn-based RPG which is essentially an open world in the sense that the game has a multitude of locations on a 2D overworld map. Each location is bite-sized with only a few screens, but there are dozens of places to visit, and they’re all accessible in any order as soon as they’re discovered.
The player begins by creating a character and choosing one of three classes, each with a specialization. After a brief tutorial, they also choose a horse and a companion, and then they’re let loose into the world.
The most remarkable thing about West of Loathing is the incredible detail that’s gone into making it. Although the visuals couldn’t be simpler, that’s not true about any other aspect. For starters, the dialogue. Not only does nearly everything have some sort of dialogue attached to it, it’s all written with a great deal of care and the vast majority is quite funny. The sense of humor is nonstop, and there are so many jokes peppered throughout every moment of the experience that it’s impossible not to be delighted.
The same level of care is given to the world, and the tasks and quests embedded within it. If the player ever needs a hint about what the main storyline is, their partner will gladly give them a tip. However, simply walking around and talking to townsfolk or exploring new locations will reveal countless challenges, puzzles and errands that all end in a small reward and a good joke or two.
The beauty of this is that the player doesn’t have a quest log or a list of things to be checked off — it’s about coming across these things organically and figuring them out as they crop up. In fact, there are actually multiple layers of tasks. Some are easy and obvious, some that take a bit more digging and may require visiting another location or two, and a few are buried quite deep and are only revealed after several hours, some clever discoveries and making connections. (I recommend having paper and a pen nearby to jot down notes.)
For example, a local man has his jelly beans stolen, so he tells the player to visit three locations and retrieve them. While en route to the goods, the player might stumble across a totally unrelated area to be explored, or they could discover rowdy skeletons sent on a rampage by a necromancer hiding in a secret keep. They might also hear whisperings of demonic cows who can pierce the veil between worlds, evidence of a mysterious cult, or relics from a precursor civilization buried underground. Some of these will be one-and-done quickies, and some will take dedication to suss out.
Mechanically, WoL is both brilliant, and brilliantly focused. Although the turn-based battles are simple, I found that to be a plus. The real draw is exploring, figuring things out, and of course, laughing. In order to make sure that players never get stuck or frustrated, there are tons of options to keep things moving along.
If players find themselves under-leveled, there are several optional places where enemies infinitely spawn at different difficulties and in various numbers, all chosen by the player. If a player finds themselves blocked by a skill check (you’re not strong enough to move this rock, pardner!) there are multiple items which can add temporary stats for just such a purpose. It was a real pleasure to find that after playing for a few hours and accumulating resources, a little bit of stat-juggling ensured that something interesting was always happening, and I was never, ever stuck.
Another cause to celebrate is that the discrete nature of each location and ease of play means that West of Loathing is an absolutely perfect thing to take on the go — it feels satisfying to play in five or ten minute bursts, it’s always quick to get back on the main quest (if so desired) and there’s always tons to do and see. It’s substantial and interesting enough for the long haul, but also fits the bill for players who might not often have the chance for hours-long sessions.
West of Loathing is fantastic on every level — the writing is consistently, genuinely funny, the intricacy and breadth of the world is truly impressive, and all of the mechanical systems are perfectly geared towards make sure the player is able to go through the world and experience as much as possible without needless frustration. I even grew to love the stick figures, and appreciated the minimalist (yet not minimal) approach. This is as fine a piece of software as I’ve ever encountered, and I enjoyed every minute of my time with it. Without overstating the case even a bit, West of Loathing is a modern masterpiece.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Asymmetric. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T, although I was not able to find any details on their website. Off the top of my head, the game has prolific uses of alcohol or similar imagery, and the violence in the game consists of shooting or whacking skeletons/animals/people/robots, although it’s never gory or explicit. These ARE stick figures, after all. I don’t recall any sexual content or explicit language.
Colorblind Modes: There is a colorblind mode available in the options, although since the game is in black and white, I’m not sure what it does…?
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All information is relayed via text and there are no audio cues necessary for gameplay. The text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left stick controls movement, the A button confirms choices and the B button cancels them. The L button calls up a stats menu, ZL brings up a map, R is options, and ZR is the inventory.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway