I’ve never played Kingdom of Loathing; the free MMORPG which led to the release of Kingdom of Loathing. It may well be great. I do not know. It probably doesn’t matter. When West of Loathing popped up on my backlog list, I wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for. I knew there were stick figures. That’s about it. That’s the kind of in-depth research you get around here.
It turns out that you don’t really need to know too much. The game starts with the player setting out from home on a trip west to Frisco. You are on a search for riches and adventure, and that’s about it. That’s the plot. It’s a literal hero’s journey. The meat of the game takes place along that journey, bumping into people along the way and helping them out with quests, in whatever way suits your character development.
This actually turns out to work very well. Most RPG’s set up their story around a central quest line which is the core focus. Side stuff is there to pad out the game and get you some levels. It can be a jarring experience – on the one hand you’re on an ‘urgent mission to save all of humanity’, but you’re also stopping every five minutes to help some guy find a do-hicky he needs over in location X.
I’ve often found my self stuck in two minds about this sort of thing. The completionist side of me wants to see all of the content, experience as many of the stories as possible. In fact games often rely on you doing this simply to get the gear or stats you need to complete the main bit. Because of this there is always a little narrative unease to be reckoned with. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age set a state of urgency that contradicts their mechanical structure. Go on, save the world, they tell you. But do remember to do the shopping first, yeah. And help little Bruno with his homework, or you’ll lose your paragon status.
In West of Loathing, the main plot is simply that you want to get to Frisco. Therefore, it makes sense that you would stop off and help the guy with his aforementioned do-hicky. This is your adventure, so it makes sense that you would wander around exploring the desert. I found the lack of this main quest focus strangely liberating, and I didn’t feel that the lack of end of the world-type stakes harmed the game.
So it follows that most of the game is present as a series of short vignettes. Most quests are simple in construction and quick to run through. They are almost all fun and engaging, and have a surprising amount of depth to them. West of Loathing’s systems are flexible; it doesn’t restrict you from learning any skills. You can even let the AI balance your stats for you, tweaking it with equipment and consumables to let you get the boost you need to trigger certain options. You’re rewarded for exploring with options to avoid direct confrontation. It’s very open to what you want to take from it. The freedom suits the atmosphere that the old west evokes, a feeling of discovery and danger.
In fact, West of Loathing does atmosphere incredibly well for something that looks initially so basic. Despite looking functional, the line art does what it needs to do and isn’t unpleasant to look at. The music backing it all is bold and evocative, which bolsters the western theme. It feels like a lot of care has gone into the presentation.
A lot of work has gone into the quests as well. They’re well written and never veer too much towards cliquey in-jokes, though I’m sure there are some hidden in there for fans of Kingdom of Loathing. It’s an inclusive game, that wants you to be in on the joke, which makes it all the more enjoyable. You can poke around in its world without the game pushing you to get on with things. West of Loathing is keen to avoiding nagging you. Therefore you’re left with the feeling that it wants you to enjoy your time, and that it isn’t there to stress you out.
This casual attitude might make West of Loathing seem overly easy, but there’s a challenge in figuring out the puzzles and stories here. There are plenty of options in there for people that want to explore and unlock everything. The branching dialog and interaction text can be surprisingly complex. This provides a fair amount of depth to a game with relatively simple mechanics.
If I had one criticism, it’s that the loose structure can sometimes leave you unsure where to go next. When you’re trying to finish off loose ends it can take a bit of searching around to remind you where you need to go to finish off a quest. You can ask your NPC sidekick about unfinished quests which is a nice touch, but even then there are a lot of very similar looking locations. Consequently it can be hard to find the right one. While I wouldn’t want the typical checklist games like this normally have, some sort of marker for handing things in would have been handy.
West of Loathing is a cheerful and friendly game. The simple and causal presentation might suggest a lack of substance, but there is plenty of meat (in fact, it’s a currency) on these bones, and the stick figure styling never to its detriment. Add to this a great musical score and you’ve got a fascinating game that just wants you to have a good time. And shucks, have a good time I did.