Some games value style over substance, opting for flashy animations and rich graphics, while others go for narrative over gameplay, as a gripping tale unfolds alongside minimal gameplay. Then, there are extremely technical affairs that fall back on more conventional or simplistic graphics in order to emphasize the action and stat crunching unfolding in-combat. Though all three of these extremes sound like a min-maxing process of prioritization, the best-case scenario is when one of these elements shines just a bit more brightly than the other, as this likely means everything is relatively well-balanced.
That being said, West of Loathing has what many might consider to be a glaring barrier of entry. This is a Role-playing game about stick figures, which means character and world design are somewhat… bare-bones. Bare-sticks? However, peeling back what little aesthetic flourish exists reveals a title that is absolutely delightful and utterly bizarre. Though it repurposes many familiar Role-playing tropes and motifs, the result is a break from the norm and embraces the weird in ways you won’t be able to find elsewhere. While a few speed-bumps here and there prevent it from true excellence, it is still a title well-worth the look.
West of Loathing is a smart game that is pretending to be dumb. It takes many of the vague terminology you have heard applied to the Western frontier (doing things until the Cows Come Home, buffalo massacres, Western expansion, and oh-so-many others) and puts a comedic twist on them. However, being a Western-themed RPG means it still needs to have some of the classic features, and so you’ll certainly see some goblins, skeletons, and other spooky fantasy-themed creatures here and there. This hodgepodge of ideas results in a wacky set of sub plots, from taking on demonic bovine to uncovering the secrets of an ancient civilization. The strange aspect of this story progression is that the main quest – adding tracks to the sprawling Manifest Destiny railroad – is really the least interesting of them all. I was a bit surprised to find a movie theater ready to roll credits once I finally went toe-to-toe with the local evil emperor.
If very little of this sounds like it makes sense, it’s because the game itself plays it fast and loose in terms of general logic. Characters often spout matter-of-fact dialogue that couldn’t be more absurd, but as the protagonist, it is your job to take these developments in stride or come up with a witty retort. The dialogue in West of Loathing can be verbose, but it is often so densely packed with genuinely funny quips, ridiculous scenarios, and enjoyable dialect that it gets absorbed like a fresh breeze. Except when it doesn’t. There are a few select moments where the dialogue required to complete a specific side quest is a bit too convoluted in delivery or too tedious a readthrough to fit the simplistic world designs, but that is more of a result of how West of Loathing hides some deceptively complex puzzles and quest lines behind certain dialogue trees.
West of Loathing introduces a majority of its systems, gameplay loops, and quirks right off the bat with a sort of tutorial map the player must complete before going out into the world. Choices the player takes at the beginning of the game will have consequences down the line, some returning via gameplay and others through story, though these are normally telegraphed well-enough in advance. Usually, the more ludicrous the dialogue option, the better the benefits, which is fantastic, as it pairs the silly text that accompanies each choice with serious gains.
Players enter into small vignette maps in the style of Paper Mario where they can interact with a myriad of environmental details. Flushing toilets, activating switches, mining meat (it’s weird), and battling enemies are just some of the actions the player can perform, however many important treasure chests and quest unlocks are accompanied by stat checks. These stats are usually taken from the player’s six core character attributes, or a number of upgrade-able secondary traits they can gain from discovering books and following certain dialogue options. Some NPCs will gladly share information or side quests with the player, while others will have to be coaxed into sharing information. Should a player get deep into a dungeon (usually found in the form of a cave) or other environment, the fast travel option works from any point, and will immediately take the player back to the world map without the need for backtracking. By choosing a destination, their caravan will set off in that direction, which will often trigger a map event such as a random encounter or looting, or even open up new areas to explore. Despite the relatively small size of the game’s map, there are a ton of smaller vignettes to be found, some only requiring a visit or two, while others will be frequent stops throughout an entire playthrough.
Accompanying the player at all times is the partner of their choosing, who will offer bits of flavor dialogue as well as reminders for all main and side quest content. Your partner also assists in battle, though the game isn’t particularly explicit regarding how to increase their power, as they possess no equipment or power like you. As it turns out, each partner has a sub plot to follow, and fighting enemies associated with those sub plots will grant a partner experience that can help them level up.
Combat is the most straightforward element of West of Loathing, featuring an ebb and flow reminiscent of classics. The title features melee, magic, and ranged damage stats, which increase both offense and defense against each respective attack type. There are also stats for total HP, AP increase, and speed, which are associated with the capacity for consumable items. There are some positioning elements, as ranged attacks will be stopped by obstacles in the way, and enemies will have to break down cover or support in order to reach the player character, but these elements rarely factor into most fights. Players will have little difficult taking out the majority of enemy types in the game and the most difficult skirmishes are usually based around poor odds or huge damage sponges. These encounters can be overcome with strategic thinking and careful resource management, but those options are usually a result of player preparedness rather than their character build.
Though there are various kinds of elemental damage and exploits, the game is never very straightforward in telling the player what types of damage are effective against specific enemies. Some equipment pieces and spell options have their effects and boosts listed in their item description, but more than often, players might be surprised to find their weapons woefully inadequate against certain enemy types. The way to circumvent this is to spend the in-game currency (which is meat, yes, I know, it’s weird) and purchase combat-related items, which more than often have a free use in battle and can stack substantially. I was never sure if this was a deliberate tactic the game wanted me to utilize, but it did save my skin in a number of circumstances. Combat items have a number of useful to hilarious effects, such as making characters flammable, to growing cacti from the ground that can be used as shelter. While there are plenty of negative effects that can be applied to enemies and inhibit their ability to attack, melee damage still remains a very strong threat, and should always be considered. West of Loathing does possess scale-able difficulty because of this, as players can opt out of giving themselves stat bonuses and instead create builds that maximize inventory space and item usage; however, this level of customization would take a high amount of dedication and is not recommended for the faint of heart.
Players can buy various alcoholic beverages, food, and equipment to boost their stats; however, the consumable items will only boost a stat for the duration of a day, while the latter gives a lasting bonus. The consumable items often grant small boosts to the main attack stats, but it is never certain whether or not these stats are actually applied in combat or not. I have had just as many instances of high stats in certain areas helping me wreck enemies as I have the same levels doing little to no damage in other scenarios. Either way, losses aren’t too extreme, as they simply grant the player an Angry status that will cause them to pass out after three losses in combat, sending them back to the inn and wiping their consumable slate clean. While this may seem like a step backwards, it can often be a great way to respec for specific sidequests.
All of the features on display in combat belie a system with a great deal of depth and strategy, but more than often, fights are a basic affair that boils down to out-damaging other characters. With wise leveling, a player can turn themselves into an unstoppable juggernaut early on in the game; however, a newcomer with little grasp of the system may find themselves struggling a few times along the way because of improper stat distribution.
Puzzles and Quality of Life
If there is a single element that truly offers the most intriguing gameplay, it is the puzzles of West of Loathing. These are strewn throughout environments and require manipulation via consumable items, equipment, and pure logic in order to complete. Some of the more memorable examples include a particular spectral pickle factory, a cemetery filled with weirdly-named tombstones, and various pressure related devices. While some are lengthy dialogue trees that require careful attention to text and the surrounding environment, others actually require math and other problem-solving skills to complete. Though a few of these can be brute forced, they will also set the player back and require them to return on subsequent days in order to do so.
Others can be avoided by bolstering stats with the aforementioned consumable items, though most of these boosts will simply give the player a second attempt or hint at the solution. There are one or two quests that require a great deal of traveling back and forth from one environment to another, and this is where the game is at its most tedious. These moments, however, are few and far between. In truth, the complexity and clever nature of the tasks on display in West of Loathing make it more of an action-adventure title than an RPG, which is a term I have more often attributed to the recent Paper Mario titles, usually with a degree of scorn. My willingness to give West of Loathing a pass stems from the fact that it has character progression systems and a combat system with at least some semblance of depth.
There is no real game over screen in West of Loathing, the player simply continues to live out their days in the West. Though there is a credits scroll, the option to view this final sequence and end a playthrough is entirely up to the player, as they can forgo this and continue seeking out the answers to sub plots and side quests. Although there are some ways where you can trick yourself out of seeing certain results of specific quests, the game is very forgiving and goes out of its way to help you reach the solution in whatever way possible. In this sense, West of Loathing is a title meant for completion, but this also conflicts with the nature of its replayability. The player has a wealth of customization options available to them at the start of the game, from the appearance and name of their avatar to their initial class, as well as their choice of partner and many other abilities they can unlock. Some abilities in game can be deliberately avoided in order to increase difficulty, while others actually grant debuffs upon unlocking, making their acquisition a double-edged sword.
There are alternative dialogue trees and multiple approaches to combat, but the core plots and quests feature some of the best dialogue, and solving them correctly is important for reaching the end of a playthrough. Because of the lengthy and extremely whimsical dialogue featured throughout the game, the experience is almost too memorable to be immediately replayable. The game is always good for a laugh – I found myself marveling at the pacing and number of spot-on, legitimately funny jokes and scenarios as I progressed through my first playthrough – but these jokes need to fade before jumping back in with a new character. Fortunately, the beginning of each playthrough offers a varied enough experience to start anew, but it is likely best that you come back after a while so that the later jokes can feel fresh once more.
West of Loathing is an absolute delight. For a fan of technical Role-playing titles, it may leave something to be desired, but its quirky presentation and fabulous script help it stand out as one of the most unique RPGs on the Switch eShop. The sheer silliness and fun present in its script almost help surmount the few overly-lengthy moments, but it is the sort of game that feels like it needs to be shared with others. I feel I would be doing a disservice to the title if I gave it anything less than a passing grade.
Though its combat didn’t thrill me like other indie titles, it was at least nuanced enough to give me a few tough skirmishes, and the game’s trademark humor also manages to bleed through even in battle. The thought of returning to the West in a few years with a new character and a new partner, avoiding certain options and purposefully complicating the experience, is an exciting prospect. For now, however, I am content to recommend this title for what it truly is: a charming adventure with wonderful dialogue and story options. If you seek it for any other reason, you may find yourself holding a tumbleweed rather than a glorious chunk of gold.