By Ron Scopelliti
Sometimes computer games get just a little too serious. Either you’re a witch hunter trying to rescue your long-lost daughter, or you’re a hobbit struggling to keep Sauron from obtaining the ring of power, or you’re the one and only person who can save Tamriel from an onslaught of dragons. Sometimes you just want to unwind with a game that doesn’t place the weight of the world on your character’s shoulders.
Since 2003, Asymmetric Publications has been providing this type of alternative with its browser-based The Kingdom of Loathing (KOL), a free online role-playing game (RPG) that stresses fun and humor over graphics and action. KOL players guide stick-figure avatars through a 2-D fantasy world that turns the common Dungeons and Dragons tropes upside down. Necromancers are replaced by Pastamancers who throw magical spaghetti spears, and instead of using the typical gold and silver as currency, KOL relies on “meat.”
Now, Asymmetric has released a spinoff, titled West of Loathing. Set in the old west, the game is neither online nor free, though the $10.99 price tag won’t deplete the “meat” reserves of most gamers.
For that price, gamers get a single-player, open-world RPG with the same stick figures as KOL. In this case, however, the figures are animated and can be moved through their 3-D environment, which is filled with visual and textual humor, some blatantly silly, and some so subtle you’ll completely miss it if you get too obsessed with achieving your goals. Cultural references run the gamut from a gang that styles itself after Grigory Potemkin, to a sly dig at Dave Coulier that Alanis Morissette fans will appreciate.
After downloading the game, I created my initial character as a “Cow Puncher” (a melee warrior), when I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and headed west, they sent me off with a book on desert survival and a set of brass knuckles that were handed down from my grandmother. From there I headed out on a turnip cart, eventually falling off the wagon in the town of Boring Springs.
Quests are quick-moving and fun, but take just enough thought to make them challenging and rewarding. So far they have ranged from fixing a player piano to battling skeletal cavalrymen and capturing outlaws who vandalize hats. Once you dive into the game, you’ll find yourself looting spittoons, gathering gin blossoms, and collecting souvenir spoons until the cows come home. And when they do, be prepared to fight them, because the cows in West of Loathing tend to be angry.
Combat is turn-based and rather simplistic, but anything too intense would be out of character with the game’s light-hearted mood. For me, West of Loathing is at its best when you’re out exploring the plains, harvesting beer from beer-barrel cacti, and investigating abandoned meat mines. If all that’s not enough to draw you in, how can anyone resist an RPG where the options menu offers the opportunity to change the game’s font to Arial, but advises: “Please don’t do this.”
West of Loathing is currently available for PC, Mac, and Linux, and will be available for iOS later this year. For more information visit westofloathing.com.