Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
When I think about jokes that make me laugh in games—a topic I covered, with some mild despair, in an article about the generally dire state of comedy in the medium back in 2020—there are a few stand-out moments that come immediately to mind. Most of both Portal games. The meaner jokes in Sam And Max Hit The Road. The Stanley Parable. And, of course, The Spittoon Gag from Asymmetric’s West Of Loathing, one of the funniest bits of long-form comedy writing ever to be featured in gaming, a gleefully gross ode to the fact that, if you put a container—any container, even one that is, at minimum, filled to the brim with the tobacco-infused spit of other human beings—in a video game, some dumb-curious player is going to stick their arm in it to see what they get.
Ever since the surprisingly deep stick-figure RPG West Of Loathing (and its extremely good DLC, Reckonin’ At Gun Manor) came out a few years ago, fans have been wondering what Asymmetric would get up to next. (Besides maintaining their also-very-funny web game, Kingdom Of Loathing, of course.) Said fans found out this morning, when the indie studio announced the existence—and immediate release—of Shadows Over Loathing, a secret, fully-fledged sequel to West Of Loathing, which is now out on Steam today.
I’ve been playing Shadows Over Loathing over the last few weeks, on conditions that emphasize how seriously the game’s devs were taking this whole “surprise drop” thing. (Shout-out to any of my Steam friends who’ve been wondering why the hell I’ve been putting so many hours into “Generic Game Name” of late.) And I’m happy to report that Asymmetric has made a worthy successor to one of the funniest games of all time, a deeper and more elaborate follow-up that doesn’t sacrifice the first game’s devotion to widespread silliness.
As the name implies, Shadows ditches the Old West setting of the first game in favor of a 1920s-inspired world drenched in more overt references to Lovecraft and other horror authors. (An early, and very typical, gag reveals that the West isn’t even “West” anymore; progress-minded compass manufacturers have recently rolled out “New West,” which is actually just North.) Instead of demonic cows and evil rodeo clowns, players will now fend off vampiric flappers, confused fishmen, and a whole host of shadow creatures that tie into the game’s more rigorously structured plot, which tasks the player character with traveling to various locales to find and recover cursed objects.
Shadows benefits strongly from the discipline this plot structure imposes on it: While you can still explore in a more free-form manner, having larger quests at the center of each major location adds welcome focus to a game that could otherwise meander at times. It also adds genuinely exciting climax points to each chapter—either the conflicts to acquire the relics, or, more often than not, the metaphysical sequences that follow them when you try to break the curse. Besides being some of the most interesting puzzle designs in the game, the curse sequences also emphasize how Asymmetric has dialed into the horror elements that lurked in the background of West Of Loathing, creating genuinely unsettling moments out of little more than text (and surprisingly detailed stick figure art).
That puzzle design, along with the comedy, was a major part of what made West Of Loathing so compelling, allowing almost any situation to be approached from multiple angles. (Something emphasized here by the introduction of a “pacifist” mode that allows you to opt out of the game’s engaging, but not super-deep, combat entirely, in favor of finding sometimes very convoluted ways to get out of fights.) Shadows Over Loathing shares that devotion to respecting player choice—including the choice to just wade in and smack some gatormen in the face with cheese-based magicks, regardless of whether that’s the “right” thing to do.
If you liked West Of Loathing, Shadows Over Loathing is a slam dunk, ably matching, and often even besting, the things that made that game great. If you skipped it—but if the idea of a silly-scary role-playing game that emphasizes thinking your way around problems and encountering some of the best writing in modern games appeals—then this is a perfect point to jump into what I’m very happy to discover is now a genuine gaming franchise.