West of Loathing is a great game, definitely one of my favorites. So when I learned of a sequel that dropped by complete surprise, I was intrigued to say the least. Upon playing through it, I discovered that it was every bit as good as West, and even better in some places! So let's get into that, shall we?
Lights! Camera! Third noun that sounds like "action" and plays off something about the game!
First, what is this game? What's it like? What's going on? Where am I? What's the vat of acid for? Well, I'll answer some of these questions. Shadows Over Loathing (hereafter abbreviated as “SOL” or “Shadows”) is the sequel to West of Loathing (“WoL” or “West”) which is a spinoff of Kingdom of Loathing (“KoL” or “Kingdom”). The games take place in a shared universe, but you don't need to play any one of them to understand the other two. KoL is an MMORPG set in an aggressively silly medieval fantasy world (called “Loathing”), with crude stick-figure graphics. WoL is similar, except it's a single-player experience set in 1860s America, specifically in the southwest during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. SOL is also set in Loathing’s take on America, but on the east coast, during Prohibition, and with heavy influence from Lovecraft. A Loathing RPG differs from other RPGs by its focus on puzzle-solving, high number of sidequests, and incredibly goofy writing. I've heard it described as an RPG “as written by Monty Python and illustrated by XKCD”, which is a perfect description. Now, on with the review!
I'll just get this out of the way now: this is the silliest game I've ever played. Sillier than its predecessor, which until now had held that title. From the Cola Wars (a literal civil war between two cola manufacturers), to the ridiculously versatile hobo code, to the ten thousand throwaway jokes, I absolutely laughed my [HUMOROUS BODY PART] off playing this game. That's not to say it's all comedy. This game can be VERY dark when it needs to be, and it's made scarier by the sheer contrast between the aforementioned goofiness and... this.
And god, the MUSIC! Ryan Ike is a damn genius. WoL had great music, but only a couple tracks were ones I would listen to on my own time. Nearly EVERY song in this game is perfect! From the dreary ominousness of Ocean City (”The Lack of Color Out of Space”), to the nostalgic melancholy of Lake Crystaldream (”Works and Ways Unseen”), to the energizing panic of the Seaside Institute battle theme (“Advanced Phalangealkinetics”)... They're all just so good! Special attention MUST be given to Damage Up the secondary antagonists' themes, though. I love the bitter chill of Noël’s Theme the bombastic self-importance of Bruise's Theme, and I've never heard a song that exuded as much sheer menace as Terrence’s Theme.
The writing is also just great, both plot-wise and dialogue-wise. I especially like the descriptions of cursed items, talking about them as if they were alive in some way. There's also just a bunch of flavor text in every nook and cranny, and it's basically all jokes. I really like this "joke-a-minute" approach to comedy (Top Secret and Spaceballs are two of my favorite movies), so I give the writing a "very good" out of seven.
Just like its predecessor, this game is stuffed with sidequests, from doing dirty work for the mafia to literally going back in time through an outhouse to clear the name of a town of supposed witches. There might be more side content than main content! Because of the map structure you’re basically guaranteed to encounter sidequests wherever you go, which keeps things fresh. And all the major sidequests are finished this time, which is a relief. Looking at you, Barnaby Bob!
The main quests are no slouch, either. Each day unlocks a new section of the world (with its own map) to explore, with its own cursed artifact to retrieve and purify, as well as a new wacky misfit to add to your team!
And about those cursed artifacts… [Spoilers Ahead!]
The game is split into five main chapters, and in each one the main quest requires that you retrieve a horrifically cursed item from somewhere in the world. A cursed compass (that points to Evil North) from a lighthouse, a book of dark spells from a library, stuff like that. The curse can be removed using an uncursing machine (which makes sense), turning the item into a purified version that can be used like any other item, with the additional option of solving a mind-bending puzzle to destroy the curse entirely and strengthen the item. But the best part? You don't have to uncurse ANYTHING! You can wear a cursed fedora, follow the cursed compass, fight with a cursed sickle... You can even read the evil book. In fact, all the uncursed items are demonstrably worse than their cursed counterparts, such as the cursed pocketwatch lowering an opponent's stats by 13 while the uncursed one only lowers stats by 5! It's an interesting tradeoff, sacrificing a powerful item for spiritual purity.
You also periodically face off against a nemesis of sorts, an employee of the Shadow Government determined by your character class. Pig Skinners go up against the loudmouthed General Bruise, Cheese Wizards face the Crimbo-themed court wizard Dark Noël, and Jazz Agents match with the rule-obsessed IRS commissioner Terrence Pointdexter. Their dialogue is great, really making the player fucking hate them, which is the best kind of villain writing in my opinion. They all answer to Shadow President Margaret ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️, a mysterious figure with very spiky hair. She gets built up as this looming threat, but you only meet her in person at the very end of the game, which creates some good tension. (Also her name is almost always written in an indecipherable script, but there's exactly one point in the game where it can be seen in English. It's one of the companion vignettes, that's all I'll say.)
The previous game's Nex-Mex (Southwestern necromancy) and Cowrruption mechanics, both forms of evil magic, have been merged into one, with your "shadow taint" level increasing as you consume shadow items. A high enough shadow taint level allows you to read the book to gain eeevil skills and enables certain random encounters. There's even a couple special endings you can get from it! I won't say any more, this really is something you should experience yourself.
The Shadow itself is legitimately frightening, as is just about everything connected to it. The uncursing puzzles especially just give me a deep sense that something is very, very wrong.
[Spoilers end here, but they will return!]
The combat has been tweaked from the previous game. In WoL, you could use as many combat items as you like, but here you're limited to one per turn. There’s also a cap on your stats now (15), which you’re unlikely to ever reach. This makes it so you can't just massively overlevel yourself or rain dynamite on the enemy with reckless abandon. I find this to be a good thing, as the combat in West was a little repetitive because there was sort of just one strategy. This cap makes the game feel more balanced overall, which is nice.
Armor pieces don't all increase your stats, with certain equipment types giving other buffs. Off-hand items grant an extra skill in combat, rings give you some kind of buff in combat, and shoes make you walk silly. It makes minmaxing a lot harder, but you're not really supposed to do that, so it's not that big of a deal.
All of Kingdom's elemental damage types return, Sleaze having been absent from West, though I'm not sure if their various strengths and weaknesses against other elements are still there, but it’s not that much of a problem.
You can actually have more than one partner on a save file this time, though you can only have one with you at once. The partners are great, too. I especially like Molly Buttons, a badass mobster lady who speaks entirely in 1920s slang. She’s probably the strongest combat-wise, as well. Familiars also return from Kingdom, having been absent from West. I only really used the mosquito, who I named Sucky Sarnes, but he was very helpful.
The bad (spoilers ahead! Again!)
RevealSomething small enough to escape casual notice. Alright, it’s time. I love this game, but it absolutely has its flaws.
For one, the final zone is… well…
You receive a letter from the government official who’s been menacing you the whole game, calling you to one of three locations: the army recruitment center for Pig Skinners, the DMV (department of magic and vehicles) for Cheese Wizards, or the IRS building for Jazz Agents. After solving a large puzzle, you finally face off against the jerk who called you here. You can fight them, outwit them, or if your shadow taint is high enough, absorb them. This is all great. My issue is not with the ending itself, but the final zone. Government Valley is somehow even grayer than the rest of the game, and there’s just very little to actually do. I guess Frisco didn’t have much either, but that was one town. This is a whole map! There’s a jail with a bunch of sidequests that lead nowhere (unless you're a Pig Skinner), a couple areas where you can fight enemies, and… nothing else, really. The final quest is good, I just wish there was more to do in the surrounding area.
The final showdown against Shadow President Margaret ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️ is also a bit anticlimactic. I just wish her motivation was a bit more than just "taking over the universe", you know? It's not that much of a problem, but when the rest of the plot is as fleshed out as it is, it's a littl
e strange. The Jazz Agent is a really fun class, but their battle theme leaves a lot to be desired. The concept behind it is great, actions you take in battle directly affecting the song, but it just lacks the energy all the other battle themes have. There's only one theme, too, while the other classes have a different battle theme for each area. It’s not even jazz! There’s actually a surprising lack of jazz for a game set in 1928.
The Beanslinger’s “Outfoxin’” skill has been replaced by the Cheese Wizard’s “Bewitch” skill, and it’s just not as fun. Functionally, they’re the same, but the writing is totally different! Outfoxin’ was being smarter (or at least appearing so) than your adversary, you really felt like you had accomplished something. Bewitch just hypnotizes them! There’s no clever tricks, no displays of knowledge! It’s made worse by the fact that the Jazz Agent’s Bamboozle skill is basically the same as the Snake Oiler’s Hornswogglin’, and the Pig Skinner’s Brag skill is a lot funnier than the Cow Puncher’s Intimidatin’. It’s only the smart one who has to suffer!
The game has a lot of different endings and quest outcomes, but for most quests, if you want to get another outcome than the one you got initially, you have to play the game over again! There are no save states whatsoever, only different save files, and I really wish that wasn't the case. There's an entire petrified frat house in the third chapter, but I don't know if there's anything I can do about it because neither of my files where I've unlocked the area have the Psychogeologist skill, and my file with the skill doesn't have any way of accessing the area! Maybe there are save states and I just don't know about them, but as far as I know there aren't any.
One last complaint, but it's real silly. In the fourth chapter, you can find a broken down truck in a swamp. Interacting with the hood gives the prompt "eat the engine." This leads to a moderately long argument with the narrator, and it eventually turns out that someone else already ate it. This argument finishes with you saying, "I'll eat the next engine I see." The next engine you encounter, in the fifth chapter, is A: sitting on a pedestal in an abandoned building, free for the taking, and B: LITERALLY MADE OF BEANS! Interacting with it... Nothing about eating it. Not even a prompt. I wanna eat the bean-engine, damn it! RETURN MY CALLS, ASYMMETRIC!
I could remark on some of the puzzles being obtuse, but that's a staple of Loathingverse games. I will say, however, that the Mudhenge puzzle is a worthy successor to West's "Five Piles" riddle, the actual riddle of which was reverse-engineered from the datamined solution. None of the crazy puzzles are mandatory, so it's all fine.
[Spoilers end here! Again!]
The verdict This game is great. It does just about everything right, and provides some much-needed quality of life improvements over its predecessor. The plot is more focused, the music and graphics are better, and the quests are more fun. While it's not my favorite game of all time, that would be Shovel Knight, I'd say Shadows Over Loathing executes what it's trying to do near-perfectly. Definitely check it out if you like RPGs and/or silliness. Final rating: 9 outta 10.