I'm going to break with tradition just a little bit and give you the conclusion to this review upfront.
Shadows Over Loathing is such a massive improvement over its forerunner West of Loathing that if you played the previous game - whether you liked it or not - you owe it to yourself to at least check out the new one.
I actually had mixed feelings about West of Loathing myself. As a longtime fan of the progenitor of this universe, the pun-and-pop-culture jamboree that is Kingdom of Loathing, I felt almost obliged to pick up its sequel. I walked away feeling like it was okay but not as good as most people seemed to think.
Mainly, it was down to the overall feel of the game. Kingdom of Loathing is a game that never takes itself seriously at all and revels in absurdity and surrealism. West of Loathing, on the other hand, ended up being an unexpectedly dark and gritty title, and that was not what I was anticipating.
So heading into a title like Shadows of Loathing, I figured that the good people at developer Asymmetric Games had turned that darkness knob until it broke off. In a sense, they have - but the result is something that really stands out, even from their previous work.
Most of this review is going to focus on how Asymmetric's commercial releases differ from each other. On a mechanical level, the two games are very similar, but there are fundamental distinctions that are well worth exploring.
Like any good piece of surrealist dark fiction, Shadows Over Loathing begins with a cryptic letter from a distant relative. Called to the big city by your uncle, you arrive in the middle of the night only to find that said uncle has vanished without a trace. That may be connected to his profession - while a humble antiquarian on the surface, he was in fact part of a team dedicated to hunting down cursed objects. With the uncle gone, it's up to you to pick up his mantle and finish his work.
Shadows Over Loathing is technically a sequel to West of Loathing. Both are set in the same pseudo-American world, with Shadows set a few generations after West in a Depression-esque time period. It's an age of speakeasies, gangsters, freight hoppers, and flappers, but one with unspeakable forces bubbling just under the surface. This mingling of film noir and weird fiction is key to the overall tenor of the game, with the minimalist art style enhancing the experience.
This is the first difference between the two titles, and it's an important one. West of Loathing is a pretty plot-light game - you have a simple mission (reach the coast) and everything else is a self-contained obstacle. Shadows, by contrast, has a plot and it matters. As it turns out, your uncle's team was onto something big - but, of course, I'm not about to give away anything more than that.
The two Loathing games are nearly identical on a mechanical level, but here's a quick rundown for those of you who missed out on West of Loathing:
Both games are old-school open-world RPGs closely akin to something like Wasteland or Fallout. The player travels between discrete areas on an overworld map, running into random encounters on the way. These encounters can reveal new locations and new quests, or they may simply be stumbling blocks. Quests themselves usually have multiple solutions - using learned skills, solving puzzles, or simply knocking around enough heads.
Combat is turn-based, with the player able to perform many actions - attacking, using special abilities and items - in one turn. That might seem unbalanced, but most fights are tilted against the character. With the enemies usually outnumbering the player's side and the main character never more than a few hits away from death, the wise player avoids combat whenever feasible. Pacifist runs are possible (Shadows even has a setting to assist with this), but even a bloodthirsty player would be wise to learn some discretion.
None of this has changed, and anyone familiar with the mechanics of West will pick up on Shadows quickly. However, the overall structure of the game has been changed in a way that's going to make it easier for new players to get into the action.
West of Loathing has some degree of structure in that the mainline quests split the game into parts, but it's still something of a free-for-all. By contrast, Shadows is formally divided into chapters - completing a mainline quest unlocks not just a new quest, but a new area.
While I'm sure that some open-world purists might grumble about this, it makes the game much more manageable. In West of Loathing, one could easily miss 90% of the game on a playthrough, with some of the sidequests being so arcane that you need a guide to find and complete them. By staggering the pace, Shadows give the player more of an opportunity to discover everything that the game has to offer.
And believe me, you do want to see everything that Shadows has to offer. While ostensibly a horror game, Shadows isn't all that scary, but it does get extremely surreal at times, and many of the quests (especially those deep in the game) are memorable in how bizarre they get.
The overall style of the game really contributes to this. Stick figures and simple black-and-white illustrations are a trademark of Asymmetric games, but they are an especially good fit in the film noir world of Shadows of Loathing. Even within the limitations of the minimalistic graphics, the developers find ways to play with light and shadow in ways that contribute to the sense of creeping dread.
It's here that I really have to mention how the sound contributes to this. As with the previous game, Shadows was scored by Ryan Ike, who already had experience with that early 20th-century sound via his work on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. The soundtrack features a blend of the heavy strings of gothic horror and the jazz of the prohibition era, with sound effects that follow the beat. You'll even find music-themed combat abilities that modify the songs in subtle ways when they are in effect.
Put simply, if (like me) you normally play video games with the sound off, make an exception here.
None of which is to say that Shadows of Loathing is a game without faults. Some of the puzzles are extremely obtuse (though there are usually ways around these), and the game has some of the pacing issues inherent to the subgenre. Early on it takes forever to earn money and experience; by the end, you'll have a lifetime supply of each, which can make the quests tedious.
These are minor issues, though. Shadows Over Loathing is a real gem, blessed with gameplay, story, and style that makes the whole package gripping. It's a real "lost hour" game, the kind that makes you forget that time is passing at all.
To repeat what I said at the top: If you played West of Loathing, give Shadows Over Loathing a shot. If you liked the first one, this is better. If you didn't? This might change your mind.
Shadows Over Loathing is available for PC via Steam.
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