If you were playing a standard RPG you probably wouldn’t put an item called a Ring of Weakness on your finger. But an Inside-Out Ring of Weakness? “When you put this on, you’re technically the only person not wearing it,” the ring’s description explains. “Everybody but you loses 1 of each stat at the start of combat.”
This is the sort of clever silliness you’ll discover roughly every 30 seconds when you step into Shadows Over Loathing, a new and completely unannounced (until today) 2D stick-figure RPG from Asymmetric Productions, makers of long-running online RPG Kingdom of Loathing and 2017’s ridiculously funny singleplayer RPG West of Loathing. It’s out on Steam right now, just like that.
I know it’s not Starfield, the game that was supposed to launch on 11/11/22. But does Starfield let you eat interdimensional hot dogs or drink bottles of pork soda while you’re beating gun-toting fairies over the head with a guitar? I’m guessing it doesn’t.
Set in the 1920s, Shadows Over Loathing begins when I pay a visit to Ocean City to help out my Uncle Murrary, who runs an antique shop. But when I arrive, Murray is missing, so I set out to find him. Along the way I meet and talk to dozens of oddball characters, solve puzzles, gather a collection of cursed artifacts, try on a number of hats, and battle with gatormen, gangsters, goblins, and other bizarre and silly enemies in turn-based combat.
As you can tell, a lot happens in Shadows Over Loathing, and it all happens very quickly. I was just a guy looking for his uncle but now I’m also a legit Cheese Wizard: I have a perk called Fondue Deluge that causes a rain of burning fromage to fall on my enemies. My magic wand is a set of enchanted barbeque tongs that do heat damage, but also does some bleed damage because I glued a razor to them.
I was briefly a dinosaur, I’ve thrown a nuke at a crowd of angry robots, I can harvest roaches for milk, and I solved a murder mystery on a moving train faster than Hercule Poirot could wax his moustache. This is all within just a few hours of play, and I’m not even sure how much of the game is left. Hopefully, plenty more, because so far it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.
In my inventory is a huge jumble of items like a baklava (which I found inside a balaclava), some loose radiation (I can eat it if I choose to), a pair of foot gloves (they let me walk on my hands for no reason other than it’s funny to do so), fireproof gardening pants that regenerate my HP, a “nasty mop” (for stink damage), and my grandfather’s teeth (I honestly can’t remember where I found them, but it might have been in a dream).
As in West of Loathing, you can learn the locations of new places to visit on your 2D open world map—Ocean City’s layout is scrawled on a cocktail napkin, another map is drawn on a slice of cheese—but you’ll uncover several new regions by talking to other characters, accepting quests, or even by randomly wandering around. As you move from place to place, you’ll usually run into a random encounter along the way, which could be combat, a vendor, or a conversation with some goofball that presents a few dialogue choices. I even ran into myself once while wandering, and we high-fived.
Unlike most RPGs, where I’m eager to end conversations and get to the combat, it’s the opposite here. Talking to the weirdos of this world is the highlight. Every shred of text in a conversation, on a sign, in a book, or even in my inventory, is another chance for the developer to squeeze in a couple more jokes.
Quests sometimes start out simple—go into the office at the local college—and then sprawl out to ridiculous lengths—you need to be a college graduate to go through that door, so please get a degree at the college first. No, really. Pick your major and some elective classes, and graduate. That’s the only way you’re getting through that door. Puzzles range from simple to surprisingly difficult, and I’d definitely recommend keeping a notepad handy to jot things down, especially if you come across some weird detail and you’re not sure where it fits in yet.
While I didn’t love the turn-based combat in West of Loathing, I’m enjoying it mightily here, probably due to the sheer number of different items I can use in the fight, from revolvers to sporks to an ice-cream scoop that does cold damage, not to mention the potions I can glug or the “food” I can eat before a fight to give me a multitude of buffs. Add in all the throwable objects like baseballs, globs of unbaked dough, seltzer grenades, and a leftover rocket from the Cola Wars, and every battle feels like I’m spoiled for options.
That said, cleverly written as Shadows Over Loathing is, I haven’t laughed out loud quite as much while playing it as I did with West of Loathing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still highly entertaining with more throwaway jokes per minute than most games contain in their entirety, but I’d have to say (at least so far) it’s not quite as funny as West of Loathing. This may be due to the setting: the Wild West is just an amazingly ripe backdrop for humor, and early 20th century America isn’t quite as fertile ground. Or it may just be that West of Loathing set the bar incredibly high by being one of the funniest games ever made.
Either way, I’ve really enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with Shadows Over Loathing so far, and it feels like there’s a lot left. I still haven’t found my uncle, there are plenty of blank spots on my maps, and while my inventory is positively bursting with ridiculous items like fairy wands, a dirty saxophone, and a baseball cap made of stone, I’ve got the feeling there’s room for plenty more.