Just recently, I decided to start playing Octopath Traveler 2 on my Nintendo Switch. Within a few hours, I could already see why it’s currently one of the best-reviewed games of the year. It has deep RPG systems, gorgeous HD-2D graphics, and a complex narrative that weaves together eight dramatic stories across its overworld. So it’s a little funny that I paused my journey six hours in to switch to a stick-figure RPG that deliberately contains none of that.
Shadows Over Loathing is a follow-up to 2017’s West of Loathing, an oddball Western that combines traditional RPG systems and very untraditional slapstick comedy. It’s not an ironic joke: The title earned a Seumas McNally Grand Prize nomination at the 2018 Independent Game Awards. Though its sequel quietly launched on PC last year, it got a bigger spotlight this week thanks to a Nintendo Indie World stream. Now available on Nintendo Switch, Shadows Over Loathing is a perfect distraction for anyone who needs a break from their 100-plus-hour RPGs.
Rather than going back to the Wild West, Shadows Over Loathing takes its signature brand of humor to 1920s America. Our stick-figure hero makes their way to Ocean City to meet up with their uncle, only to find themselves wrapped up in a paranormal mystery. Along the way, they come up against vampires, faeries, prohibition-era mobsters, gun-toting scarecrows, goblin jocks out to beat up nerds, very annoying cellists, and more.
It’s all a bit nonsensical — and that’s the point. It’s a true screwball comedy that’s simply out to get a rise out of players at every unpredictable turn. One minute I’m investigating an occult secret in a church basement, the next I’m trying to recover a geode from a frat house that’s obsessed with rocks. It has the energy of an old LucasArts point-and-click adventure, where any object you interact with will result in some kind of goofy punchline. That’s combined with a gleefully childlike sense of humor that makes the adventure feel like it was adapted from doodles in a kid’s notebook. Its stick-figure graphics support that feeling too, as does the fact that its overworld maps are presented as doodles on napkins and postcards.
While its story aims for pure farce, the gameplay formula that made West of Loathing such a bizarre charmer carries through here. It plays out like a miniature RPG, complete with a streamlined tabletop stat sheet, simplified turn-based combat, and lots of strange loot to collect (from extremely tiny pistols to astral goop that can be used to craft stuff you probably shouldn’t eat). It’s not the most refined experience, as battles get repetitive fast and it becomes difficult to keep an ever-expanding inventory full of junk organized, but I don’t get the sense it’s trying to be. Shenanigans are the name of the game, and its RPG systems are light enough to carry you from joke to joke without a lot of nitty-gritty character tweaking.
What I appreciate about both Loathing games is how they play out like parodies of the RPG genre at large, embracing some of its freeform absurdity. I mean, is anything here any more silly than the fact that Dragon Quest is full of smiling blue slimes or that Final Fantasy VII features a battle against “Hell House?” The series provides a good way to zoom out a bit and think about how playfully weird and imaginative some of the best RPGs are.
In that sense, I’m finding that Shadows Over Loathing is a surprisingly perfect interlude during my Octopath Traveler 2 playthrough. While it presents itself as a much more serious game with a grand narrative, it almost has a similar energy in how it hops between an Old West economic drama and a tropical Pokémon-catching adventure at a moment’s notice. It’s a little random when I look at it through Shadows Over Loathing’s goofball lens, but what do I care so long as I’m having fun?
Shadows Over Loathing is available now on Nintendo Switch and PC.