When a game makes you audibly chuckle before you’ve even had a chance to press a button, you know you’re in for a good time. Shadows over Loathing, a cosmic horror RPG from studio Asymmetric is positively bursting with comedy and creativity. It’s a snappy, 1920’s-themed adventure that’s simply a joy to spend time in.
Like its cowboy-themed predecessor West of Loathing (which I loved), Shadows over Loathing is crafted with Asymmetric’s signature visual style – a monochrome world made up of simple stick figure characters and stark environments that look as if they’ve been drawn with black marker pen. And as proven with West of Loathing, this unassuming visual style, accompanied by vividly written descriptions and sharp dialogue, allows for a great range of scenarios and comedic setups that let your imagination fill in the blanks, making them that much more effective.
Part RPG and part adventure game, Shadows over Loathing sees your malleable and very impressionable protagonist travel to Ocean City at the request of their antique shop-owning uncle, only to find themself wrapped up in the strange circumstances of his disappearance. This mystery involves cursed objects, dream dimensions, strange creatures, and countless quirky characters. Lovecraftian horrors mix with prohibition-era America, jazz and hobo culture, and none of it is taken seriously.
A relatively straightforward turn-based combat system plays a big part in the game, and involves a rotating roster of companion characters, weird elemental modifiers, and even weirder unique abilities. It’s a pleasantly forgiving system – your party completely heals after each battle, and rare occurrences of losing a fight will often see you earn beneficial perks as a result of your beatdown.
Like any good detail-oriented RPG, there are also plenty of crafty methods to avoid combat too – even outside of an overarching ‘Pacifist’ gameplay option that eliminates them completely. There are people to meet and help (or not), side quests to complete, and adventure game-style item puzzles to solve, often with multiple solutions, depending on your approach and character build.
These structural bones aren’t exceptionally unique or remarkable in themselves, but it’s the vibrant personality slathered onto every aspect of those things, like layers of flesh, blood, and skin, that bring Shadows over Loathing to life, and make it so endearing.
Virtually every little mechanical or narrative element in Shadows over Loathing is some kind of gag, and if it isn’t, it’s an elaborate setup to a punchline. Puns, wordplay, absurdity, misdirection, physical comedy – it’s all thrown at the wall here, and for me, a lot of it sticks.
For example, the three character classes in Shadows over Loathing are ‘Pig Skinner’, ‘Cheese Wizard’, and ‘Jazz Agent’. Equipping different kinds of shoes serves no purpose other than to give your character a variety of silly walking animations, from high steps to riding the ground like a horse. Reading a big book of dirty jokes will give you a bonus to your endurance against Sleaze (one of the elemental effects).
The game’s faceless narrator often pushes back on your decision to do questionable or disingenuous things in the world, to comedic effect. Character perks include things like ‘Expert Sitter’ and ‘Warm Hands’. The game’s menu has an option to cater to Arachnophobia (‘You won’t encounter any spiders’) and Arachnophilia (‘You will encounter so many spiders’). Every item description, every conversation you have, every action you do contains some little joke. At one point someone called milk ‘fatwater’, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
It’s not just comedy, there’s a sense of style here too. My favourite touch of this Jazz Age-themed game is how music plays a big part in its presentation, whether it be inanimate objects in the environment adding their own accompaniment to the soundtrack, or how music adds a layer of vibrancy to the fights. Successful hits add flourishes with cymbal crashes, certain abilities add additional new instrumental layers, and one of my favourite companion characters specialises in dishing out hot licks (figuratively and literally) on his oboe.
Shadows over Loathing will put a smile on your face, and keep it there. It’s a detailed and endlessly amusing RPG, with a delightfully lighthearted vibe and a constant stream of delightful, funny gaffs for you to nourish yourself on. Asymmetric knows how to make a good comedy game, and it’s well worth getting in on the joke.
Four Stars: ★★★★
The PC version of Shadows Over Loathing was provided and played for the purposes of this review.