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Kingdom of Loathing (PC) artwork

Kingdom of Loathing (PC) review


"I'm a bit jealous it wasn't me who didn't listen, but hey, it's a great free game. Well, not quite. I've enjoyed donating to it for a while."



I drew too many stick figures when I was eight, and my parents and art teacher assured me no good would come of it. I also liked awful word-play but was told to focus on vocabulary. Someone forgot to teach that to Jick, who drew the stick figures in the turn-based comedy browser RPG Kingdom of Loathing, and Mr. Skullhead, who is apparently responsible for the crushing puns. I'm a bit jealous it wasn't me who didn't listen, but hey, it's a great free game. Well, not quite. I've enjoyed donating to it for a while.

What's it about? Well, ostensibly it's about freeing Loathing from the Naughty Sorceress, but along the way you'll find all sorts of qusts poking fun at the genre or received wisdom in general. The Toot Oriole on Mt. Noob exposs you to stuff like making food and booze, which give more adventures, and the puns and corny cultural and gaming references soon follow once you hit level 2 and are told to visit the Spooky Forest. It's all point and click, with noncombat adventures offering maybe three choices and combats letting you attack or use skills or items.

That's not to say the game's deliberately luddite. A couple years ago, combat macros were added so longtime players wouldn't waste time on repetitive bits. The devs are like that--constantly smoothing out the rough bits, often posting amusing little updates, often results of players complaining for a few months on the message board. It's not state of the art, but it's convenient. Perhaps some of this is pushed by KolMafia, a third-party Java app which allows people to automate their moves. It seems a huge chunk of the recurring fan base wanted to eliminate the dirty work of calculation.

Which is necessary to get good at that. Because the heart of the game is calculation. Whether it's calculating the best consumables to maximize your adventures or even your meat farming (that's Loathing's currency) or even how much you can increase monster level and still win fights, KoL forces its very best players to come up with weird ways of punching beyond their weight. Or, you know, you can just explore that silly side area that doesn't get you any closer to the Sorceress.

And what's neat is that KoL forces classes to depend on each other. While you can't gain any party members on quests, you rely on other classes' skills. Some items drop from monsters, but others must be crafted. Turtle Tamers can make advanced armor, and Seal Clubbers, another Muscle class, can make advanced weapons or pulverize items to make wads, which give adventures in exchange for spleen. Mysticality-based Saucerors and Pastamancers make advanced food, or potions that give temporary boosts, and Disco Bandits (Moxie) make drinks. Accordion Thieves sort of do it all--you can have three songs in your head a day, which can boost monster level or mainstat or even get more turns from booze.

Thus, KoL’s very interdependent for a single player RPG. People can build marketplaces and set prices, and in fact many power players offer one-a-day specials to help newbies. There’s also no super-item. Some give elemental protection: spooky protects against the undead, stench against pirates and hippies, and sleaze against fratboys. Others offer increased meat or item drops. Some quest items do a bit of both, but they're not optimal. So mixing up weapons is necessary, though sometimes it's just fun, because of the random attack messages for each. The same occurs with familiars, who are animal-like friends who do more stuff for you as they gain weight. Your first is a mosquito, who takes hit points from your opponent and gives them to you. Gravy fairies help random items drop more often, sombreros and volleyballs give additional statistic bonuses for each fight, and leprechauns gain more meat. The most infamous familiar, the OAF, was an April Fool's joke partially in response to someone complaining Crimbo was "suboptimal." After a family-unfriendly rant by Mr. Skullhead, the Traveling Trader, whose visits usually mean a limited-time powerful item, sold Optimal Ascension Familiars.

Shuffling familiars and items thus helps the main quests (one per level) from the Council of Loathing go quicker, as more areas open up: Mt. McLargeHuge, Cobb's Knob, Degrassi Knoll, the Arid Extra-Dry Desert, the Copse of the Deep Fat Friars, or the Cyrpt, where the Bonerdagon lies in the Haert. With enemies and scenery wonderfully line-drawn, more graphics would often be less. For instance, Racecar Bob, a random monster in the Palindome, drops A Butt Tuba, which has the following description:

Look, the fewer questions you ask about this, the happier you'll be. Just wash off the mouthpiece before you play it, okay?

I would not want this picture in color.

The groaners continue through the Penultimate Fantasy Airship, which sends up you-know-what, the Quest for the Holy MacGuffin, and the Orc Chasm full of n00bs, spam witches and 1337n355. At the Mysterious Island, you must start a war between the Orcish Fratboys and Filthy Hippies and kill off one or both sides. That opens the Sorceress's Lair, which mixes silly item hunts and monsters with 100000 hit points with interesting maze puzzles for an impressive finale.

The general silliness merits a casual run-through, with or without the thorough fan-based wiki. I took three weeks the first run. That was before ascending. On defeating the Naughty Sorceress, you can jump through the astral slash (one of many drawings and things that are sexually suggestive) and restart as a different class, at level one, with accomplishments noted in your profile and a new skill. Some people ascend repeatedly, but others build their characters to explore Hobopolis and the Slime Tunnel, available only on joining a clan, go Under the Sea, or gather funny tattoos or trophies to display in their profile. Some tattoos--which you get for wearing certain outfits to the Pretentious Artist's Hovel--are easy, like the Loser tattoo for an ugly cosplay outfit, but some require ascension or solving quests.

Trophies are even more random, and discovering them is often a community effort. You can get to level thirty as one class or gaining 1000 drunkenness points in a day. Or it might be something as simple as winning toast in PvP, which is partially based on statistics not helpful to winning the game. PvP is voluntary--you must break your Hippy Stone to play, and you can't fix it for two weeks. While it's a bit broken, it's totally whimsical and non-risk. KoL picks four random mini-games to go with the three statistic comparisons, so how drunk you got last night or how many vacations you took recently (the best way to boost stats) or the variety of foods you ate is very important indeed. PvP appeals to vanity, much like the wiki entries for each item that tell who has the most of item X--allowing everyone a potential moment of fame for hoarding the seventh-most yellow snowcones. Everyone can be the best at something.

But nobody really cares about wealthy. KoL players are more impressed with tricky ascensions. There are two basic types: normal, where you start mostly empty-handed but can pull twenty items per day from a previous life (until move 1000 when you get everything back,) and hardcore, where you can't pull anything and only have skills. Eating and drinking restrictions (Boozetafarian, Teetotaller or Oxygenarian) open special tattoos and powerful items as well, and in May 2011, special challenge paths ("I Hate Bees" restricted use of items with B in their name) give extra bonuses and new trophies. Koldb.com features leaderboards of best runs, and other challenges include Bad Moon, where you can beat the NS using a black cat familiar that actually disrupts you. The reward is worth it.

Bots are allowed, and even benevolent, from Haiku Oracle who mans the /haiku challenge (unlock it with the Extreme Haiku Challenge, which isn't) or chatbot, which rolls dice for anti-raffles (tickets are bargains in themselves.) Another bot undercut gougers' prices so severely at the Flea Market (characters below level five can't access the mall) that flame wars erupted on the official message board. And of course there are badly written bots to bilk, too.

The game itself’s still evolving. Probably the best move the developers made was to revamp Valhalla, where you go after you ascend. Suddenly you could be more flexible with what skills you can keep, and whether you keep them in softcore or hardcore. They offered different items. Strangely, a lot of what they've done with quests and special powerful items is to make them simpler. For instance, opening the Hidden Temple relied horrendously on luck, but they replaced all the critical adventures with one that branchesseveral ways. Or, people with Torso Awaregness can wear shirts and take the Astral Shirt from Valhalla, which gives stats and elemental damage. But it is a quest item, so it disappears on ascension. Elite players loaded skills and knowledge can try the Astral Belt, which cranks up monster level. The actual reforming of Valhalla was a world event where formerly useless items became very powerful with a twisty pun or two. It lasted a week and was great fun, even if my character wasn't powerful enough to take full advantage.

And such changes are clearly done with care. I started playing just as the developers rolled out class-specific Nemesis side quests, which had lain in wait several years. It's worth it, as each class has different challenges and a different final boss to defeat after a lava maze, and it encourages ascending and retrying. Though some delayed features become their own joke, too, like the Jackass Plumber video game (broken in a local arcade, then a semi-dud Crimbo gift) or various level quest revamps.

While KoL stays fresh, the developers have a tough line to walk. Most of their income is from serious players willing to buy Items of the Month. These make ascension or profiteering easier, and often they offer side quests, but if they are too weak, power players won't buy them. Donations of real money ($10 per Mister A) allow shopping in the Mr. Store. The Mr. A itself offers +15 to all stats but can be exchanged for special monthly items or even familiars that combine properties of other basic familiars. February '10 had a Libram of Bricko Summoning: cast spells and gain Lego knockoffs. Putting 6900 together makes a Gargantuchicken, a million hit point monstrosity that coughs up a familiar's egg on winning. It’s an unofficial side challenge in itself, with combats ending after thirty rounds "because that's just silly.”

One interesting IotM is a Crown of Thrones, which lets a second familiar do minor neat things, and a powerful IotM familiar is the Mini-Hipster, who gets into stat-building fights and may recharge hit points, magic points, or meat. He's based on Scott Pilgrim, but not too much. So at each month's start, people generally await something new and powerful--and a bunch of new jokes that go along with it all. But it can't be too much at once. Power creep is a very real issue as is in-game inflation, and special yearly events like Crimbo need to offer creativity without breaking the game. It's worked so far. I've learned a lot of economic lessons from KoL--as well as lessons in not making a game too easy or hard--but I didn't really understand inflation until I followed Mr. A prices for a bit (yes, people invest in those, too.)

KoL is a wonderful game not spoiled by easily available hints. Even poking at a chat acquaintance’s profile turns up something new. I've even learned about internet scripting, and about philanthropy and learning when to be happy with enough money, err, meat. None of this could've been imagined when KoL was created. It's much more than a bunch of stick figures or a chain of bad jokes. You'll know pretty quickly if the bad jokes and bad drawings are for you, but if you're the sort who bemoans technical progress at the expense of creativity, you will probably enjoy KoL even more than you'd expect.

Rating: 9/10

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Featured community review by aschultz (March 13, 2010)

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