I've given up trying to describe Kingdom of Loathing (KoL) to my friends. "It's an online adventure of sorts," I usually say, "and I'm currently a Pastamancer, armed with a spaghetti catapult and clad in a frilly skirt, sporting a monocle I took off a rat. Who was also a Baron." And it's around about that point that my friends politely excuse themselves and make very rapidly to go about doing something else.
Kingdom of Loathing is, in a word, bonkers. It's entirely unlike any game I've ever played; packed to the brim with surreal humour, obscure pop culture references and weird and improbable creatures. It's a completely browser-based adventure MMO of sorts, where a Naughty Sorceress has imprisoned the rightful King of the land of Loathing and let monsters run amok. It's your job to put a stop such goings on and see the King back on the throne. To do so you'll need to pick a class of adventurer, and it's as you do this that you'll get an immediate taste of what to expect from the rest of the game. Options for your career include the Seal Clubber, Disco Bandit and Pastamancer (master of noodlecraft, don't you know), each career more bizarre than the last and with not a shred of seriousness between them. Some are clearly combat classes, like the Clubber relying on his muscle attributes, while the likes of the Pastamancer is intended to cast various spells to defeat opponents instead. Choose one, and set off on your adventures.
The game takes a turn-based approach to play. Each day you'll be given a set number of Adventures to use, usually around forty. The amount you get is largely static, but can be slightly influenced by certain items you possess. Most actions within the game, such as exploring locations or crafting items, cost one or more Adventures to perform. If you explore the same site three times, engaging in combat with monsters along the way, it will cost you three Adventures. Additional Adventures can also be gained from consuming food and booze within the game and from using other items. It's quite easy to spend your daily quota of Adventures in a lunch hour, making KoL a nice option for some bite-sized gaming, but if you're looking to power through the quests quickly you'll be frustrated as the game simply won't give you enough Adventures to do so quickly.
Adventuring, naturally, gives you experience and increases your character's level within the game, while also providing rewards in the form of new weapons, equipment and meat, the game's currency (I did say it was strange...). To level up you need to increase your main attribute (which varies by class) by a certain amount. It's straighforward enough when put like that, but the game's interface doesn't make it easy to get at or organise information. There are minor attributes like Chutzpah and Beefiness, but how these feed into the main attributes is never really made clear. Indeed, it's often not immediately apparent what actions are best to perform to increase your level effectively. Couple this to the fact that there's often a minimum level you need to be at to complete a quest, and you'll find it's easy to become bogged down in your progress, confused as to what you should do next. And when it comes to trying to sell and make items, or outfit your character, the interface is clunky at best and maddeningly obtuse at worst. If you want to get a proper handle on things you will need to go outside the game to the comprehensive wiki, which helps tremendously but is far from ideal.
As you might suspect from the screenshots, KoL isn't a visually ambitious game either. The hand drawn style is not without it's charm, but the game relies very heavily on the quality of its writing to make up for its aesthetic deficiencies. Every monster, every location, item and fight comes with its own descriptive, often giggle-inducing text with plenty of variation. During one combat resolution, for example, I was told that Steve Guttenberg rescued me from the cocoon of a giant spider (for no reason, apparently), and later when fighting another that I dodged an attack by telling the spider it was my hero and flattering it into not doing me any damage. There's always at least a couple of different responses for seemingly every situation and as a result the game is absolutely bursting with jokes. Many will simply go over your head but you'll still find yourself regularly chuckling as the game trots out an especially strange description or situation. The real upshot of this approach is that it makes it easier for the game to include more content, as it's always easier to describe a location in a few funny sentences than design and create a graphical object.
Although ostensibly an MMO, it's entirely possible to play through KoL in its entirety without having to interact with anyone. The multiplayer elements like Clans and Player versus Player combat are strictly opt in. If you want to fight other players, you simply smash your magical Hippy Stone, one of your in-game items. If you decide you want out again, you can rebuild the stone after two weeks. For Clans, you need to be of a certain level before you can join one, and there's a lot of potential benefits to be had such as access to limited areas in Loathing and equipment to boost attributes. Outside of that there's a strong community around the game, the members of which in my experience were generally polite and helpful. If you have to communicate with someone in the chat channels or the forum then you'll usually get an intelligible response. The developers thought to require each user to pass a basic, in-game literacy test (administered by the Ghost of the English Language) before letting them into the chat channels, which I suspect has been responsible in part for the good standard of friendly discourse within.
While KoL is refreshingly unique, it's idiosyncracies will most certainly not be to everyone's taste. I imagine some people will not find it in the least bit funny and everyone will definitely get confused or frustrated with the interface and mechanics of the game at some point. The question is ultimately whether or not it's worth persevering, and I'd urge you to give KoL a thorough look. It's completely free, has a helpful community backing it and can be conveniently dipped into during your day without the need to download anything. It's got masses of content with plenty of variety and regular updates to boot, which is more than most games of this kind can boast. As playful distractions go, for the rock bottom price of zero dollars, you could do an awful lot worse.
- Surreal humor. Witty writing and descriptions. Friendly, literate community.
- Somewhat clunky interface. Poor in-game help. Idiosyncratic gameplay and graphics