By danielkempster 11 Comments
Hey folks, Dan Kempster here with my first proper Giant Bomb blog entry of the year. I had hoped to put something together about Axiom Verge after making it my first completed game of 2016 last week, but I found myself struggling to articulate how I felt about it at any length. It's a pretty cool retro-throwback 2D Metroidvania game that subverts player expectations in some really interesting ways, and... that's about all I can muster. It's a shame, as I was expecting to have a lot to say about it. What I wasn't expecting at all was for my first blog of 2016 to be a close reading of a PlayStation 3 HD remaster of an original Xbox game from 2005. Funny how these things turn out, isn't it?
I've spent the last week or so playing through Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath for the first time. As someone who considers themselves a stalwart fan of the Oddworld franchise, it was a bit of an embarrassing black-spot in my personal gaming history. Part of the reason it's taken so long to get around to is that even by the spectacular standards of oddness set by the series, Stranger's Wrath is something of a black sheep. It doesn't deal in the same logic-busting puzzle-platforming as its predecessors, instead serving up an experience that's part first-person shooter and part third-person action-platformer. It's a strange, almost unnatural hybrid, but it works better than you might expect, partly because in spite of this major mechanical shift it's still a quintessentially 'Oddworld' experience. In fact, now that I've had some time to mull it over, I think Stranger's Wrath might just be the most 'Oddworld' game in the franchise to date.
When I think of Oddworld, there are a few things that instantly come to mind. The franchise as a whole is known for its distinctive art style, blending vibrant natural environments with grimy industrial interiors and populating them with casts of inventively-designed, pseudo-alien creatures. It's also famous for its sense of humour, condensed into wonderful slapstick moments, pithy quips and ever-present fart jokes (the original Abe's Oddysee was perhaps the first video game ever to feature a button dedicated to bum-trumping).
But there's another major component within the Oddworld engine that I've always believed to be its driving force - a strong undercurrent of environmentalism and anti-consumerism. The games have ecosystems defined by hierarchies and interaction, such that even the most menacing wild creatures exhibit qualities that the player can empathise with and see value in. From Abe's Oddysee to Munch's, the one constant across the Oddworld games prior to Stranger's Wrath is that the protagonists are from simple, nature-loving, peaceful races, while the antagonists are industrial warmongers obsessed with raking in as much Moolah as possible. The Glukkons enslaved the Mudokons and forced them to work in their factories, to extract maximum profits from their various enterprises. They drove several wild species to near-extinction, desecrated ancient temples and burial grounds, and all in the name of making a fast buck. Abe's victories as he dismantles the Glukkons' villainous corporations carry the message that individuals can action change in business practices, especially when those companies are behaving in morally dubious ways.
These environmentalist tropes are initially nowhere to be seen in Stranger's Wrath. The first two thirds of the game avoid the issue altogether, in fact, using Stranger's morally ambiguous positioning within the game's world to focus instead on a completely different, much more personal struggle - his attempt to secure enough Moolah to pay for some life-saving surgery. Sure, on the surface, Stranger is a good guy. He's a bounty hunter, he spends his time tracking down and bagging the Outlaws terrorising the local towns and villages and generally making the area a safer place to be. But his motivations are selfish. He's not like Abe, taking on dangerous missions selflessly to try and save all the Mudokons. His drive is selfish, his pursuit is Moolah, and his reasoning is survival. In those respects, Stranger's really not all that different from the Glukkons we loved to hate in the first three Oddworld games.
It's only when the game reaches its turning point around six hours into its nine-hour running time that its focus becomes more traditionally 'Oddworldian', for lack of a better phrase. It's revealed that Stranger is actually a Steef, an ancient race of centaur-like creatures, who have protected another fish-like race called the Grubbs for generations. The Steef are almost extinct and their heads are in high demand as hunting trophies, which is why Stranger's so keen to get some Moolah together - so he can have his four legs turned into two and pass for a biped without fear of being (literally) head-hunted. At around the same time as this reveal, Stranger is rescued from captivity by a group of Grubbs, who take him back to their village and explain their situation to him - their village is under threat due to a prolonged drought, brought about after a dam was constructed by a ruthless businessman named Sekto. Stranger empathises with their plight and decides to embrace his role as a Steef, vowing to take the fight to Sekto Industries and restore the Grubbs to prosperity. From here on out the story is much more your typical Oddworld fare, as Stranger battles Sekto's Wolvark armies and finds a way to put a stop to his diabolical scheme.
What's particularly interesting to me is how Stranger's Wrath supplements this dramatic tonal shift with some equally drastic mechanical changes. Throughout the bulk of the game, while Stranger is gathering funds for his mysterious 'operation', Moolah is a core component of the gameplay. It's earned for completing bounty missions, it's found in chests, barrels and boxes all over Oddworld, and it can be spent in exchange for upgrades to Stranger's health, stamina and ammo. The player is actively encouraged to pursue Moolah above all else, to bring bounties back alive for a higher payout. Even the simple fact that NPCs drop a small amount of cash when attacked plays into this mindset, conditioning the player to behave in morally questionable ways in order to maximise their income.
When the story reaches its aforementioned turning point, though, Moolah disappears from the game almost entirely. Enemies no longer drop any when killed, and instead provide you with more ammo reserves when bountied. It ceases to be found in the destructible containers that litter the environment. Almost all of the upgrades invested in are removed, forcing the player to get along without them. The world of Stranger's Wrath suddenly becomes a world where Moolah is no longer king, no longer the be-all and end-all, and in its place is a drive to do right by the mild-mannered Grubbs by living up to Stranger's heritage and bringing down the industrial threat poised to consume this corner of Oddworld. It's an incredible piece of narrative reinforcement through gameplay, something so rarely seen in an industry where 'ludonarrative dissonance' has become a key buzzword. Not to mention a very brave decision on the part of the developers at Oddworld Inhabitants, who must have known that stripping one aspect of their core gameplay back rather than building upon it was a huge risk in an industry where incremental progression is king.
These narrative and mechanical shifts serve to do something that no previous Oddworld game ever really came close to, in my eyes - they give the protagonist a complete character arc. Abe and Munch, for all their clumsy faults, are always on the 'right' side of Oddworld's great conflict between nature and industry, and as a result their characters never really go anywhere. Stranger, on the other hand, develops from a self-centred bounty hunter, ashamed of his own lineage, into a proud Steef who puts the protection of other, weaker creatures above his own desires. His development is believable not just because it feels natural within the story, but also because the changes to Stranger's Wrath's core gameplay complement that development both tonally and mechanically. More than anything, though, I think it's the best route for his character to go - Stranger is the first protagonist in an Oddworld game with tangible physical power, and to see him use that power to help others is a much more fitting end to his character arc than the completion of his selfish pursuit of Moolah and self-preservation. It makes him my favourite Oddworld protagonist, and Stranger's Wrath my favourite Oddworld game, both by considerable margins.
I think that's going to do it for today, seeing as my brain is starting to feel a little fried. I hope I've managed to articulate exactly why I think Stranger's Wrath is such a special piece of game design, and why I think it's well worth playing whether you're an established fan of the Oddworld franchise or not. The PlayStation 3 version currently retails for £9.99 on PSN, and the PC version of the game is £6.99 on Steam (around $15 and $10 respectively), both very reasonable prices for one hell of a game that's aged remarkably well. I'm still undecided what my next video game adventure will be, but in the meantime I'm thinking of revisiting Assassin's Creed Syndicate on PS4 and trying to hit 100% synchronisation. Thanks very much for reading guys. Take care, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)