Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath
Review by Davo
It's an Oddworld After All
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath for the Xbox is not your typical
first-person shooter. Rather than emulate the military (Medal
of Honor), science fiction (Halo 2) or hellish (Doom
3) settings common to most first-person shooters, Oddworld
Inhabitants, the developer of Stranger's Wrath, chose to
set the game in an environment that invokes images of the Old West
as filtered through Alice in Wonderland. Stranger's Wrath embraces
its unusual nature and delivers an exhilarating, story-driven, action-oriented
game experience that kept me enthralled throughout the approximately
22 hours it took me to reach the end. There was always something
refreshing and compelling to do, whether it was exploring a new
town, admiring a new vista or experiencing a new story twist. The
game has a few flaws, especially during some brutally difficult
and repetitive boss battles in the middle of the game. Its numerous
strengths, however, easily outweigh its few weaknesses. This is
a great game that should appeal to anyone who loves a well-presented
You Got Your Third-Person Platformer in My First-Person Shooter
Stranger's Wrath is a hybrid first-person shooter/third-person
action platformer with most of the emphasis on the FPS side. You
can switch between third- and first-person mode at any time, but
there are clearly moments when one mode is better than the other.
Third-person mode is ideal for traveling between towns or boss
encounters and traversing the game's occasional forays into platform
play. Fortunately, the third-person controls are smooth and responsive.
The Stranger can turn on the proverbial dime while running and perform
jumps at the touch of a button. The Stranger always did what I wanted
when I wanted. If I got killed or injured, it was usually because
of my own sloppiness. There is also an easily executed third-person
spin attack, but it becomes mostly ineffective a few hours into
the game when stronger enemies appear.
Third-person mode is also useful when the Stranger encounters one
of the game's rare jumping puzzles. Mercifully, they're fairly easy
and rarely end in death. If you fall, you usually deplete your endurance
bar, which allows you to heal, but not your life bar. You can just
get up and try again, which I found to be an enormous improvement
over the frustrating fall-to-your-death-and-restart-the-level approach
used in most platform games' levels. I only died once from falling,
and that was because of an intentional leap into the void to see
if I would survive.
Most of the game is spent in first-person mode with the player
viewing events over the top of the Stranger's wrist-mounted crossbow.
In addition to his crossbow, the Stranger has a device that he uses
to shrink and suck enemies into a holding pouch that he wears. The
device will remind players quite a bit of the ghost-sucking vacuum
cleaners used in the movie Ghostbusters.
Like the third-person controls, the first-person controls are excellent.
The left stick controls the Stranger's movement, and the right stick
controls his aiming. The controls are intuitive and responsive.
I was never confused about how to aim the Stranger's crossbow or
control his movement. If you've played Halo, then you'll be instantly
comfortable with the control scheme.
The game tells the story of the Stranger, a lean and mean loner
obviously meant to evoke images of Clint Eastwood's Man with No
Name. The Stranger stands a little crooked, clothed in a poncho,
thick cowboy boots and a hat that covers most of his face in shadow;
occasionally he peers out from under the brim of his hat through
slit green eyes. The Stranger was so innately menacing that I felt
like I was role-playing the Man with No Name. I sat in front of
the television playing through squinted eyelids like I was Clint
Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly until
my wife asked me if there was something wrong with my eyes.
You spend the initial stages of the game hunting for outlaws and
collecting bounties as your reward. About 90 minutes into the game,
however, you learn that the Stranger is collecting all of those
bounties to fund an expensive operation that he needs "to survive."
The nature of his medical condition remains a mystery for the first
half of the game. At about the halfway point, the Stranger's medical
condition is revealed in a rather surprising and poignant turn of
events. I won't spoil the story, but there are enough subtle clues
for sharp players to get an idea for what ails the Stranger. This
is a reserved and personal story that, thankfully, doesn't trot
out that old console warhorse about saving the world. After the
Stranger's medical condition is revealed, the game shifts focus
and casts things in a more heroic light. It's almost like you're
playing a different game or a sequel after the story shift.
The story is revealed primarily through some of the best CG movies
I've seen in any game, on consoles or computers. The characters
look compellingly alive in the movies. The dialogue is excellent,
with nary a word wasted.
It's hard not to like the characters in the game, even the ones
working against the Stranger. The nonplayer characters follow their
own agendas and add life and color to the story. They talk about
you behind your back, whisper about how scary you are, make fun
of you, attack you, or, in some cases, worship you. The Clakkerz,
who are big talking chickens, will help you, but only reluctantly.
They're mostly wary of you, and they can get downright ugly if you
start whacking them around. At one point, after a tough boss battle,
a Clakker insulted me just enough to tick me off. I whacked him
three times in a row, pleasantly surprised that some much-needed
money flew out of his pockets. Imagine my surprise when every Clakker
in town ran into their houses and started sniping at me with machine
guns. I treated them with a lot more respect after that. It also
highlights one of the game's strengths. Nothing is free in the game,
and every action has a consequence.
Unlike the Clakkerz, the Native Grubbs worship you like a hero
in the most endearing manner. They follow behind you, giving childlike
advice with squeaky voices, forgetting the point of whatever they're
trying to say, and then trailing off in midsentence. I'm amazed
at how much fun I had just hanging out with the Native Grubbs, even
after I had exhausted all the dialogue choices. You'd have to be
inhuman not to love them with their big watery eyes and hero-worshiping
Oddly enough, the enemies were the most fun characters in the game.
The character artists list Jim Henson's movie The Dark Crystal
as an inspiration, and the influence of the film is most apparent
in the enemy character designs. Many of the enemies, especially
the bosses, resemble characters from another Jim Henson creation,
"The Land of Nod," which aired on Saturday Night Live
during the first year or two of the show. They're mostly big,
green, fleshy, warty and scaly, yet individually unique.
Enemies only come in three or four types, but within each type
there is a wide variety. Outlaws, for example, lope around with
hunched backs, Mad Hatter hats and huge rubbery mouths. The basic
outlaw variety carries rifles, but other versions wore hand knives
or wielded sniper rifles. My favorite was the explosive outlaw,
who had a big keg of dynamite strapped to his back. Upon sighting
me, the explosive outlaws would race across the terrain, pumping
up and down like pistons, moving three times faster than you'd think
possible, and screaming, "Oh yeah, we gonna find your guts
all over the place, yeeeaaahhh!" Only they would speak so fast
that it would come out as one long string of words. I laughed every
time I came across an exploding outlaw. I would let them attack
me just so I could hear them scream about my flying guts. It was
a small pleasure but one that I embraced fully. I also got a hoot
out of the obese wrestler boss who kept launching himself into me
from across a distant field, arms and legs flailing wildly, like
a hippopotamus shot from a cannon.
The game is mostly linear, with the Stranger traveling from one
boss encounter to the next and then back to town in conveniently
located tunnels. The Gamespeak feature, which allows the Stranger
to talk to nonplayer characters or himself, usually provides information
about the location of the next encounter. There are opportunities
to explore the prairies and plains between encounters. These explorations
allow you to find ammunition and money while admiring the beautifully
Those Are Real Purdy Pictures
The artwork and graphics in the game are beautiful and do an outstanding
job conveying the warped Old West setting. The buildings and landscapes
are rendered in washed-out browns, reds, greens and yellows. Everything
has the kind of faded look you would imagine in an Old West setting.
Debris and dust blow through the sparsely populated towns.
The artists also put a lot of thought into the look of each town.
Buzzarton is a dusty, wind-swept town with oil derricks and industrial
pipes riding over the rooftops of the huge clapboard buildings.
The hulking remains of old steam trains power mysterious machines
that serve some unknown purpose. New Yoke City is newer looking,
befitting its status as a future location of commerce and population
growth. Outside the towns, you encounter long stretches of faded
grassland. All of the landscapes look great and feel realistic and
The only noticeable problems with the graphics occurred when the
game engine was rendering ground-level vegetation while the Stranger
was running; the grass would suddenly pop up in front of the Stranger
as he was running. Also, some of the cacti appeared curiously flat,
almost like something that belonged in Paper Mario. There
were also one or two very brief instances of screen-tearing that
occurred only when traveling in heavy brush. These graphical glitches
were extremely rare and never detracted from the game. By the time
I noticed them, they were gone.
The voice work in the game is uniformly well done. Although only
a few actors provided voice work, the characters still feel unique
and speak in voices appropriate to their physical appearance. The
Clakkerz speak in a nasal Western twang that seems to fit giant
chickens. The Native Grubbs speak in a clipped back-of-the throat
voice that reminded me of a slightly deeper version of Marvin the
Martian. Enemies and bosses roar in deep, guttural voices. The Western
music and sound effects are appropriate to the game, although they
are a little difficult to hear at times.
Lock and Load
The Stranger uses only one weapon throughout the game: a powerful
wrist-mounted crossbow. Most first-person shooters rely heavily
on weapon variety. Permitting only one type of firearm seems an
unusual choice until you get to use the Stranger's ammunition. Oddworld:
Stranger's Wrath substitutes ammunition variety for weapon choice,
and it ends up being one of the best parts of the game.
The Stranger uses "live ammunition" in the truest sense
of the phrase. Ammunition comes in the form of living creatures
that you capture and load into the Stranger's crossbow. The creatures
sit in your crossbow looking like psychotic Beanie Babies; they're
little balls of fur with sharp teeth and crazed expressions. They
growl, writhe, buzz, and chatter. Chippunks, for example, look like
fat little squirrels who jive-talk while sitting on your wrist,
uttering clever little phrases like, "Hey brother, you got
someone who needs some talking to?" or "Do I look fat
in this thing?" The Chippunks were so much fun that I would
sometimes load them into my crossbow just to see what they had to
say to me. Chippunks distract outlaws. If you fire one at the ground,
an outlaw will charge over and try to stomp on it, leaving you positioned
for a quick takedown.
The Stranger can use eight different types of ammunition. Thudslugs
are hard-shelled beetles that act like plastic riot bullets, knocking
enemies to the ground or stunning them. Fuzzles are round balls
of teeth and hair that latch onto enemies and gnaw off chunks of
flesh. Bolomites are spiders that incapacitate enemies by wrapping
them in a thick web. Other types of ammunition have functions that
range from explosive (Boombats) to rapid fire (Sting Bees) to noxious
(Stunkz). A bit later in the game, you get to upgrade all your ammunition
and the experience becomes new all over again. Thudslugs, for example,
become Riotslugs, causing enemies to explode into pieces after two
or three shots.
Experimenting with the ammunition was my favorite part of the game.
There were usually several ways to capture enemies. You could knock
down an enemy with a Thudslug or two and wrap him up with a Bolomite.
Alternatively, you could fire 20 or 30 Stingbees at an opponent,
stunning him and moving in for an easy capture. I was relieved not
to have to spend too much time backtracking because I ran out of
the one type of ammunition I needed; there was always an alternative
method for taking out enemies that were not bosses.
The Good ...
One of the most welcome features of the game is the Stranger's
ability to heal himself as long as his stamina bar is not depleted.
There is nothing I hate more than hunting through a game for scarce
health packs while enemies are bearing down on me. The Stranger
shakes his body violently to heal himself. It's a little odd, but
it fits the tone of the game. He continues healing until his stamina
bar depletes. After depletion, the stamina bar slowly replenishes.
Even during tough battles, there was usually a place to take cover
and allow the stamina bar to replenish. It would be nice to see
more developers adopt a similar approach to character healing.
Another welcome feature is the aforementioned ability to save anywhere.
I would not have been able to grind my way past several of the game's
bosses without the ability to save every 30 seconds as I fought
past overwhelming enemy odds.
The Bad ...
You have the option of capturing the enemies dead or alive, although
live captures yield much larger bounties than dead ones. Capturing
enemies alive, especially bosses, highlights the game's chief weakness.
It's just too dang difficult to capture some of the bosses alive.
Capturing an enemy alive requires you to deplete his endurance meter
without exhausting his life bar. Easier said than done! Oh, I tried.
I tried until I wanted to snap my controller in half. I tried saving
in the middle of boss battles. I tried switching ammunition. I tried
varying my tactics. I tried alternating between third- and first-person
attacks. I spent more than two hours on one boss, ultimately concluding
that I just couldn't do it, and I wanted to get on with the game
anyway. Maybe there's a way to capture the tougher bosses alive,
but I never figured it out. It was frustrating, especially when
I learned (by the end of the game) that capturing the bosses alive
has little true importance in the outcome of the game. You can do
it for bragging rights, I suppose, but I'm way past finding any
pleasure in that. Also, it seems silly that you can't capture the
bosses in the middle of the game alive, yet the bosses in the later
stages yield easily to a live take-down.
... And the Ugly
A few of the midgame boss battles also descended into the grinding
repetitiveness typical of third-person, end-of-level encounters.
As in many platformers, you have to fight some bosses in three forms,
each form growing progressively more difficult, before claiming
victory. Oddworld Inhabitants clearly made some effort to make these
battles more interesting. In one battle, the boss is on a mine cart
circling around you on a three-tiered track. You have to hit an
electrical switch at just the right moment to drop him to the next
level. Unfortunately, each time you hit a switch, a slew of doors
would open and a wave of enemies would begin attacking you. The
multi-tiered track was clever, but the endless wave of enemies was
irritating and surprisingly mundane in such a creative game.
Fortunately, the game redeems itself later just prior to the final
boss with a creatively brutal battle against two giant octopus-like
creatures with knives on the end of their tentacles. These creatures
would chase me around a tight room, trapping me in a corner and
whirling their knives like blades in a food processor. All I can
say is thank the heavens for Riot Slugs and the save-anywhere feature.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is an example of what a company
can do when it takes an existing genre and reshapes it into something
refreshing. I doubt that first-person purists will like the game's
cartoonish graphics. If you don't like first-person shooters, you
probably won't find anything here that will attract you to the genre.
If you're primarily into platformers, you'll likely find the game
too heavy on the FPS side. If, however, you want to experience a
game with a great story, you like FPS games, and you have an open
mind, then I highly recommend this game. Even with its linear design,
I find myself longing to revisit the Stranger's world, load up one
of my old saves, and see whether I can capture one of those durn
difficult bosses alive.
Release Date: January 2005
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