Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath

Review by Davo
April 2005

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 story.

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.

Howdy, Stranger!

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 tendencies.

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 rendered landscapes.

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 organic.

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.

How'zat?

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.

High Noon

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. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: January 2005

Available for: Xbox

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