Clint Eastwood meets acid trip.
The computer game industry has been going for quite some time now, and if you were a gamer back in 1997 (that makes me feel so old!) you would almost certainly have played or heard of a game called Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey. It was a refreshing change from the dozens of 3D platformers of the time, and instead it took you through Rupture farms in a 2D platform puzzler as Abe, in a quest to save his mudokon friends from being turned into a New N’ Tasty snack at the factory. Fast forward to 2005, and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath was released on the Xbox. The game received a warm reception from critics as it blended third person platforming with first person shooter mechanics, and in this sense it was certainly one of the most unique titles of it’s time. Now in 2012, many games that had since gathered dust have been re-released as HD remakes. How does Stranger’s Wrath fare in today’s world? Read on to find out.
Stranger’s Wrath covers the story of Stranger, who is a bounty hunter on a quest to earn himself some “moolah” to pay for surgery by capturing outlaws dead or alive. As the story progress he finds himself sucked into a tale that is very well written and includes a good twist that I didn’t see coming. The story is one of the game’s strongest aspects and you will find yourself getting entranced in the oddball wild west style universe that Oddworld Inhabitants have created, though it can take a bit of time to gain momentum.
When you start the game you are greeted by an FMV that may lower your expectations somewhat. Not that the animation or setting is bad, far from it, but for some reason (probably as it’s a PSN download) they decided to compress the video sequences as much as possible in order to keep the file size down. The PS3 version comes in at a weighty 3.2GB, but that’s fine for PS3 users as space isn’t as much of an issue. With the Vita version they have managed to more than half this to just under 1.5GB, presumably as many Vita users have a less than HD friendly 4GB at their disposal. While in principle this is a great idea and I applaud the developers for managing to squeeze such a big game into a much smaller file size, the video sequences have been quite severely compromised and look very pixelated. It’s much less noticeable when Stranger is zipping around in these videos (he can run on all fours and go at quite a crack), but when things are more subdued it frankly looks a bit of a mess which is very disappointing. Luckily however the majority of the story is told in game as you have a “game speak” button (square) like in the rest of the series, so it’s certainly not a game breaker.
Once the initial video is over, you are thrust straight into the game with a handy tutorial that allows you to quickly become accustomed to Stranger’s repertoire of moves, and the game really begins to shine. Stranger’s Wrath starts off in third person, and initially plays out in a way that reminded me somewhat of Jak and Daxter on the PS2. The controls are tight and platforming is fairly well done, but the jumping can feel a little floaty. It’s not a major issue though as the game is fairly forgiving to begin with and if you fall and you can see the ground you won’t die. Stranger can also climb up and down ropes and run on all fours to gain speed, and the left and right triggers allow him to perform a spin attack or headbutt respectively. The headbutt is much more powerful but can be harder to perform as it’s a slower attack and needs to be performed in much closer quarters. The game allows you to choose three difficulties at the beginning, and the effect of these attacks, and the enemies’ health is reliant upon this. You have two options when it comes to enemies; kill them or knock them out. It’s certainly worth knocking them out if possible as you can capture enemies when they are unconscious, which gives you more moolah as a result. When the enemies are knocked out three stars appear above their head as a helpful indicator of how long you have to capture them. Capturing enemies is as simple as pressing the square button, but as it takes time to do so you are left exposed. Because of this you are encouraged to lure enemies towards you and capture them one by one. This adds a very well executed stealth mechanic to the offering, and is the main mechanic the game applies from mission to mission.
It really is great fun, and to aid you in taking each enemy out, the first person mechanics come into play. Double tapping the touch screen switches you between first and third person perspectives, and it feels fast and intuitive. It is a brilliant way of incorporating touch screen controls to Stranger’s Wrath and it’s one of the few occasions I have experienced with the Vita that doesn’t feel like they’ve added just for the sake of incorporating the touch screen. When in first person mode, tapping the rear touchpad allows Stranger to punch. Unfortunately this can become more of a hindrance than a help. Now, I have very small hands (to the point where a shop assistant actually told me I have woman sized hands when looking for a ring….I was NOT impressed!) but on many occasions I found my fingers accidentally touching the back panel in frantic situations, causing Stranger to have a punching fit. This is not what you need when things get busy, and I can imagine this being a bigger issue for those with bigger hands (no pun intended). You do get used to it as the game carries on, but it can still be very frustrating and has caused me to die several times over, which feels rather cheap.
The exciting and completely unique way Stranger’s Wrath uses it’s first person mechanics is by utilising Stranger’s crossbow. There are lots of insects and little critters dotted around the world, and Stranger can shoot them to knock them out and then collect them to use as ammo. There are many different ways these can be used, and I won’t spoil all of them, but as an example some of them are used as bombs, some can capture enemies in a web while others serve as a distraction or will bite enemies which can cause them to get all flustered and fall to their death. This gives Stranger a really useful arsenal and allows the player to decide which way is best to approach each situation. He can also hide in tall reeds and it becomes a lot of fun luring enemies towards you and taking them out stealthily one by one. You also have a radar to assist you, which shows enemies as dots with cone shapes indicating their range of sight, much like in the Metal Gear Solid series. It’s this blend of lots of different genres that helps Stranger’s Wrath stand out. It’s not perfect though, as I said previously the platforming can be a little floaty, and the first person shooter elements are also not perfect. I found it difficult to line up certain shots as some of the insects are tiny and very hard to hit. I’d find myself spamming the right trigger to enable me to collect them and occasionally missing enemies completely. Again, it’s not a game breaker but it does unfortunately detract from it’s charm.
Visually the game fares quite well, and while you can see it’s HD remake and not a current-gen title, textures and characters are highly detailed and animation is fluid. The environments also have a lot of character and there is absolutely no pop in, but the locations are a little sparsely decorated sometimes and certain areas are more confined than you would find in games such as Uncharted or Ratchet and Clank. The framerate in the main is very smooth, but when you are in larger, open areas and panning the camera the framerate can judder a little bit. It’s only really noticeable because the rest of the game is so smooth though, and it’s certainly nowhere near the level of other recent titles (Assassin’s Creed: Liberation I’m looking at you!). In first person mode the game really shows off it’s character as the little critters on your crossbow are very well animated and have bags of character. The game is also fantastically voice acted and you really feel connected to the world that has been created here. The backing music is also very well implemented; it fits the game very well and helps set the mood without ever becoming intrusive.
This is a big game and it will certainly take you some time to complete (especially on hard mode) but the pacing can be a little uneven. As I’ve said previously it can drag a little as there are a lot of missions and sometimes it feels like they threw a few more in just to add longevity. It was never really an issue for me as the gameplay never got old, but a little more variety wouldn’t have hurt the title in it’s earlier stages. Another frustrating aspect of note is the numerous difficulty spikes. In some areas the game is relatively easy, even on hard mode, whereas in other areas I would get stuck for 20-30 minutes at a time, and as checkpoints are a little more sparse than we’re used to in these admittedly much more forgiving times, I occasionally found it a bit of a chore repeating sequences several times over just to get back to the bit that I’d died in previously.
And yet despite these issues, I still feel Stranger’s Wrath is an investment that will be very well spent, should you choose to give it a try. The gameplay never really gets old, and you’ll certainly not get bored of the gameplay before completion. It’s also one of the (unfortunately) rarer downloads on the Playstation Network that contains a platinum trophy. You can theoretically get the platinum in one play through, but the majority of people will find a minimum of two playthroughs to achieve this, which extends the longevity considerably and makes the game fantastic value at just under a tenner. While Stranger’s Wrath is not perfect, it’s a fantastic game that shouldn’t be missed and it won’t dent your wallet either. It contains a longer story and more gameplay than some full retail titles on the Vita, and I can safely say you probably won’t ever see another game quite like it. Download it, embrace it and prepare to lose your life for a few days, because Stranger’s Wrath will suck you in until it’s done with you!