The following game software was reviewed on an Xbox Series X.
One of my first PlayStation One, and consequently one of my first games, was Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey. It would one of the many games my mother would buy me over the years (at least, until she decided video games were the devil), and one of the weirder games I would never actually get around to finishing. It was weird enough for me to remember the series, however, as I would later pick up and play the underappreciated Stranger’s Wrath. It is a bit sombering, coming to the sequel of a game I never got to finish, but Oddworld: Soulstorm is perfectly playable without the first game, and probably one of my favourite games this year.
Developed and published by Oddworld Inhabitants, Soulstorm follows the story of Abe from the first game as he escapes with his followers from the now burned down Rupture Farms. For a moment, all is peaceful, up until fate becomes a little on the nose and Abe’s hideout too, gets lit up literally and metaphorically. Like our prior entry, the game gives the player one job: get out alive and save your people from corporate murder-maniacs.
Running Out of Harm’s Way
Playing as Abe means you will be walking through treacherous pathways, mines set up all over, and trigger-happy Sligs ready to gib you. Soulstorm’s gameplay takes place on a 2.5D plane although the developers do refer to it as a 2.9D plane of sorts. Just think of it as a sidescrolling game that will occasionally change perspective when the game wants to show you something. And each level will carry the same objective: running through each level, trying not to die and ensuring as many of your Mudokon followers are safe in the end. How many you save determines the kind of Quarma you get at the end of a level, which also decides the ending you get, which means there is a lot of weight put on your shoulders.
As you can imagine, Abe is like a piece of paper and just one baddie can rip him to shreds. There are tools at your disposal to get past these little freaks, like mind controlling Sligs and gunning down their allies, or stunning them if you prefer. The game also takes into account how many baddies die by your hands, which in turn can affect your Quarma, so rampant murder is not exactly a good idea either. Essentially, you will not be able to sneak past every Slig, but you should not be killing all of them, even if you save enough Mudokon. Really, you can expect to die often, but thankfully there are enough checkpoints that will reset you instantly.
I quite love this style of gameplay. It is frustrating but rewarding, once you have figured out how to use Abe’s powers. The game’s level design works against you but is done well enough that I never felt cheated. Usually on dying I instead tried to figure out what killed me and tried to find the best route around it. There are many ways to clear a level, and you just need to keep trying until you figure out how not to get gibbed and how to save your followers from the same fate.
There were definitely moments of frustration, and sometimes beyond my control. I think that some platforms could use lowering as it sometimes was not clear if I could make a jump or not and forcing me to die to find out. And to an extent I find its AI-systems with the friendly Mudokon to be a little frustrating to work with, especially when the later levels get much more difficult and involves puzzle solving with you followers. Controls, as far as my memory goes, are on par with the original PlayStation title, which while is not the worst thing in the world, I wish this aspect of the game could be touched upon as I think the rest of the game holds its ground well.
Video games continue to amaze me with how detailed, how real, and how pretty art teams make worlds come to life with the tools at their disposal. It is my most often praised aspect of games, but I have to emphasize my point for Soulstorm. When you first start the game, you are treated to two cinematics that look like pre-rendered videos you would see in late generation Xbox 360 games. But as the cutscenes played out, I noticed frame drops. Normally pre-rendered cutscenes do not drop frames and that is because they are literally video files being played back. I pondered this for a minute until it hit me: these are not video files but are running in-engine and actually being played back using the console’s full hardware set.
This was a “holy cow” moment for me. The quality of these cutscenes rival television animation, and I would go even as far as to say some animated films. Think of it this way: pre-rendered cutscenes are usually done to save time and/or in the event the console is unable to execute the scene on its own. Cutting down on pre-rendered cutscenes is not just about saving space, but also is a testament to how far we have come with console hardware and the desired fidelity artists want to achieve for their works. Screenshots do little justice in showcasing the game’s looks—you have to see this one in person.
Naturally during gameplay, the visuals do not match up to those in the cinematics, in order to hit the 60 frames per second target that the gameplay requires. But the scale of each level is presented well and highlights distant objects of interest properly.
The World is Bad: What it Means for You
The Oddworld is as described in its very name. A strange world that leaves more questions than answers. I never knew what that PlayStation One game was about as a kid, and it took me years to realise: wow, this game is dark. Like that 20 plus year old game, Soulstorm is just as dark and dreary presented in both its narrative and gameplay mechanics. Saving Mudokon lives is stressful, and so are disarming mines that can easily reset a good run within a level. Compound this with the money hungry yet terrified Mullock hellbent on killing Abe so he can keep his head safe from his investors is probably the best example of how cruel the Oddworld is.
The capitalist machine that overshadows the narrative in some ways mirror those in our world, and yet Soulstorm presents these themes in the proper light when necessary. Other times, you can expect plenty of black humour (it is a series staple) and plenty of irony that permeates the characters. Oddworld’s voice actors might sound like high-pitched squeaky cartoon characters, but the bombs they drop are as deadly as ever. I am happy to see this series still kicking around and I hope I can see this quintology to its end.
Oddworld: Soulstorm Enhanced Edition$39.99
- Gorgeous visuals and cinematography.
- Generally good level design that could use some tweaks.
- Strong narrative that is told well and leaves questions to be answered later on.
- Friendly AI can be a struggle to work with.
- Controls can occasionally make platforming annoying.