Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Game Review: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD by Matthew W-A

 I did not play Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath when it first came out on the original Xbox, and unfortunately not too many other people did either, although the game did become a cult classic to some extent. So since I don't have the rose-tinted glasses, I think I can be a pretty good judge of whether or not Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath holds up when compared to the current titles on the Playstation Vita. So does it? In a word, mostly. But I should probably expand on that, so I will.

You play as The Stranger: a lone bounty hunter in a (wait for it) odd world that both has advanced technology and feels a lot like the wild west, only populated by oversized chickens, humanoid lizards, and orc-ish bandits with all the intelligence of a brick. The character and world design is simply brilliant. It's beautiful, intriguing, and full of character. When you walk around one of the hub towns (more on them later), you feel like you are walking around inside a living and breathing world, albeit an incredibly... odd one. The story is simple, but well told, and is surprisingly dark and emotional, and almost feels a bit jarring next to the visuals. That being said, are also a few bits where the game takes a stab at having a sense of humor, and for the most part it succeeds, as I did find myself laughing at the jokes.

The gameplay itself is pretty fun. You switch between the third and first person perspectives. In each one you have different abilities, and you have to switch between them frequently. Some things like  falling long distances (even though you don't take falling damage) or getting hit by certain attacks knocks you out of the first person view, which can be seriously annoying in the middle of a firefight. The weapon system (or should I say ammunition system because you only have one weapon) is pretty interesting. You capture small animals in the environment with different abilities, and fire them at your enemies using a crossbow with each one having a different effect. I was on the fence about the system, (because it just seemed... odd) until I got the stingbees; oversized hornets that fire at machine-gun like rates. You also have access to what amounts to exploding bats and landmines with teeth, but it was the bees that I enjoyed the most. All of the creatures have at least some use, although I found myself using the non-lethal ones a lot less during the last third of the game. I also did begin to get annoyed with having to manually stun and pick up my ammunition several rounds at a time after awhile, especially after I had upgraded my ammo capacity a bit, thankfully you start picking up most of your ammo from boxes before tasing really small animals gets too tedious.

The structure of the game is pretty interesting. You travel from town to town, taking bounties on various outlaws with entertaining names like Fatty McBoomboom. While each bounty mission is pretty linear, you do get to choose in what order you take bounties in some places, which helps the game feel a bit less linear then average. Each Bounty mission consists of traveling to the mission area (third person platforming is generally involved), killing or capturing all the bandits in the area, and finally fighting the bandit leader who you have taken the bounty on. Each boss fight played out in a manner unique enough that I never really got bored of the game or felt like I was falling into a routine. The game also knows how to pace itself, and I felt like the scale and difficulty of encounters steadily increased throughout the game. That being said, the last two hours of the game dump the bounty system for some fairly linear, scripted shooting galleries, but its feels reasonable within the context of the story, and the fact that the game waits to throw out the big explosions and set pieces makes the climax actually feel climactic.

I do have a few gripes about the gameplay. While the high speed sprinting is nice when moving around the world, slamming to a halt with a loud obnoxious thwack every time you get even close to a wall rather then just deflecting off of it is pretty annoying. There is a time limited section near the end where you have to run past a ton of enemies that I had to repeat seven or eight times because of this. Also, in the last hour from the game you meat the enemy from hell. All of its attacks knock you out of the first person view and knock you down. One of those attacks has a recharge time shorter then your recovery time, so if it hits you with that you are basically done for. The second to last fight in the game is against two of them at the same time, and I came close to throwing my Vita before I worked out that you can slip back into first person after being knocked down as long as the enemy is still in the middle of its really long attack animation, allowing you to unleash the bees. As it was, I barely won that fight on what must have been my fifteenth attempt, and I was playing the game on easy difficulty.

Graphically, the game was pretty reasonable, with graphics comparable to the Metal Gear Solid HD collection. The framerate was for the most part pretty smooth, although I did see an occasional slow down while moving quickly through large open areas, and I saw a lot of drops during the last two hours of the game. The animations were also pretty smooth, although the jumping animation felt a bit off. I did notice something a bit off during the per-rendered cutscenes, although it wasn't too severe. Either the cutscenes were not re-rendered from the resolution they were on the original Xbox release to the increased resolution of the Vita's screen, or they just had some weird compression artifacts. Either way, the visual bugs in the pre-rendered cutscenes could occasionally be a bit distracting, though the cutscenes themselves were quite well done, with highly detailed characters and environments, excellent animation quality, and some pretty stellar voice acting.

For the most part, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath stayed away from the Vita's more gimmicky controls, although they did bind the punch attack while in first person to tapping the rear touchpad (I accidentally used it a lot) and the binoculars to a poorly explained pinch gesture that was also on the rear touch pad (which meant that I almost never used it intentionally). To switch between first and third person perspective you double tap the touch screen, which actually works pretty well. The meus also use the touch screen, and are generally pretty functional, although scrolling through a store's inventory could be tricky at times. I do feel that the game had a missed opportunity to use the touchscreen for switching between ammo types (like the MGS HD collection used it for switching items without going into a menu), since you have to enter a touch screen menu by pressing any direction on the d-pad that pauses the game to change ammo types. So I guess there is a bit of annoyance in that department, but nothing too severe.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath isn't perfect, no game is. It has some pretty interesting and unique gameplay, but lots of other games do. What many other games don't have is charm, and Stranger's Wrath has it in spades. The more I played the game the more I enjoyed it, and not because it got better (the quality throughout the entire experience is pretty consistent) but because I appreciated what was there the longer I immersed myself in it. It's worth noting that the first person shooting was just as functional as I would expect out of any console game, and that say a lot about the capabilities of the Vita. Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies may not have inspired a lot of confidence in the Vita's ability to support first person shooters, but Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath does. It took me about eight hours to finish on easy difficulty, and considering how many times I died on that it should take quite a bit longer on any difficulty setting higher then that. Oddworld: Strangers Wrath is now available for download on PSN for the Playstation Vita for $15, and has also been available on PC and Playstation 3 at that price point for awhile. I enjoyed this game, warts and all, and if anything I have mentioned sounds even remotely interesting to you, you will probably enjoy it was well.

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