Nearly seven years to the day since its first appearance, Oddworld Stranger's Wrath comes to the Playstation Network, giving players the chance to experience one of the original Xbox's underrated classics in the HD era. Stranger's Wrath is a game that is completely beholden to its own rules, characters, and aesthetic. It shares little with its franchise predecessors, opting to strike out on its own as a Third-Person action-adventure game that adroitly blends First Person Shooter combat into the mix.
It's a vexing task to try and list all of the various influences that have gone into making this game, beyond its initial Spaghetti-Western tone, but fortunately, by the time one finishes cataloging all of the various similarities that Stranger has with its genre and series brethren, the realization dawns that it's one of the most comfortably original games ever made, in this console generation or any previous.
It defies critical identification, and dares any and all players to over-liken it to other games, so I will do my best to avoid drawing comparisons with other titles in this review. I could mention that the combat is kind of a spiritual predecessor to BioShock, or that the world traversal shares some feeling with Jak and Daxter, but in the end that sort of criticism only serves to provide cheap analogies that disrespect the identity of what Stranger's Wrath is. All I can guarantee you, simply, is that your 15 dollars will feel well spent by the end of this encouragingly unique adventure.
Players are cast as the titular Stranger, a loner who looks like Joe Camel and talks like a concussed Sam Elliot. He's a bounty hunter, in search of serious cash that will pay for an operation he needs to survive. Doing what he does best, Stranger sets out to capture or kill a series of colorful criminals and their crudely verbose henchmen, stacking up scratch along the way and gaining a positive reputation amongst the local noblesse.
Stranger starts out in a series of dust-bowl, podunk towns, taking up bounties from shop fronts and using the profits to upgrade his gear and weapons. The structure is simple: select bounty, run in the proper direction to enter and complete the bounty's "level", and then circle back to pick up the next contract. This pattern repeats itself through the majority of the campaign, and Stranger doesn't stay in any hub town for more than 4 or 5 bounties- usually. The difficulty of taking down the bounties can vary significantly, and by extension, slow down or disrupt the plot's pacing; however, ultimately, no scenario shares too much in common with the one that came before it, making each bounty its own unique challenge.
What sets Stranger's Wrath apart from most action/adventure games is its use of "live-ammo." Stranger is equipped with a special dual-firing crossbow that fires, not arrows, but animals. These little insects and mammals each serve different strategic functions. There's the Chippunk, a tiny chipmunk that makes noise and attracts enemies to its location; the Zapfly, an electrified beetle that stuns enemies when fully charged; and the Bolamite, a spider that serves as a net-gun to trap enemies and hold them down for a limited time. There are 8 different ammo types in total, and each provides a different tactical use for Stranger, allowing him to manipulate enemies to his advantage and turn them into corpses or captives.
Progressing through the game means that players have to quickly learn what ammo is best for what particular situation, and to frequently switch between these types. The challenge of each subsequent bounty ramps up fast, and the enemy AI is more persistent than a guido trying to score a date. There are several areas where the difficulty level feels inconsistent and unwarranted, but no situation is insurmountable with patience and a flexible understanding of Stranger's arsenal. This is a tough game, and progress means learning to play by its rules. Fortunately though, there's quick-save function that makes gritty encounters feel less Sisyphean. In plain terms, the game design rewards dedication and quick thinking, bringing a sense of accomplishment to each bounty that nicely meshes with gains in the narrative. Again, that mesh isn't always as smooth as it ought to be, but when it works it's great.
The design decision to allow Stranger to move in both First and Third person is also welcome. The game definitely controls better as a First Person Shooter, but having the ability to draw the camera out and move around in a more athletic fashion is a blessing, given the relentless enemies and open level designs. The expanded camera control also benefits exploration of the detailed environments. Oddworld boasts a lot of scale that wouldn't be as appreciable if confined to just a first-person view.
Stranger's Wrath HD earns every up-scaled pixel of its high-definition label. Not only is it running at a buttery 60 frames per second, but it's been brought up to date in a way that preserves the strength of its many organic textures. Things like dirt, vegetation, and rocks that might have been muddied in the transfer look crisp and detailed.
Speaking of detail, Stranger's Wrath features terrific animation. What's here is unchanged from the 2005 original, but it still looks on par with modern titles. In particular, the animations of the different ammo types as they sit waiting to be fired are both humorous and very articulate. Much like Rocksteady's recent Batman games, the animation here has been approached from a character standpoint; it's as much about personality as functionality.
As I noted above, Stranger's Wrath can be quite difficult. Luckily, when it's mechanics start to rust away the player's interest, it has plenty of charm to fall back on. Oddworld has a sick sense of humor; one that's crass, but not extreme. The main populace of the game is comprised of the chicken-like race known as "cluckers", and their redneck gift for the bon mot is made even funnier by the fact that nearly all of them are voiced by the same actor. Stranger himself is wooden and deadly serious, but he makes a great foil to the silly and bizarre characters who cross his path. These comedic elements seem incongruous on paper, but they're blended well with Spaghetti Western tropes and mystical aesthetics to fashion something that holds fast to its audience, even without the impressive twist that comes through towards the last act.
That perhaps is what's most welcome about this tale. Oddworld, in fairness, can't be compared to anything, but it's not content to let it's quirkiness do all the legwork. Stranger's Wrath takes its time making sure that players understand what's important and why, so that when the twist is revealed it brings plenty of weight with it. Players won't be caught filling in the gaps with other weird storytelling conventions or outlandish characters, Stranger's tale stands completely for itself on its own merits and leaves little unexplained that can serve the gravity of the characters. That kind of creative cohesion is what makes risky games like this work.
I do have one big gripe though, and it must be mentioned before tying this up. Stranger's Wrath doesn't do a very good job of explaining how to take down its bosses alive. The reward for bringing in major players captured rather than dead is often as much as three times, but there are no hints in the game for taking down big guys without killing them. This is disappointing not only because the player is missing out on extra moolah, but also because managing to bring a bounty in alive never feels like the result of player skill so much as dumb luck. It doesn't spoil the game too much, but it stands out in a title that boasts ironclad functions in nearly every other respect.
Stranger's Wrath is all about identity. In addition to the themes of its well-rounded story, it feels tailor-made to challenge the critical habit of comparing games that share similar traits just to make critical analysis easier. It has faults, and it's certainly aged a wee bit, but the final product is still an incredibly strong example of thorough game design and solid character work. It's a must-download, by any measure.