I never managed to play any of the Oddworld titles when they first came out, so I approached Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD with almost no expectations in mind. All I knew about the titles was that they were a rather well-received bunch of games with decidedly weird-looking protagonists. So when the powered-up remake of the old Xbox title dropped onto my PS3, I really had no idea what to expect. What I found was a game slightly out of place both as a shooter and as a platformer, but full of enough quirky, crass charm to be quite endearing. Pretty much like Stranger himself.
Stranger is a gruff-talking bounty hunter, trying to scratch together enough moola for a mysterious "operation". The game begins with a strong western feel, as Stranger rolls into town to help the local fowlish townsfolk with their outlaw problems. Gameplay is fairly straightforward--Stranger picks up a bounty at the local "Bounty Store" and then heads out through the only open path forward to his next target, rinse and repeat. Moola is generated by capturing (dead or, preferably, alive) the various bandits and outlaws along the way, with the biggest rewards coming from the bosses. With the occasional stop at the General Store to pick up some upgrades and ammo, Stranger makes his way from town to town to pay that doctor's bill.
The plot is actually quite good, which is a plus considering how incredibly railroaded the game happens to be. There is only ever one way forward, with the "choice" of bounties offering a slightly branching trail to the inevitable goal. A rather inventive plot twist a bit past the halfway point spices things up, right about when I was growing tired of trudging back for the next mission. Also spicing up the environment is the downright odd cast of characters, which may be familiar to Oddworld veterans but were completely novel to me.
The crass dialogue, both from the cutscenes and from the general town and bandit chatter, is over the top and always toeing the line of tastelessness. I several times where I did a "did I just hear that?" double-take, often while trying to stifle a guilty chuckle. Still, it all somehow fits, along with the initially questionable choice to use the same voice for just about every member of a given species. Male, female (or other), when a Clucker opens its mouth, it sounds like every other bird in the world. Likewise with the outlaws; just about every baddie, from the lowest of the low to the bosses, speaks with the same voice. While disconcerting at first, later I only found it odd whenever I heard a new speaker arrive.
But a game is all about the gameplay, and Stranger's Wrath is a strange bird in that area as well. The game is a hodgepodge of shooter and platformer and I never felt completely comfortable in either mode. Players can choose between the third-person mode, which is much better for traversing the light jumping portions and engaging in melee, or the first-person shooter mode, which is good for ranged combat but poor everywhere else. I found both modes to be "squishy", neither eliciting that tight control I would like to have seen. I got used to the scheme after a while, but it never felt like second nature in the manner that more solid titles do. Most jarring, however, where the transitions between the two. Switching between first- and third-person always seemed a bit disorienting to me, and at times, quite deadly. Also, Stranger can only capture enemies in third-person mode, meaning he switches from his big guns to the much more clumsy melee stance each time and doesn't automatically switch back. This is probably my biggest gripe of the entire setup; this jarring drop between viewpoints during the capture sequences never felt right.
On a better note, the shooter portion of Stranger's Wrath boasts one of the more innovative ideas I've seen in a while. Stranger deals only in live ammo and by that, I mean living, breathing ammunition. He captures his projectiles from the countryside, using the varmints and critters he gathers in inventive ways. These range from electric bugs to stomach-turning skunks to exploding bats, Stranger's arsenal is quite an enjoyable sight to behold. Players have a choice between live or dead capture, and the proper combination of ammunition types is vital to making those choices work.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath also looks great for a port of a six year old game, although it has the telltale downfalls of originating on an older platform. Although the graphics have been given a spit-shine, Stranger still has to spend way too much time running through featureless tunnels and hallways to get from one fight to the next.
Even for all my quibbles, however, I still found Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath to be an enjoyable game. The off-color humor and quirky characters juxtaposed with the classic western feel just seemed to fit, enough that I could overlook the never-quite-right mix of first- and third-person play. Stranger's Wrath is worth a look for those wanting a blast of Oddworld nostalgia, or for newcomers like me who never had the pleasure the first time around.