Oddworld had a strong presence in my gaming life when I was a kid. Before my stepdad was my stepdad and he was just my mom’s boyfriend, we would go over to the house where he and his roommate lived and my favorite activity there was to play the PlayStation. It was there that I first encountered series such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, as well as one-off favorites like Legend of Legaia or Parappa the Rapper. The two Oddworld games Abe’s Odyssey and Abe’s Exodus featured among these titles, and I was right at the peak age for the humor of the games to land with me. A specific button input for farting? Kid Me was over the moon!
I played those two Oddworld games on first the PlayStation and later on PC. While the goofy characters and crude humor gelled with me at the time, I wasn’t necessarily the greatest at the gameplay so I generally ended up playing the beginning sections over and over again. I loved being able to take over enemies with Abe’s chant and then blowing them up, or using them to move to other screens and mow down the other enemies in my path. I’d make Abe and the other mudokens out of clay when playing with my sister and cousins, and found ways to work his powers into our games of make-believe. Some of the game’s puzzle elements inspired my own creative endeavors, with the devices that shocked Abe during chanting particularly working its way into stories that I wrote at the time. So while I never made significant progress in Oddworld, it was still a significant cultural touchstone for me during my elementary years.
Skipping ahead to being a teenager (yuck), I didn’t have a console available to me for playing some of the newer games in the Oddworld series. While Munch’s Odyssey never jumped out at me and I didn’t see much coverage of it, channels like Tech TV and G4 regularly gushed about Stranger’s Wrath. Whether I was seeing content about Stranger’s Wrath in the form of guides or reviews, it looked very exciting to me. It appeared to have that quirky Oddworld spirit I so loved, right down to the game mechanic of using living creatures as the ammunition for your crossbow. I wanted the game but didn’t have a console to play it at the time, and as time went on I forgot about my enthusiasm for Stranger’s Wrath and for Oddworld in general.
Fast forward to modern times (still yuck) and lo and behold, an HD remaster of Stranger’s Wrath makes its way onto the Nintendo Switch. Finally, I can jump back into this universe that so enthralled me as a child, and do it with a game that I always thought looked cool but never got to play. In this article I will share my first impressions of Stranger’s Wrath based on the first hour or so of the game, discussing the setting, the graphics, and the mechanisms to express my thoughts on the experience so far.
If you’re not familiar with the elevator pitch of Stranger’s Wrath, you play as Stranger, a bounty hunter. You blow into town, hunt down some outlaws, then turn them in for a cash reward. If that premise seems simple, you’re not wrong – what makes the game stand out are those quirky Oddworld touches which help the setting to feel unique and interesting. The world in which Stranger resides takes its inspiration from the wild west. Mine shafts crisscross the landscape, heavy trains carry valuable shipments which keep towns supplied with food and tools, and neon sounds draw your eyes to ramshackle buildings with swinging doors. The landscape is rock and sand, littered with patches of dry brush, and signs of industry abound including cranes and explosives.
The characters play into classic western tropes while also featuring the irreverent humor that makes Oddworld sing. Passersby in town will comment on the local goings-on and watch you with curiosity, shouting profanity if you crash into them while running about. Salesmen make small talk while you browse their wares and cry out about how they have nothing worth stealing when bandits attack. Outlaws talk to each other about their job or complain about their boss in hushed tones. The critters you load into your crossbow chat with each other or warn you to watch out for bad guys. These little moments bring the world to life in a meaningful way, helping the setting to feel special despite the rather basic premise which drives the game.
What doesn’t help the setting to feel special are the graphics in which it is rendered. This is not a comment on the age of the game – the HD version of Stranger’s Wrath is a solid remaster and brings the elements of the world gracefully into modern times. The weakness lies in a bland color pallet that makes unique elements of the world indistinguishable from one another. The whole setting from the characters to the locations is all portrayed in a range of browns and greys. This problem might be one that is limited to the small portion of the game I have played so far – the tutorial area had some greenery which helped it to pop a bit more. My hope is that the environments improve as I get deeper into the game, because in a world that is so colorful in its characterizations it is frustrating not to see that same style and personality come out in the way it is rendered.
Mechanically, Stranger’s Wrath switches between first and third person perspectives. Third person is primarily focused on moving about the world. You can walk about with the left stick or hold the Y button while walking to enter a loping run where Stranger quickly moves across the environment on all fours. The B button performs a short jump and a second press in midair does a double-jump allowing Stranger to cover long distances. B is also for climbing, allowing you to move either vertically or horizontally along ropes depending on the position of the ropes in the environment. In melee combat, ZL executes a quick spinning attack while ZR does a more focused and powerful headbutting attacking. Enemies knocked about in this way display stars over their heads – three stars indicate that an enemy is battered enough to be “bountied” with the Y button, which essentially sucks them up into some kind of wild west version of Danny Phantom’s ghost thermos so you can take them back to town and get money for turning them in.
Pressing the right stick puts the game into first person and arms Stranger’s crossbow. The crossbow is worn on his right arm and has two barrels for loading live ammunity – live in this case meaning living creatures. Critters dash around the setting and can be hunted in order to add them to Stranger’s ammo pouch. They can be loaded either into the left barrel (fired with ZL) or the right barrel (fired with ZR), giving you two different options at any one time. When in firing mode, Stranger can hide in brush or behind cover to sneak up on enemies. In this mode and in third person, pressing the X button spends stamina in order to literally shake off damage you have sustained. You can still jump and double jump in first person but if you try to perform actions like running, climbing, or bountying, you’ll get switched back into third automatically.
Learning the strategies possible with different critters is core to the gameplay of Stranger’s Wrath. Your main critter is the zappfly, a firefly ammo which Stranger can store in infinite amounts and fire in rounds of 8. Zappflies fire somewhat rapidly but can also be left in the loading position to charge up with electricity for a bigger burst – this burst attack is also used to operate some of the electronics you encounter in the setting. There are plenty of other critters to learn to use, though. Chippunks are a distraction rather than a form of attack – a chippunk launched to a location will make a huge racket that compels enemies to come and shut it up, luring one outlaw away from the rest of their gang. This leaves them vulnerable to another form of attack, my personal favorite being the bolamite. Bolamites are spiderlike creatures that, when fired into an enemy, quickly lasso them up in webbing so that you can bounty them. Foes don’t stay tied long but if you’ve taken the time to isolate them, that won’t be a problem. Then there’s the Fuzzle, a fanged fuzzball that operates as a trap for enemies. Lay a couple down by a location, fire a chippunk to get an outlaw’s attention, and watch the little mook get bitten to shreds when they come see what all the fuss is about.
You may notice that with ammo like the chippunk and the fuzzle, there’s some emphasis on strategy. Laying traps for opponents, pulling enemies away from a group; this isn’t a run-and-gun action game but a game in which you are a careful hunter. Stranger may not care to use guns but his enemies love them, and it doesn’t take very many bullets to bring you down (at least on normal difficulty). When I first got out of the tutorial and was given freedom to act on my own, I learned real quick that I needed to approach this game thoughtfully. Use brush to hide. Look for exploding barrels or heavy machinery to turn the tide of battle. Lay traps with your critters to pick off a big group of foes one at a time. Working in this way not only keeps you alive, but it allows you a greater degree of control to try and keep your bounties alive too.
Stranger is more than welcome to kill everything he comes across, but doing so comes at a steep financial cost. Enemies are worth more alive than dead, which means just killing everything with your most dangerous weapons will lead to lacking the moolah (the game’s currency is literally called moolah, because Oddworld) to finance future operations. The drop in bounty for weaker enemies may not be that significant, but for major bounties the price on their head can go down 50%, 67%, perhaps even more if you’re killing them instead of bringing them in alive. And you certainly want the money from your hard work, because it gives you access to better armor, larger pouches for ammunition, as well as brand new tools for your arsenal like binoculars for spying on distant outlaws or identifying the perfect point for your next ambush.
I’ve not played enough of the game to know how the pacing is going to pan out. So far, it seems like your typical structure will be to accept a bounty, go take out the outlaw and their mooks, and then return to collect the reward and gear up before heading out after the next bounty. In the early game, bounties are appearing one at a time – it’ll be interesting to see if things open up later on and allow you to pursue enemies in a different order, or if the game is linear in nature and guides you through the story one bounty at a time. The positive of this bounty structure is that the game is good for play sessions of an hour or two at a time – you can sit down and complete one bounty without committing a large chunk of your day to playing the game, and that length of time fits pretty well into the way I play (at least on weekdays).
I’ve only played Stranger’s Wrath for an hour or so, but right now I am pretty pleased with the experience. The game’s goofy characters fit exactly what I have come to expect from Oddworld and I love the small touches that fill the setting with life. While I wish the game looked better, graphics are generally the last thing on my mind when judging a game’s quality and these certainly aren’t bad enough to interfere with the experience. Mechanically, the live ammo system is clever and fun, and as someone who prefers games with a stealth or puzzle angle I appreciate that the focus is more on setting clever traps and using the environment rather than just charging in guns blazing. I’m excited to play more of Stranger’s Wrath, particularly to see the game’s narrative coming into play in order to learn what kind of story the game wishes to tell.