Over the past two weeks, I have shared my journey with the Nintendo Switch version of Stranger’s Wrath. This game was one that I wanted to check out as a teenager but never had the opportunity to play. Drawn in by the live ammo system that originally sparked my interest in the game, my first impressions were largely positive as I dove into a title which promised challenging encounters that pushed your ability to strategize more than your ability to shoot bad guys. As I experienced the story, I found myself pleasantly surprised that the game addressed issues of industry and colonialism through a character who fights on the side of nature and the native people of the game’s setting. But did a fun opening and a compelling story lead to an overall positive experience with the game? Today’s article will answer that question as I talk about the game’s pacing and structure as well as the mechanical challenges and changes throughout the course of the campaign.
The initial hook of Stranger’s Wrath is that Stranger, a bounty hunter, is in need of a very expensive operation. In order to raise 20000 moolah in order to pay the doctor, Stranger has to do what he does best: catch outlaws. As Stranger, you’ll blow into a new town and hit up the bounty shop to learn about the local outlaws. You pick one and then set out to bring them down, with each primary bounty operating out of a different location. The environment where the outlaws have dug in – in addition to the weaker outlaws who serve them – are part of what makes each hunt unique. You can generally choose the order in which you complete bounties, too; the game isn’t open world by any stretch of the imagination but the choice of bounties helps to reduce the linearity somewhat.
Most hunts follow a pretty similar structure. You’ll leave town and make your way towards the outlaw’s hideout, fighting your way through the mooks that work for them. Your enemies generally have an advantage in terms of numbers and firepower, meaning that you’ll have to defeat them with your wits and the uniqueness of your tools. Stranger’s gear has a balance of weapons, some ideal for taking enemies alive while others are better for killing. Generally killing enemies is easier to do than sparing them, and your tools for killing lots of enemies at once are a lot more potent than your weapons for stunning enemies. But the reward is greater for every outlaw you take alive, with this being even more true for the primary bounties. Since money is needed to upgrade your armor and get other meaningful bonuses, it’s gives you an incentive to slow down and figure out how to use your less deadly tools most effectively.
I found myself frequently getting frustrated on how limited my options were when I wanted to be stealthy rather than deadly. Say for example I had a group of three enemies to deal with. With a boombat critter, I could blast all of them in a single shot with a pretty high likelihood of killing at least one, and the others affected by the blast would be shaken long enough for me to take meaningful action. On the other hand, the stunk critter is intended to stun a group of enemies so you can bounty them alive, but it takes multiple stunks to accomplish this and each shot you fire is a chance that enemies will move out of the effective range and no longer be affected by the smell. But trying to isolate members of a large group to take them out one at a time usually goes south and ends with you being surrounded and gunned down.
Many boss encounters relied on surprise enemies to add difficulty to the battle. Secret doors would open or reinforcements would appear from an area I previously cleared, and for many bosses the challenge was less about how to overcome the outlaw and more about slowly whittling down their forces so you could then have a relatively uninteresting battle with the leader. Some of the bounties did stand out thanks to unique mechanics that made them more like puzzles and less like a straightforward battle. One boss, for example, used a minecart to stay in motion and prevent you from attacking him, but could be stopped by diverting his cart off the tracks to finally put him on the ground where he was more vulnerable. These more puzzling battles were the most enjoyable for me, but unfortunately they were not as common.
Your creative options grow as the game progresses and you unlock more powerful versions of the critters available to you. While the deadly critters simply gain additional firepower or range, the ones for subduing enemies gain more meaningful improvements that make them significantly more viable. The chippunk normally calls a single enemy to its location, but upgraded it can lure up to three enemies at once. The enhanced bolamite can tie up three enemies at once. The stunk, a critter which I found effectively useless in its basic form, gains the ability to yank enemies off of their feet and suck them in like a vacuum to a single point, making them sitting ducks for other weapons. I found myself enjoying my arsenal a lot more with these more powerful versions, as they expanded my options without completely canceling out the difficulty of the game.
Stranger’s Wrath undergoes a change about two-thirds into the game which leads to major structural differences and moderate gameplay changes. I won’t include spoilers here, but essentially Stranger finds himself ostracized and can no longer move openly in civilized places. He can no longer interact with the game’s economy and his enemies become foes who are more entrenched and more resources than ever before. No longer are you attacking criminals boarded up in captured farms; your enemies are professional soldiers with full military installations. You can’t buy equipment and you can’t sell bounties. So while the core gameplay remains the same, there are some meaningful differences in how you engage with those familiar elements.
Because the environments you navigate during these sections of the game feature less natural terrain, it’s harder for you to find live ammo running wild. You also have no use for money because you cannot be seen in town. To mitigate your ammo situation, your normal vessel for containing bounties is replaced with a feed bag. Sucking enemies into this bag alive or dead will feed your live ammo, encouraging the critters to breed and multiply within your ammo pouch. Living enemies produce more ammo than dead ones, so you are still rewarded more for subduing rather than killing your enemies, but instead of providing you the funds for upgrades this instead allows you to manage your limited ammunition. This change helped me to feel a bit more free to use my deadlier critters when facing large groups, but the advantage of enhanced ammo made subduing more practical in many situations.
I found the later chapters of the game to be some of the most fun for this reason. The improved ammunition increases your creative options against a force on a higher magnitude than any outlaws you’ve faced up to that point. Moving through military installations rather than woods or desert cliffs gives you better opportunities to use your stealthiest gear, and there’s less pressure to spare your foes since you aren’t losing out quite as much if you kill them. While the initial pitch of Stranger’s Wrath as a game about a bounty hunter may be the meat of the experience, I found the changes in the “third act” to make the game a lot more enjoyable.
What sort of player would enjoy Stranger’s Wrath? If you’re a fan of stealth games like Dishonored or Thief, this game has kind of a similar vibe but less robust mechanics for sneaking. Of course, it isn’t quite a shooter either, as there is a greater emphasis on strategy than action and blindly charging into situations trying to blast everything will usually end up with your body on the ground. The game’s story is pretty minimal and is told just as much through environmental cues and subtle moments as it is through dialogue. If you enjoy playing games to master them, Stranger’s Wrath can scratch that itch because many of its encounters boil down to trying a solution, getting overwhelmed, and then repeating the fight with a new understanding of the situation in order to push a little bit farther until you’ve eventually completed the whole thing.
Stranger’s Wrath is an interesting title. It is a game that pitches itself on a strong concept, but is perhaps at its best when that concept is left behind for something a little more unique. This can make it difficult to stay engaged towards the middle of the game when the bounty hunting aspects have lost their luster, but if you push through to the turning point of the game you will likely find yourself more reengaged by the changes that take place. I recommend Stranger’s Wrath to those who enjoy challenging stealth shooters where combat is as much a puzzle as it is a test of your twitch reflexes or aiming ability. Even in 2020 it is worth playing – perhaps especially in 2020 due to the relevance of the game’s themes. If you have any questions about the game that weren’t answered in this review, feel free to leave them in the comments below!