*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee*
In 1997, an odd little game arrived on the Sony Playstation by the name of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Developed by the aptly-named studio Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee was planned to be the first installment in the five-part Oddworld Quintology (yes, Pentology is the proper term for a five-part series, but quintology just sounds better, I suppose). The game was a surprising critical success, and even performed commercially well. Though additional Oddworld games would follow, only the second installment in the quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, was produced (the other two Oddworld titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath, were considered “bonus” games that built on Oddworld’s mythology). Oddworld Inhabitants had notorious relationships with publishers, and eventually left the gaming scene for close to a decade, before they returned with a remake of Abe’s Oddysee titled “New N’ Tasty” in 2014, to start the series over.
The Oddworld Quintology may be continuing anew, but it’s a shame the original vision of the series never came to light, because Abe’s Oddysee certainly got things off to a great start. In many ways, Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time, with gameplay that still feels unique to this day, and an equally unique world to go with it. Though it has to be said that the experience of playing Abe’s Oddysee today is hampered a fair bit by a steep difficulty curve (including some outright cheap moments that go against what the game instills in the player early on), which is made all the more difficult by a convoluted save feature.
The story is set on the titular planet Oddworld, and the game does a pretty terrific job at giving the player a good insight into its world with very little exposition. Rupture Farms is the biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld, and slaughters the creatures of the planet with reckless abandon (“We used to make Meech Munchies… until the Meeches were through”). In Oddworld, certain species are born into different social classes, and Rupture Farms is no exception: at the top of the pecking order are Glukkons, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking businessmen. Sligs are miserable creatures that are born to be the hired guns for the Glukkons. And at the bottom of the totem pole are the Mudokons – humanoid creatures that looks like a cross between Gollum and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 90’s movies – who have become slaves to the Glukkons’ many corporations.
Abe is one such Mudokon working for Rupture Farms, notable for being more blueish-gray than the Mudokons’ usual green coloring. Late one night when waxing the floors, Abe passes by the boardroom, and curiosity gets the best of him. He listens in on a board meeting, where the Glukkons are discussing Rupture Farms’ decreasing sales. The Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’ most popular meat sources – are starting to turn up thin. But CEO Mullock has a “great” idea for a new product: Mudokon pops, which are little more than Mudokon heads stabbed on a stick (at least in the US version. International versions of the game censor it as a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head, which lessens the impact). Horrified at the fate the Gluckons have planned for him and his fellow Mudokons, Abe hopes to escape from Rupture Farms, and free as many slaves as he can (for gameplay purposes, there are 99 in the game to rescue).
There’s an obvious environmental, sociopolitical element to the game. But what Oddworld managed to do to great effect is expressing these themes without ever feeling self-righteous. It has a good balance of imagination and humor to go along with the political aspects (one button even allows Abe to fart, just because), which prevents the game from feeling too pretentious or in love with itself. There are far more story-heavy games made today (whether artsy indie titles or AAA games that think emulating movies equates to art) that get such praise for their narratives upon their initial release, only to be laughed at as egotistical hot air in hindsight. When you make the comparison to Oddworld, such games end up with even more egg on their face.
In terms of gameplay, Abe’s Oddysey is a puzzle-platformer. Abe is no fighter, and if one Slig catches him he’s toast in a second’s time. But Abe has some tricks up his sleeve: he can sneak and hide in shadows, roll into small spaces and, crucially, he can chant to telepathically possess Sligs.
The chant is also used to open portals to free your fellow Mudokons, but it’s only one of several voice commands Abe can make. Abe can also communicate with Mudokons with “hello!” “follow me!” and “wait” (as well as the aforementioned fart, which makes both Mudokons and Sligs giggle). This is important because, once puzzles are solved and the dangers are gone, Abe will have to guide Mudokons to the nearest portal. This “gamespeak” was truly innovative in its day, though there’s an unfortunate caveat in that Abe can only guide one Mudokon at a time, which makes certain moments with multiple Mudokons more than a little tedious (it should be no surprise that Abe’s Exoddus, as well as the remake, fixed this and allowed Abe to communicate with groups).
Another issue with the game is when the focus becomes more action-based (mostly in the middle section of the adventure, when Abe is often chased by wild Paramites and Scrabs). Abe controls well enough, but he controls well for the slow paced nature of the majority of the game. When things get hectic, and Abe needs to run, jump and roll in quick succession without missing a beat, it just feels off. Abe just isn’t made with the same kind of precision as characters like Mario or Sonic, but these chase sequences often play out as if he does, which makes them feel clunky.
There are additional problems when it comes to rescuing Mudokons. The process itself is simple enough (make sure it’s safe, guide them to a portal, chant to open said portal), but there are several hidden Mudokons that -should you miss them – you don’t get a second chance to rescue. And some of them are hidden in really esoteric places (gee, I never would have thought that there was a hidden room I could climb down to behind the large, obstructing object in the foreground, because why would I?). What’s all the weirder is that the majority of these secret rooms and hidden Mudokons are in the earlier portions of the game, whereas things are more out in the open later on. So these missable Mudokons feel like one big beginner’s trap. You probably wouldn’t think of how you find some of these secret areas until later in the game, long after you’ve missed your chance to rescue the poor souls. I’m not sure if this was intended to incite replay value (with the knowledge you have by the end of the game you can redo the beginning and get everything), but it feels like a cheap means to achieve it.
There are a number of other beginner’s traps in regards to the puzzles. While some of the puzzle solving is clever and leads to genuine “aha!” moments, there are more than a few where the game will feel like it’s throwing one cheap death after another on the player, prolonging certain sections by forcing the player to make only a little more progress with every try. Trial-and-error isn’t unforgiveable in video games, but it certainly isn’t ideal. And sometimes, Abe’s Oddysee just takes things way too far. It’s one thing if the trial-and-error is the result of my own mistakes, but how am I supposed to just know when dropping down a hole will put me right in a Slig’s line of fire, or when I casually stroll to the next screen just to be greeted by a hungry Slog (it’s like a Slig’s dog) two feet in front of me?
Granted, you have unlimited lives, so you can keep trying a section as many times as you need to get it right. But the game can be really stingy with the checkpoints, meaning that sometimes you’ll have to replay decently large sections multiple times over just because of one tricky little detail (what’s worse, if there are secret rooms and Mudokons within that timeframe, you’ll have to rescue them again every time until you reach the next checkpoint). I’m all for a good challenge, but when difficulty teeters into tedium, a game loses me.
On the subject of checkpoints, the save feature is the game’s single biggest drawback. A game this demandingly difficult should at the very least apply checkpoints liberally. Not only are these checkpoints in short supply, but the game actually does have a manual save option in the pause menu, but it still only saves at the checkpoints! I’m guessing this means the checkpoints themselves only save your progress when you die, but not when you quit playing the game, whereas the save option ensures you can reload the game from that checkpoint the next time you play? But then why separate the two? Either just have the checkpoints save the game, or let me save my progress on whatever screen I need to!
To further convolute things, when loading a saved file, the checkpoints are listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t how they appear in the game itself (it’s easy to find the levels themselves, but the checkpoints of the levels are often out of numerical order, which gets confusing). Goodness, why do I have to jump through so many hoops just to save and load my game?
By now things are sounding largely negative, but these drawbacks have merely been magnified with age. I still feel like there’s enough good to make Abe’s Oddysee a worthwhile gaming experience.
The gameplay is unique and fun, especially when you get to possess a Slig and infiltrate the enemy (sometimes there are drones that prevent Abe from chanting to possess a Slig, giving you another obstacle to overcome by finding a way to destroy the drone or luring a Slig away from it). The graphics, while aged, give the game a distinctly dark (sometimes gruesome) atmosphere, as does the music. Abe’s Oddysee was years ahead of its time in regards to merging gameplay and story. But perhaps best of all is Oddworld itself, one of the all-time great video game worlds. So much about the game is dedicated to its worldbuilding, and the world it builds is really unlike any other in the medium.
Better things laid ahead for Oddworld (the two “bonus” titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath were the best entries, oddly enough), and with the series set to continue in 2021 from where the remake left off, better things may still be in its future. And while going back to where it all started may be rough around the edges, it’s still sure to leave an impression.