*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*
“And now for something completely different.”
That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.
After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.
Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.
After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.
Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.
You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.
It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.
Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.
If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”
When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.
What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.
Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.
The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.
Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.
The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.
Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).
The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.
Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.
Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.
Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.
Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.
It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.
There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).
I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.
And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.