Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD
Accept quest, leave town, complete quest, and return to town: this method of game progression has existed nearly as long as video games themselves have existed. Stranger’s Wrath HD employs the very same structure, replacing quests with bounties in its madcap twist on popular Western tropes. But such a rigid structure doesn’t do Stranger’s Wrath many favors, and the game suffers before shedding these unnecessary conventions.
Traditional questing doesn’t work because there isn’t any real sense of reward or exploration upon returning to town. In most RPGs there are several homes or shops to visit, or dozens of unique NPCs to talk with, but Stranger’s Wrath is confined to a pair of shops in almost every hub: a place you buy stuff and the place you get/return quests. At first walking around town unburdened by true RPG systems is a treat, the villagers and towns provide some worthwhile context to Oddworld’s aesthetic; and then you come back, again and again, and nothing is different. Upon your return you turn in a bounty, are given some Moolah (yes, it’s called that) and then proceed to the General Store, hoping there’s something new to buy. Problem is it’s normally a small weapon upgrade, something that helps your character in the long run but fails to reward the tedious journeys back to town.
As a badass no-nonsense bounty hunter, Stranger packs a pretty nasty crossbow, outfitted with a hilarious arsenal of critters. Instead of hauling a stable of different weapons, each critter represents a unique ammunition type useful toward Stranger’s task: capturing bad guys. Because you can’t capture dead people. Switching ammo on the fly to accommodate certain situations and incapacitating baddies without accidentally killing them is what gives the shooting its satisfying, tactical edge. Patience, stealth and remaining conscientious of ammo available are all critical to survival; Stranger may look tough, but a tank he is not.
Though fun, Stranger’s bounties begin to seriously drag as the game wears on. Reading environments and systematically taking down guards, and eventually bosses, is an effective way to portray Stranger as the hunter he is, but it also makes the gameplay predominantly one-dimensional. Though you could plow through the entire game killing every enemy you come across, in doing so, you sacrifice tons of potential Moolah and all the upgrades that come with it. It has to be said there is a definite sense of satisfaction in bagging the bosses alive, but many of the fights devolve into an annoying war of attrition thanks to their ridiculously buff agility gauges – which have to be completely depleted to stun, which is necessary for a live capture.
About two thirds of the way through, Stranger’s Wrath finally lets the player in on Stranger’s secret – we’ve known he needs an expensive surgery, but been given no real explanation. From this point on the game finally possesses the narrative thrust it needed nearly several hours ago. One of the oldest Western tropes is the man with no past, or the outlaw with a heart of gold, and Stranger easily straddles these archetypes, providing the requisite gruff protagonist. The problem is, by doing so Oddworld keeps the player at arm’s length for far too long, making it nearly impossible to relate to Stranger or anyone else in his world.
Even though Stranger’s Wrath HD is a prettier, smoother running version of an old game, it still finds its own ways of reminding you of its age. The voice acting, though mostly funny thanks to the great writing, becomes distracting due to how few unique voices there are across the game world. Most townsfolk are voiced by the same actor, which contributes to the disappointing town aspect of the title, but what’s most unfortunate are the recycled voices for each and every bounty. Clearly when Oddworld Inhabitants designed each primary outlaw they wanted them to have their own bizarre traits and personalities, which admittedly is shown via their weapon choices and character designs, however, some of the illusion is broken when they open their mouths and sound like a dozen characters previous.
Despite showing its age, Stranger’s Wrath HD is still a wholly original, refreshing title when compared to many modern offerings. Though plagued by unneeded, light RPG trappings, Oddworld Inhabitant’s quirky first-person shooter offers a welcome, unexpected reprieve to more traditional shooters. And once you’re finally in on its secret, it truly shines.