The Oddworld series was created by Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, though, personally, I’ve always held that a large share of the credit must go to the flu. How else to account for the creatures that occupy its world—the Mudokons, the Glukkons, the Sligs, and the Slergs? Just listen to the way they occupy your mouth, as if they were coughed up rather than written down. And what about the colours? Look at the freshly sneezed greens of its skies and factories, the flaring reds of its tripped alarms, like a spiking temperature. The mechanics, too, are airborne and infectious. The hero of the first two games, Abe—whose people are ground and cudgelled into submission by their profit-craving overlords—chants at his fellow-sufferers, bidding them to follow him, to rise up and remedy the ills of their existence.
The latest entry is Oddworld: Soulstorm, both a remake of the second game, Abe’s Exoddus, and a sequel to Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!, which was a remake of the first, Abe’s Oddysee. Got it? As with the Resident Evil games—whose developer, Capcom, is happy to re-embalm and tase back onto shelves, via a steady procession of retreads—you sense not just the desire to bask in old glories and burnish them to a modern sheen, but the ceaseless chug of money. “We need success in sales of Soulstorm to keep going,” said Lanning, in a Q. & A. with fans. There is a hint, in that quick-brewed frankness—not quite embittered but certainly unclouded—of past pains. His studio, Oddworld Inhabitants, took an extended hiatus in 2005, after the release of Stranger’s Wrath. Lanning said, of that game’s damp sales, “The largest publisher in the industry had no interest in marketing it regardless of how innovative it was.” And so we come to Abe, whose mouth is sewn shut but whose eyes, agleam with innovation, are quick to the uninterested cruelty of the corporate machine.
The new adventure begins in celebration. The Mudokons, of which Abe is a Moses-like leader (on one wall is daubed “ABE THE SAVIOUR”), have hastened through the desert, away from their captors, and alighted in the temporary safety of a cave. They raise toasts and glug Soulstorm—the fruit of their back-breaking labours, having toiled in the mines of a brewery. We soon discover how temporary that safety is: gunshots echo through the dark and a fire breaks out. What follows is a scripted set piece that scrapes a little awkwardly against the mechanics. You dash across wooden walkways, as they are licked to the brink of collapse by the flames; only, owing to the methodical, puzzle-heavy feel of play, you lumber to your death, missing jumps and failing to grasp ledges. It’s as though Abe had quaffed too much Soulstorm himself.
When things settle, you realise that the action is at its best when the thrills are left to the camera. You wander on a flat plane, through winding 3-D environments; the angles plunge through parched canyons and whip upwards, like a scratchy wind, to catch Abe climbing a rickety ladder on a sheer cliff face. Lanning, who serves as creative director here, is clearly enamoured of movies. Early in his career, he joined Rhythm & Hues Studios, a visual effects team who won Academy Awards for Babe and Life of Pi. As such, the strain that often troubles film-crazed developers—the Cages and the Kojimas of the world—is soothed; the surrender demanded of us by cinema and the fight-and-flight urge at the heart of playing games reach a rare entente.
That is, until the balance tips and swivels out of whack. Most of the game’s fifteen-or-so hours are spent sleuthing through dripping depths; lobbing bottles of water at fires; fuelling mechanisms with Phatoline; rescuing and commanding injured Mudokons; and possessing enemies. These consist chiefly of the Sligs, a race of red-eyed creeps who resemble cybernetic asparagus—and are quite fun to kill. The main problem with Soulstorm is that it lurches too often into combat. Piloting a brainwashed goon and dispensing his allies with a machine gun is one thing, but doing so while airborne, as Abe drifts across a chasm in a cable car, ducking a hail of gunfire, is another entirely. The slight imprecision of the controls is exposed and magnified in these sequences, and your death seems to arrive at random. One late boss, set atop a speeding train, has you crouching behind crates, dodging missiles; it’s less a rollercoaster spectacle than it is an irritant, and you can feel the developers’ grip on the action slip, and clatter off-track.
Where the game is at its best is in the stretches of quiet problem-solving. Abe’s power to enchant—by unleashing a mantra that sounds like the word “you” growled into a didgeridoo—is occasionally trammelled by hanging gizmos that crackle like bug zappers. Elsewhere, there are slumbering beasts to be crept past, and a slew of craftable items. There is, in the quelling of Abe’s numerous troubles, a dose of the sadistic. Long before Limbo, with its soft-grained violence, there was Oddworld, whose puzzles are toothed with similar nastiness. Note the limb-showering burst, amid a mist of blood, as your foes explode under Abe’s psychic urging—a sight that he greets with a yokelish chuckle.
In that image lies the appeal—and for some the off-putting twinge—of Oddworld: a bleak and black-hearted concoction, laced with snickering humour and shot through with hope. If you missed Abe’s Exoddus, back in 1998, now might be the time to give it a second taste. Or else you could wait twenty years for another remake. Traditionally, I come away from these games wanting fresh air, water, and a walk in the sun, and Soulstorm is no different. But a sense of relief, as the credits roll and the real world rushes in, doesn’t indicate a lack of enjoyment—merely that the seal of the spell was airtight. Lanning and his team, wielding a singular talent for visual storytelling (much is conveyed in the sour-milk beacons of Abe’s eyes), show us a grimy glimpse of what might happen if a Pixar movie were not only spiked with darkness—as indeed they are—but stained by it. Behold the Glukkon airship that gives chase to Abe and his people: oarlike sails sticking out from its flanks, stirring through the dirty air like a spoon through coffee. And the lone Mudokon at the outset, staggering through the wastes, clutching his side. Abe draws near and finds the poor fellow pierced by a bullet and soaked in a pool of sticky crimson. Abe the saviour is too late. But who knows? Maybe his chance will come again.
Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants
Publisher: Oddworld Inhabitants, Microïds
Available on: PS4, PS5 [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: April 6, 2021
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