Stranger’s Wrath, another visitation into the Oddworld, is one of those anomalies in gaming that sadly transpire a little too often; despite being well received by critics and punters alike, precious few outside those that actually submitted their Metacritic reviews have ever heard of the game. And that’s a massive shame, because all those rave reviews are thoroughly deserved.
The player’s introduction to the game is a nice, gentle tutorial which still makes you feel like you’re involved in the action, and not just biding time until the game proper starts. The character of Stranger, a likable ornery bounty hunter who speaks more through gruff tone than words, uses the much-vaunted live ammo (critters collected from the environment) in both first- and third-person viewpoints. Progression is marked through the bountying of bosses, with a well pitched difficulty curve.
There’s not a whole lot of story behind the game, though the plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through is a corker. It’s at that point the game really opens up, too – whilst the perspective shifting boss rushes of the early game are satisfying enough (including some great on-rails shooting action, leaving the player prone in a rollicking mine cart), the end-game contains some glorious change-ups – there’s some sublime row-boat action, and a race-against-time that’s reminiscent of Halo‘s triumphant finale.
Everything about Stranger’s Wrath screams quality: visuals are almost without peer on the Xbox, there’s gorgeous voice acting and perfect mood-setting music, and the control of Stranger is perfect; he’s got a wonderful weight to him, and shaking off your damage to “recharge your shield” is a nice touch. The environments are also stunningly realised: it’s hard to think of a game with such a lavishly realised world that contains so much incidental stuff, so much detail that creates an utterly immersive environment. Trotting down to the waterfront in Mongo Valley for the first time yields a beautiful sight, all green foliage and blue skies reflecting off the river… it really made me ask myself why we needed a next generation at all.
In fact, there’s so much outside the linear “game” to see and do in Stranger’s Wrath that I played through it twice in close succession. I rubbernecked like a tourist, I herded the residents of Buzzarton into the sewers, I checked out the spaghetti-western inspired graphics filter, I went to key locations early to hear Stranger’s wry comments on what-was-to-come. But there came a point where the difficulty got to the stage where I wasn’t afforded my look-at-all-the-pretty-scenery-time; so out came the cheat codes (it was my second run through, so I didn’t feel too guilty about that).
And, whilst the cheat codes allowed me to explore the environments without fear of death, there’s one thing that they did not do – hinder the sheer fun provided by the game. Stranger’s Wrath encourages a sense of play that is rarely seen – far from holding your hand as you tackle a particularly tricky bounty mission, you’re left to flounder with little assistance. But this is nowhere near as frustrating as it may sound, such is the balance of the weaponry – there’s always an easier way to get the job done, a different tack that can be taken, more moolah to be earned. Replayability is assured, with the option to try and capture your bounties alive (rather than safely killing them from afar) or to leverage different weapons’ strengths.
If you hadn’t guessed yet, I loved Stranger’s Wrath. As mentioned before, it really makes me wonder why we needed the next-generation of gaming machines at all, and (along with Psychonauts) is an amazing example of why gameplay is king. It’s just a massive shame that it was missed by the vast majority.