Developer Just Add Water's done an outstanding job of making the XBOX original look and feel relevant on PlayStation 3, allowing the game's bizarre mix of stealth and shooting to stand up on its own. Some irritating voice acting and offensive difficulty spikes harm the game's appeal, but Stranger's Wrath HD is still a curiously moreish package in spite of its shortcomings.
We didn't play Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath the first time it came around. Not only did the title's XBOX exclusive origins clash with our platform allegiances at the time, but the game never really struck us as a must play. Despite mustering some critical enthusiasm, consumer response to the game's curious clash of themes and gameplay styles was almost non-existent. The game bombed, and most players promptly forgot it even existed.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD is the game's second wind. Lovingly restored by Gravity Crash developer Just Add Water, the game feels fresh and inventive on PlayStation 3 despite its age. The improved textures, boosted frame-rate and rebuilt character models headline the improvements, but it's Oddworld Inhabitants' original vision that shines through sharper than the 720p visuals on screen.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD is a baffling game. Its mesh of genres is almost as curious as its inconsistent fantasy world. There's a rare glimmer of legitimate creativity in Stranger's Wrath, that contrasts with the products of committee so common in the current generation of games.
Nothing compounds the game's oddity better than protagonist Stranger. The fearsome bounty hunter is unusually quiet, keeping his thick southern drawl to a minimum. It's only through the narrative that we learn of Stranger's motivations, and even then the game takes a while to present all of the facts. The slow narrative development gives you time to develop an attachment to the character — through simple RPG-like upgrades and general gameplay — making the plot revelations in the game's final third that much more impactful.
The narrative's main driving force is revealed about an hour into the game. We learn that Stranger needs to raise 20,000 Moolah (the game's main currency) in order to pay for a life saving operation. The game doesn't reveal the reason for the operation until towards the end, but the urgency of the treatment is hammered home.
Being a bounty hunter, Stranger decides to put his skills to the test in order to raise the funds required for his life-saving surgery. And that provides the structure for the main bulk of the game. While Stranger's Wrath offers the illusion of an open-world game, it is primarily linear. Each bounty sees you funnelled into a different part of the world, utilising Stranger's array of platforming abilities to navigate the varied Western landscapes.
But it's in first-person that Stranger's Wrath is at its most intriguing. Throughout the game, you're given the option to capture bounties alive or dead. This introduces an intriguing risk/reward mechanic, that sees you earn more Moolah for capturing grunts alive, while significantly increasing each encounter's difficulty.
The majority of the game's missions require you to capture a set of copy-and-paste foes before you reach the main target. But while this might sound desperately repetitive, Stranger's Wrath's combat is anything but. Encounters are laid out like puzzles, with Stranger's arsenal providing you with the tools to overcome them. Throughout the game you'll happen upon a growing stash of "Live Ammo" — unique projectiles made out of living creatures that you must hunt in order to replenish. Each projectile has a different purpose, whereby Chippunks, for example, can be used to draw enemies into a specific spot, or Bolamites can be utilised to temporarily disable foes and prompt an easy bounty. The ammo variety keeps the gameplay feeling fresh, and allows you to develop your own strategies for each combat encounter.
Despite the frequency of first-person shooters this generation, Stranger's Wrath manages to feel unique and engaging at the same time. The game toes the line between stealth, puzzle and straight-forward combat, serving up an intriguing blend that remains interesting throughout the game's entire running time.
Sadly the game struggles with a number of discouraging difficulty spikes, with boss fights being the worst offenders. Despite each boss having its own personality — and unique "solution" — the game is far too keen on littering the screen with enemies, projectiles and madness. The sticky camera can make it difficult to keep track of these encounters, and subsequently you'll find yourself making good friends with the game over screen.
The difficulty issues are compounded by the finicky manner in which Stranger's Wrath handles health. The game forgoes any kind of health pick-up mechanic, instead allowing Stranger to "shake off" any injuries at the expense of a depleting stamina bar. While the mechanic is functional, we found it fiddly and frustrating. Sometimes Stranger would suddenly stop shaking off injuries despite us holding onto the button, leading us to make our next move prematurely.
The game works around any difficulty issues by including a Quick Save button, allowing you to create your own checkpoints on the fly. The feature makes the difficulty spikes manageable but it's not an ideal solution. We would have preferred a more balanced difficulty progression as opposed to relying on the game's save system to get us through its hairier moments.
There are other niggles that plague Stranger's Wrath too. Despite the leap in visual clarity, the game's audio can be a real turn off in places. The quality of the audio is not necessarily the problem, moreover the samples used. One robotic boss forced us to mute our television due to the creaking sounds of the character frustrating other people in the room, and the screeching tone of the game's NPCs can grate too.
Thankfully, as previously alluded, the game itself looks absolutely stunning. If it wasn't for Bluepoint's work on the God Of War Collection and Shadow Of The Colossus, we'd make a case for Stranger's Wrath HD being the best looking HD remaster released to date. The image quality is flawless, with lashings of anti-aliasing offering a stunningly clean image on screen. The boosted frame-rate's susceptible to the odd stutter, but it's an easy issue to overlook.
Overall, Stranger's Wrath is a real rare treat, serving up an experience that's fundamentally different to anything else available on the PlayStation Store. Just Add Water's loving restoration work is merely the icing on the cake, bringing Oddworld Inhabitants' original vision to life in a manner that stands up next to the very best HD remasters already available on PlayStation 3.
Carrying a generous £9.99 price-point, we have confidence that Stranger's Wrath will finally hit the wider market that it deserves. Despite its length, size and scope, the game finally feels at home next to other PlayStation Store curiosities such as Limbo, flower and Okabu. You owe it to yourself to give the game a chance.