Republished on Wednesday 29th August 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
A tiny team of developers with an independent spirit and a vision of creating a game that’s inspired by classic science fiction may seem like a description of Push Square’s E3 2014 Game of the Show, but it could just as easily be applied to Another World. Yet, while Sean Murray of Hello Games talked about creating "worlds that I wanted to escape to but never could", in 1991 Eric Chahi devised a strange and brutal world that you needed to escape from.
Retro PSone gamers may remember Eric Chahi more for Heart of Darkness, but he’s most renowned for Another World. As the talent behind the game's design, progam, and artwork, it took an intense two years of development for Chahi to create this single player cinematic platformer for its debut 23 years ago on the Commodore Amiga, when it was originally released by French publishers Delphine Software. Fast forward to today, and The Digital Lounge has supported Chahi alongside programmer Martial Hesse-Dreville to refine the game with added polish. As part of an extended celebration, it now has a 20th Anniversary Edition subtitle, and the release looks especially shiny on the PlayStation 4. In 1991, the North American title of this side-scrolling action-adventure was Out of This World – but just because a final frontiersman may seek out new life and new civilizations, it doesn't necessarily mean that an exotic alien culture will be friendly.
The game’s protagonist, Lester Knight Chaykin, discovers a hostile world in the middle of a civil war, after his Project 23 particle acceleration experiment is botched by a lightning storm, and it plunges him through space to an unusual planet. As the original auburn haired video game scientist, seven years before Dr. Gordon Freeman, the least of Lester’s problems are having to leave a can of fizzy pop and his Ferrari behind. Thankfully Lester makes one friend, an alien appropriately called Buddy, and it’s refreshing for a story to be told from in-game action, rather than speech or text, because to Lester’s ears Buddy’s language sounds like gobbledygook.
Within the limits of an early 1990s 2D platform game, Chahi’s vision of providing an interactive movie-like experience is more balanced towards gameplay than previous cinematic video games. Many earlier attempts at conveying the vibe of a film were either on-rails or featured glorified quick-time events, like Dragon's Lair from 1983. The cut-scenes in Another World were ambitious for the time, but Chahi also presents his sci-fi drama through real-time events, so the setting is alive with laser battles in the foreground, and action occurring behind barred windows. It was forward thinking of Chahi to display a main gameplay screen that is uncluttered, and its cinematic feel benefits from a lack of a health bar, a high score figure, or other icons on-screen.
This minimalistic idea extends to the soundtrack by Jean-Francois Freitas, which uses sparse sound effects like hissing steam, clumping footsteps, and dripping water to provide atmosphere and an audio cue of impending danger. From the title screen onwards – with a pulsating heart beat bass, warbles, screeches, and scratching sounds – it becomes apparent that Freitas’ audio helps to build the game’s otherworldly ambience. The 20th Anniversary Edition is a respectful and reverent update, and offers the option of the original music, a new re-mastered version, or even the 1994 CD console music from the SEGA-CD soundtrack that many gamers never got to sample.
The art style was fresh and unique in 1991, but with a seamless switch between the pixelated original graphics and the visually upgraded 20th Anniversary Edition with a press of the triangle button, the enhanced visuals in this PS4 port make Another World gleam. The ability to smoothly compare classic visuals with a modern update also features in games like R-Type Dimensions, and it’s a function that we’d like to become standard practice for retro conversions.
For the original release, Chahi painted an iconic image for Another World’s box art and title screen, so it’s logical that the 2014 visuals look like a watercolour painting. However, it’s a more lavish improvement than a simple video smoothing option like in the SEGA Mega Drive Ultimate Collection. The sky blues upon Lester’s arrival on the alien planet demonstrate an increasingly vivid colour range, and the overall result is smoother and crisper in a higher resolution of 2560x1600 pixels.
Chahi’s design work made imaginative use of 16-bit technology by applying blocky angular polygons to shape characters, and he used silhouettes to give an impression of a snarling black soot beast, or a stately winged creature. The vectors were scalable, so enemies may be huge in the foreground, or appear as tiny background details, like aliens digging in the jail. The locations have remained memorable over 23 years, as Lester travels through cities, caves, a palace, an arena, and an alien ladies' bathing area that became controversial for the SNES version.
One of the earliest cinematic platform games was Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia, and it was the rotoscoping animation technique popularised in Mechner's Karateka that inspired Chahi to include it in Another World. This duplicated realistic frame-by-frame actions, modelled on Chahi’s own movement, but the impact of rotoscoping upon control inputs also created a dilemma for cinematic platformers as a sub-genre. The animation sequences look fantastic as they unfurl, but controlling actions can feel overly fiddly, and the delay it places on the timing of jumps can be frustrating. This problem has been carried over to modern iterations of the genre, like Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken. Set-pieces demand precision, but sprinting to escape a surge of water is more challenging when sluggish response times are intrusive towards accomplishing two successive jumps. It’s pragmatic that a professor of science doesn't have superhero abilities, but when Lester refuses to grab a canopy unless you walk and jump onto it, it seems fussy that he plummets to his doom because you used a running leap.
In any case, you will die a lot in Another World, because learning from your mistakes is a core part of the game design. Chahi depicted Lester positioned on the edge of a cliff in his cover art painting, and the professor stands upright with his arms outstretched as if in defiance of the inhospitable landscape. Either that, or the title screen image draws a comparison to a crucifixion pose, which may suggest that Lester has sacrificed himself for science. This is a game about survival, and death is everywhere. It’s not just alien creatures that initiate one of the numerous vicious death animations, but hazards like drowning; falling rocks, deadly steam, and laser blasts are all also potentially fatal. Even spike pits are as lethal as they were in Limbo. The main gameplay mechanic is to explore the surroundings, yet die unexpectedly from a one-hit kill, so that you can learn from that particular death; you can then alter your actions to proceed. The gameplay is inherently repetitive, but it still has variety, such as the arena set-piece battle.
Regardless of trial-and-error progress, it’s satisfying to solve a puzzle without any help. The planet is a living and breathing world – it feels alive with alien birds, leeches, and dangling tentacles – so many of Lester’s actions have an impact on the environment. Your rechargeable gun has three modes, from a quick tap of laser fire, to casting a shield, and a powerful mega shot that clears blocked routes. The way that you approach an enemy influences their actions, so the cause and consequence mechanics also apply to conflict. Therefore, while you wait for Lester’s gun to recharge, it’s possible to defeat an enemy with their own grenade, or by using a fixture in the backdrop. For wave attacks it’s crucial to master quickly building a temporary shield, which necessitates that you learn how to reach Lester’s gun arm through it, so you don’t waste shots by blasting your own protective buffer. There is a slight element of patience required early on in protecting and guiding Buddy, which acts as a precursor to the idea of rescuing Mudokons in the first Oddworld title, but your alien companion proves to be invaluable later in the game.
The 20th Anniversary Edition is slightly more forgiving by including additional checkpoints, and you can replay any of the 31 scenes once you’ve beaten them. The 31 checkpoints include the introduction and ending cut-scenes, and the conclusion is worth seeing for a surprise that links to the Heart of the Alien sequel. Considering that it’s a short game, it’s advisable that you don’t consult a walkthrough, because it’s possible to complete your first play attempt in under four hours. Another World is a linear action-adventure, it follows a set-path route as opposed to a sprawling Metroidvania, although you can lose an hour by confusing the checkpoint system if you try to skip the caves section by initiating a flood too early.
It’s apt that it has Trophies called Survivor and Determination, although there’s no platinum, but you’ll easily find all 13 trophies with the exception of the Secret UFO. Another World is a more respectful, faithful, and authentic port than the 2013 Flashback remake. Once the game is beat, it feels empowering to start it afresh, because the urge to surpass your completion time is strong. It’s gratifying to rush past previously perplexing puzzles, since a second play-through will take less than 45 minutes if you are tempted to use the cross-buy option of replaying it on the move using a PlayStation Vita.
Eric Chahi's 1991 vision of replicating the essence of a science fiction film in a cinematic platform game is worthy of cult status, and it's faithfully recreated on the PS4. The otherworldly soundtrack, and the ability to seamlessly swap between classic and crisp overhauled visuals, are both highlights in this re-mastered presentation. Contentiously, rotoscoping animation techniques could prove divisive, because they slow down the response times of the controls. Moreover, trial-and-error gameplay, and perpetual one-hit kills, may alienate less patient gamers. Another World is a short game, but it has replay value after you survive its strange retro world, and earn the perk of hindsight for a speed run.