It's hard to know where to begin with Oddworld: Soulstorm. The series has definitely had its ups and downs, but it's always felt like part of PlayStation's flavour, so it's nice to have it back after so many years. It's a reimagining of Abe's Exoddus, a sequel to New 'n' Tasty, and in some ways it's one of the better entries in the storied franchise. However, as a modern video game, Soulstorm is difficult to recommend.
The story is a continuation of Abe's escape from Rupture Farms; he's viewed as a saviour and a hero by his fellow Mudokons, and must push on to rescue the remainder of his enslaved brethren. Straight away, the opening cutscene shows the larger ambition of the project; the pre-rendered scenes look great, with nicely animated characters and some amazing scenery. Unfortunately, the game doesn't maintain the impressive visuals when you're playing, but overall it looks decent enough.
Building on that grander presentation, this feels like a broader game in general. This is most definitely an Oddworld game, but the scope is a little bigger and wider. You're still making your way through intricate stages, dealing with Sligs, dodging hazards, and rescuing Mudokons, but levels feel larger, with the camera pulling out to show the scale. There are secrets everywhere, with diverging and hidden paths you'll need to find if you want to save everyone. Additionally, Soulstorm introduces a few new features to the puzzle platformer in an attempt to modernise things.
One major sticking point with the series has been Abe's restricted movement, which would make simple jumps potentially perilous. You had to be precise in your positioning and timing. Here, a double jump makes things a little more forgiving, allowing you to reach high platforms and recover from failed attempts. However, as much as it makes Abe feel more nimble, jumps are still difficult to judge, and simply climbing up ledges or swinging between monkey bars can be frustratingly tricky. Especially by modern standards, just controlling the character feels quite rigid.
We're also a little underwhelmed by the addition of looting and crafting. While they do provide an extra layer to the flow of a stage, rooting around in every bin and locker gets tiresome pretty quickly, and crafting feels superfluous. You'll need to do it in order to obtain certain gadgets and items, but it doesn't feel like it needs to be in the game at all.
To be honest, the things that work best about this game are the things that have always worked: possessing enemies, solving environmental puzzles, and saving Mudokons. The first few levels can be an exercise in frustration, especially a section in which you must sneak past the baddies while snipers aim their lasers at you and mortar fire rains from the heavens. Fortunately, things pick up a little later on when the action slows and it's more about guiding your allies to the exit. When all is working well, finding all the Mudokons and successfully leading the conga line through dangerous territory feels satisfying. Possessing Sligs and steering them to pull levers and gun down other baddies remains a fun solution.
The trouble is that it doesn't always work well. We ran into issues with the AI on numerous occasions that turned some parts of the game into a real chore. Sometimes, Sligs would stop patrolling on their route, stopping in place, which would occasionally mean we couldn't progress without dying or restarting the checkpoint. Other times, Mudokons following Abe would refuse to behave; hiding in a locker should see your followers doing the same, but every now and then, one or two of them would decide not to bother.
Elsewhere, you'll often need to throw bottles of the titular Soulstorm brew to trigger fires, and water to put the fires out. This is very finicky, especially when the camera frames things at an awkward angle, making it hard to judge your throw. Oddly enough, whether the water bottles would actually put out the fire felt extremely hit and miss. Frankly, the gameplay feels like a bit of a mess.
Criticising an Oddworld game for its stubborn controls might come across as a touch harsh, as the series has always been like this. It's always been a challenging adventure that requires precision and an acceptance you'll die a lot, and fans love that about the franchise. It's a bleak story in an oppressive setting starring a weakling hero, and these titles don't hold your hand. It makes sense. However, none of that means a new game in the series has to follow design limitations from the late 90s. In a way, we admire that Soulstorm is so true to the franchise's established quirks, but for us, it doesn't make for a very pleasant experience — especially when combined with bugs and unnecessary features.
Having said all that, there is an undeniable charm to Abe and the Oddworld that may see you through any rough patches. The character is lovably dim, and the land he inhabits is well realised, feeling bigger than any one title. At its best, the game offers up some great scenarios, such as hijacking an enormous train, and presents a fascinating world full of unusual, interesting characters. That's what holds this together, and it's what will keep fans going through the lengthy campaign.
Oddworld: Soulstorm presents itself well and shows a grand vision for the series, but as a modern game in 2021, it's just not where it needs to be. It can be extremely awkward to pull off even basic manoeuvres, some new features miss the mark, and certain levels made us want to quit altogether. Bugs exacerbate some of the gameplay frustrations with wonky AI, and ultimately the play experience can be frustratingly rigid. Fans will love this reimagining of a classic, and the franchise's unique charm shines through, but it's a tough sell for anyone coming to the series fresh.