Given that the Oddworld series features bug-eyed farting aliens, you’d be forgiven for thinking the games were wall-to-wall fluffy silliness. Yet from the opening of the new game Soulstorm, it’s anything but.
With its high quality cutscenes and narrative centring on the way corporate greed exploits labourers, Soulstorm takes itself surprisingly seriously.
It’s also brutally difficult, and often not for the right reasons.
Soulstorm follows in the footsteps of 2014’s New ‘n’ Tasty. That game was a remake of the very first Oddworld game on the PS1 way back in 1997. Soulstorm is a sequel to the remake, as well as a reimagining of the original’s sequel as a modern-day experience.
The bulging-eyed protagonist Abe has led his people to safety from their cartoonish corporate overlords, but their hideout is quickly discovered, meaning that Abe must undertake a journey to save them all over again. He sneaks through caves and industrial facilities in what the developers call 2.9D – namely, 3D action from a side-on perspective.
Abe is a gangly and awkward alien and he plays like one too. The controls are sluggish and unresponsive, his jump seemingly inconsistent. This isn’t inherently an issue, as slower-paced moments spent pondering your puzzle strategy don’t rely on reflexes.
Other moments do, though. In a bid to drag the series further into the 21st century, Soulstorm is full of action-packed moments, explosions, set pieces, and inevitable death. Poor Abe simply can’t keep up with his surroundings, leading to countless frustrations.
That also leads to an inconsistent difficulty level. Stealth is decidedly old-school: simply hold the trigger to sneak past enemies, avoid the bright vision cones, and hide in clouds of steam.
It’s these slower-paced sections where the game is at its best. However, when the game then cranks up the action the repeated deaths through unresponsive controls are infuriating.
More frustrating still is the A.I.
Saving your fellow Mudoken aliens means they’ll follow you like lemmings, but they don’t always do what they’re told. You can command them to stay put, but on far too many occasions they’ll simply stand waiting to die, or take an alternative route you didn’t expect that leads them straight to the enemy.
Rescuing as many Mudokens as possible is required for the best of the game’s multiple endings, but it’s not required to complete each level. Often they’re simply too much of a burden and it’s easier to let them die while you busy yourself with solving puzzles.
The camera swoops around the action for a cinematic view, making this a visually pleasing Oddworld game. Yet there are annoying things about the perspective too: it frequently doesn’t show the action from an optimal point of view, or makes it difficult to line Abe up with interactive objects. Checkpoints also save your progress even if you make a mistake, sometimes meaning a complete restart of a level is required.
These frustrations mar what is otherwise a unique title with some interesting ideas. Though he can’t attack directly, Abe can possess and control enemies, making them fight each other. Alone, he can scavenge for items to craft different items to aid in his quest: smoke bombs, flammable liquid and more. It gives you quite the arsenal against your foes and some smart puzzles to solve.
The biggest battle of all, though, is with Soulstorm’s controls. For all its dark, moody atmosphere and witty physical comedy, the conflict between old-school gameplay and new-gen presentation makes for a frustrating experience.