Oddworld: Soulstorm Has More Heart And Less Farts

Oddworld: Soulstorm Has More Heart And Less Farts

My name is Abe, and I have to save my friends.

I’m locked in a multi-level, two-dimensional room. In the distance, I see my buddies, all 200 of them, climbing a ladder that will lead them to safety and where. they can reach the lock that will free me. Suddenly, a loud crackling noise alerts me to the presence of an enemy. It can’t see me, but it can see my friends. I quickly cast a spell defeating him, but more sligs come. I take possession of one and use it to kill another, then another. I can’t keep up. One slig knows something’s wrong with his so-called comrade, and it kills my avatar, severing my control. I keep chanting to quickly take possession of another, but I’m too slow. The sligs see my friends. They take aim and start shooting. I count 36 bodies that fall.

I’m seven hours into Oddworld: Soulstorm and the game’s a kind of fun I wasn’t expecting. Oddworld Inhabitants’ decision to create a wholly new Oddworld adventure has turned what was once a simplistic puzzle platformer into a rich narrative experience that’s hooked me into characters I always liked, but now love.

Oddworld: Soulstorm, out now on PlayStation 4 and 5, and PC, is a next-gen reimagination of 1998’s Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, sequel to Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Following Oddworld: New N Tasty, Oddworld: Soulstorm is the second time developer Oddworld Inhabitants gave one of its older titles a next-gen revamp. But instead of creating a simple HD remake the way New N Tasty was, Soulstorm is a new game with new mechanics, new levels, and a new story.

Oddworld: Soulstorm is a “2.9D” side scrolling platformer. As Abe, you must navigate treacherous terrain, avoiding traps, enemies, and even the local fauna. To accompany the next-gen graphical updates, Soulstorm also enhanced the way Abe moves adding more complex actions to his repertoire than what he had in Exoddus.

I played the first two Oddworld, Abe’s Exoddus and Abe’s Oddysee games when I was a child, and I remember both disturbing the shit outta me. The cramped, dark, and dirty environments created a sense of foreboding that thrilled and terrified me. In each room there was a puzzle to solve or a secret to find, and my brain enjoyed the workout. After playing and 100 per cent completing New N Tasty, I looked forward to Soulstorm to re-experience the same thrilling terror. Soulstorm, with all its new items and enhancements, looked like it was going to crank up the difficulty levels, and I was excited to play. But a few hours into Soulstorm, I’m still waiting to feel the same dread-laced excitementI felt playing its originator.

Abe’s Exoddus and saving all the Mudokons was difficult because the limited actions available to mean you have to meticulously plan how to navigate a trap-filled room with your buddies safely. With all the new items, a lot of that planning has been eliminated in favour of simply having the right amount of items to craft the right tool for the job. In Exoddus it was: “OK, I have to drop down, run for my life, jump, hope I catch the ledge, climb up, and pull the lever before the slig sees me and shoots me to death.” Now it’s: “I can use the smokescreen bomb or the stun bomb and move at my leisure.” The difficulty that made Exoddus stressful but rewarding has been flattened into a kind of generic action adventure platformer.

Uhh...don't look behind you. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)
Uhh…don’t look behind you. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)

That said, Soulstorm still scratches my puzzle platformer itch. I miss the challenge of the originals but Soulstorm isn’t without some difficulty. Abe’s enhanced movement options and the new level designs create totally new challenges that I’m having fun sussing out. Early in the game, Abe is forced to traverse through pitch black caves infested with dog-like creatures called slogs. You only have a limited number of flares to light your way and changes to your chant ability make it so you scout ahead for any hazards. However, you have no weapons to deal with slogs, so your best bet is to stay as quiet as possible. Chanting, talking to other Mudokons, or running around will wake up the slogs and they’re hungry for dinner. Do you stay quiet and risk falling into an unseen bottomless pit? Or do you make use of your chant’s scouting ability and let slip the slogs of war?

Most of my enjoyment of Soulstorm is in spite of the new item offerings rather than because of it. To me, item collecting is tedious and I tend to ignore collection if I can help it. But in Soulstorm, you can’t help it. Abe can search lockers, bash open wooden boxes, pursue clay jars, or just pick up off the ground various items he can use in his travels. In the first handful of levels you’re introduced to Soulstorm Brew. Throw a bottle of it at the nearest fire and it explodes, taking out whatever hapless slig, wooden barricade, or Mudokon worker caught in the explosion. Some of the items are cool. Tape, for example, can be used to tie up a knocked out slig, permanently incapacitating it. But one of the items, moolah, I absolutely hate. There are doors called moolah gates that bar Abe’s progress unless he pays the amount of moolah marked on the gate. I’ve run into situations where I’ve successfully completed a trap- and enemy-filled room but found myself unable to progress because while I was running for my life, I neglected to check every locker and dumpster for the moolah I’d later need to move on. I have never been the kind of gamer that obsessively checks every nook and cranny for every little item — it’s a waste of time. That this game sometimes requires that — forcing me re-do rooms I’ve already done, is annoying as hell.

Really didn't like this puzzle. Later on, the pistons are so close together you can only call over one guy at a time to get them all through, and you have like nine guys following you. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)
Really didn’t like this puzzle. Later on, the pistons are so close together you can only call over one guy at a time to get them all through, and you have like nine guys following you. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)

As in New ‘n’ Tasty, I still wanted to save all my Mudokon buddies, but I’ve already fucked that dream up. Soulstorm’s UI will tell you how many Mudokons are on a given level, but, as far as I can tell, it lacks visual cues as to where. Exoddus hinted at secret Mudokon hiding spots with the presence of small piles of Soulstorm brew bottles.Soulstorm has no equivalent, so I’ve been obsessively checking every rock that stands out in the foreground and always checking for workers hidden in steam vents. There’s been more than one occasion where an errant roll against a wall that looks solid reveals a hidden area where Mudokons lie awaiting their saviour.

I like that the game rewards you for taking an extra moment to kick around for any fake walls and false bottoms. There is never an occasion in which straying from the obvious path doesn’t yield a collectible or a Mudokon to save. But even still, all my tricks and tips from playing the original Oddworld games haven’t been enough to save everyone.

There’s a moment early in the game that made me realise I won’t be able to save everyone. Abe gets locked in a room, unable to escape until enough Mudokons climb a giant ladder to hit the button that will unlock the room. As they climb, you have to distract waves of sligs from shooting them down. It’s tough. There are so many sligs and you can only possess one at time. While you’re in control of one shooting another, a third, fourth, and fifth are mowing down scores of Mudokons. After countless attempts at saving all 200 Mudokons I had to give up otherwise I’d never see the rest of the game. It made me think that perhaps this is working as intended, that this was the game teaching me that this time, Abe won’t be able to save everyone. I inscribed the 36 Mudokons I lost upon my heart and solemnly moved on…to another room that made me repeat the encounter.

It's demoralising as hell watching sligs shoot down your friends. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)
It’s demoralising as hell watching sligs shoot down your friends. (Screenshot: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.)

What was so enjoyable about the older Oddworld games was looking at a problem — say a room designed to be nothing more than an elaborate deathtrap — and figuring out how to navigate you and your zero survival instinct having buddies to safety. This experience with the ladder kinda undercut that and made the challenge less about your ability to shrewdly plan and more about your ability to button mash. I’m not a button masher, so I failed.

Another moment similarly forced me to accept casualties but this time it was because of a bug and not puzzle design. The portals you use to send your Mudokons to freedom are made up of little birds that scatter when you get too close. Usually when that happens, you wait a moment and the birds reappear or you can transition screens and comeback to respawn the portal. The bug I encountered permanently despawned a portal and nothing I did could bring it back. I was forced to leave the Mudokons I collected in the area behind because they couldn’t follow me to the next area where another portal might have been waiting. I’ve already resigned myself to a second playthrough later in the year when walkthroughs are available.

I’m not yet finished with the game, which is why this isn’t a full review. I’m about six or seven hours in. And despite feeling initially underwhelmed by the lack of a challenge, I am enjoying myself. I’ve always loved the first two Oddworld games so having a souped-up version of Exoddus is catnip to my teenage self. I’m hoping the story finds the right balance between Abe’s quest as the chosen one and the wacky gross-out humour that made the initial games so charming. I’m also hoping later levels are constructed with the old Oddworld in mind — more reliant on your problem-solving ability than having the right number of doohickies in your backpack.

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