Lockers: one tap to loot, two taps to hide inside. Clang. And do hide inside them, particularly if you have a bunch of almost-rescued Mudokons with you. Hide because it’s useful for progression through these 2D gauntlets that mix stealth with platforming (and, of course, with an energising scarcity of offensive options). And hide because genuine human comedy ensues. Or is it tragedy? A gaggle of fidgeting limbs and panicked faces, everyone trying to find a safe spot to put themselves in, culminating in a mass slamming of metal doors. Sardines. Anyone left out? Bad news for them if so.
Oddworld has its grand elements – the core games chart Abe’s rise from slave to resistance hero, which is as grand a trajectory as they come – but it has always been a series concerned with the little things. Smart, really. So much of a cut-scene’s drama is delivered with a blink of those big wet eyes, for example, while a crucial, truly devastating plot point in one game is hidden inside a pair of old boots. Soulstorm, a reimagining or reworking of Abe’s Exoddus, contains a bunch of lovely little things to enjoy and savour. There’s that frantic scramble over lockers to hide in. There’s an animation involving a retrofitted fire extinguisher I can’t get enough of. There are those big wet eyes again. Oh, Abe!
And yet little things may also explain why I took a while to properly settle into Soulstorm. This is a very difficult game – at least it is for me, and the regularity of checkpoint suggests I’m not a total outlier. This means lots of dying and learning and repeating, which also means, alas, that up front, in the game’s uneven first few missions, I have had a lot of time to spot the moments when little things didn’t work quite the way they are meant to.
Also up front: I didn’t encounter the two big bugs that the game shipped with, and which have now been fixed, apparently. Even so, there was enough minor stuff sprinkled across my first few hours to lend the game an unwelcome – and distinctly un-Oddworldly – scrappiness. Checkpoints would sometimes respawn me into a mini-death loop. Explosions would push me back to an earlier checkpoint, wiping out five minutes’ progress but also forcing a restart because I now had to go through a platforming challenge I had already completed while being pelted with shell fire that was not meant to have been triggered yet. Enemy states would fail to fully reset now and then, meaning guards would sometimes refuse go back to a patrol route after calming down. Little things, and rare, but…
A shame, really, because once I got through that I was often swept along with the invention and vehemence and ugly beauty of what’s on offer in an Oddworld game. At their best these games really do things no other games do.
Of course, this particular game does a lot of things one specific other game did. Soulstorm takes the template of Abe’s Exoddus and expands it – it’s far less of a straight remake than New ‘n’ Tasty was, and much more of a reimagining. Abe can now loot bins and lockers looking for crafting materials. Simple stuff for the most part like different kinds of bombs, but it gives you something puzzley to do while also tying into the themes of survival and living at the bottom rung of a wasteful society. Besides, a few of the items available – shout out to Bouncing Binding Candy, which brings with it welcome memories of Stranger’s Wrath – are really delightful. On top of that, the side-scrolling, formerly switch-screen levels have been pretzeled into beautiful flowing shapes, 2D routes that now wrap around a spindly mountain, barrel through rusting Manhattans of shipping containers, or twist down into the earth where vast machines chug away at rock, where wheels turn and creatures scurry from the light. It’s a beautiful game, particularly in its mixing together of the industrial and the ancient wilderness.
Both the crafting and the environments bring a certain new thrill to a game that, mechanically, often remains a bit of a throwback. Not to get too zen, but while you can scroll freely about the landscape, you can still feel where the old screens would have been for the most part, and some of my favourite moments in Soulstorm are right out of the late 1990s, looking over a vista of patrolling enemies and different gantries and working out how I’m going to clear them out and reach the switch I need without too much in the way of traditional video game combat options. With great powerlessness comes a thrilling awareness of the full range of other possibilities.
I say that, but Oddworld is never quite as non-violent as I remember it being, and this feels particularly true for Soulstorm. Unless his gifts are being blocked by enemy technology, Abe can still chant to possess baddies and use their weapons to clear out rooms – or just pop them on the spot in a cheerful spray of offal. (The sense of ingrained injustice theoretically outweighs the guilty delights.) In early stages, if there are open flames, Abe can lob bottles of cheap booze to ignite walls and ceilings and bystanders. Physics ensues, and screaming. And then as the game opens up there are the homespun horrors you can craft using nothing more deadly – on the surface at least – than bubble gum and tins of pop, say. Argh! Violent delights, but now are there too many of them? Is this new Oddworld now slightly too empowering, as the levels stack up?
Maybe not. I still prefer to play as non-lethally as possible, anyway, and for a lot of the game this is supported as well. Enemies can be stunned with rocks and then tied up – and now pickpocketed, more craft for the crafting gods – while some of the most satisfying sections have you skipping between steam vents and those lockers to move around patrols and sniper beams and laser grids without being spotted at all. It fits. The whole point of this world is that Mudokons are never truly seen by their oppressors. Here, this idea is twisted and weaponised.
The game stretches its platform puzzling as far as it will go, in fact. And perhaps a bit beyond that. Pure stealth or puzzle sections often work beautifully – one set-piece that plays out in near-total darkness is particularly thrilling. But the game’s rare overly-busy moments – particularly an early set-piece involving aerial bombardment – can feel a little much, as the game’s visible clockwork, the things you can see on the screen and make meaningful predictions about, are joined by sheer chaos that seems designed purely to keep you moving. At best it can feel cheap, and at worst it creates that awful Uncharted scenario, where you feel like an actor in a direct-to-video action film who has misplaced the script and now has to brute-force the correct cues across endless takes.
Through even the worst of this – and it is rare – there’s the Oddworld difference, though: the Mudokons who you save in each level, if you can, and lead to freedom. Moving Mudokons between lockers and safe spaces, opening up separate routes for them to travel safely, and occasionally relying on their help to overcome certain challenges, this is where the game really lives – where it still feels unique. You’d want to involve yourself in it even if it wasn’t tied into a system of good and bad endings and final level unlocks. It’s almost a shame that it is, in fact. The pure compulsion of justice should be enough. (One of the bad endings, incidentally, is truly as bad as things could get.)
More than any of that, saving the Mudokons from their cruel punishment provides the reason for these games to exist in the first place, and the reason for anyone to spend all this time and effort resurrecting a 1990s game and bringing it blinking into 2021. Slaves travelling in cattle cars, people left to die by the side of the road, toxic big business rolling the environment up and smoking it, the various opiates of the masses and their uses and abuses – the enduring point of Oddworld is that its most horrific elements are not remotely fictional, and that it uses fantasy to refocus our attention on the bizarre horrors of our own world. Back in the day, Oddworld seemed to want more from games, and from its players and it still does. That’s worth giving it a little leeway on the rough edges and mis-steps, I reckon.