There are only two good reasons to give a game an HD update – ignoring the cash, of course. One is that the game in question is such a classic, and so beloved of its fans, that it deserves to be recreated with remastered HD visuals and enjoyed by a new generation of gamers. The second is perhaps more compelling: that the original game, for one reason or another, never reached the kind of audience it should have, and that it deserves another shot at the spotlight.
In the case of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD you could argue that both reasons hold up. It is a classic, held dear by a slightly cultish fanbase and worthy of its new HD trimmings, yet it’s also a game that was misunderstood (and arguably mismarketed) at its original 2005 launch, where it floundered on the first Xbox and PC.
Even now, playing the game in its new PSN download incarnation, it’s not hard to see why. Stranger’s Wrath is very much an Oddworld game, featuring the kind of narrative values, weird creatures and oddball gameplay that built the studio its reputation in its Playstation heyday. Yet it’s also a weird fantasy western, starring an inhuman bounty hunter and a cast of lunatic outlaws. It’s a game that’s styled like a third-person platformer, but that’s mostly played as a first-person shooter and – strangest of all – it’s a shooter where you only have one gun. Your only weapon is a sort of double-barrelled crossbow, but you can vary your offensive capabilities by using different types of ammo, each one a peculiar furry or insectoid critter that, when shot at an enemy, will have a particular effect. All the Oddworld games were odd, but this one is probably the oddest of the lot.
Nor does Stranger’s Wrath have the most orthodox structure. When it arrived most FPS games were very linear, but Stranger’s Wrath mixes and matches its approaches, giving you a series of towns that act like hubs from which you can take on various bounty-hunter missions, but often not giving you any real choice over which mission to accept next, and towards the end transforming into a more straightforward, narrative-led adventure. Playing it now there are elements that remind you of more recent games, like Rage, Far Cry 2 or even Crysis, but really there’s never been another game that looks and feels like Stranger’s Wrath.
And that’s one reason why you really ought to experience it for yourself. At first, the use of critter ammunition is fun but doesn’t seem to make much sense. Wouldn’t it be better to just shoot those outlaw varmints than fire a spider at them and imprison them temporarily in a Web, or lay down a hail of furry creatures that attack them until they fall down? Firing skunks to induce immediate vomiting in a crowd of outlaws is all very entertaining, and the same goes for exploding furry bats. Still, isn’t it all a bit of a gimmick in the end?
Maybe not. The more you play, the more you realise how ingenious and creative the game’s approach to combat is. In most situations you’re up against large numbers of well-armed outlaws, and despite the game’s fantasy setting you’re not nearly as invulnerable to incoming fire as your average military FPS hero. The onus is on you, therefore, to even the odds by using your critters to best advantage. Fire a group of snarling furballs at the ground near a group of baddies, then use a springing chipmunk to alert their attention. Bingo, you’ve just made yourself a trap. Or why not use rapid-firing wasps to take down one foe while you wrap up another with Web ready to be sucked into your handy bag for live bounty.