Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is a game that clearly has a lot of great ideas and design polish put into it, but it suffers from being too old to really shine. The original Stranger’s Wrath launched in 2005 to critical acclaim, while updated versions have been released for various consoles including PS3, Vita and PC in the years since. The HD version is now on Switch with updated controls, but the game looks remarkably similar to its original form.
Stranger’s Wrath follows the eponymous player character, Stranger, as he finds his way through an old-west inspired setting filled with anthropomorphized animals as townspeople, bandits, and other NPCs. Stranger begins his journey on a quest to earn enough money for a life-saving operation, but the story becomes entangled in betrayal, secrets, and an evil plot as Stranger gets closer to his goal. The story and world-building are the main attractions, while decent third-person platforming and a unique first-person-shooting mechanic based on different types of ammo make up the bulk of the gameplay.
The characters, setting, and story are a big part of what makes Stranger’s Wrath unique. It joins the roster of several other Oddworld games, but is the only one with a first-person shooting mechanic. It has a nostalgic Oddworld flair, with wacky, over the top characters and voice acting. The stranger can be seen as a grumpy, lonely answer to classic mascot platformers like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. This description can be vague at first, but it becomes attractive over time and an appreciation for a stoic old-west gunslinger attitude in the context of the brightly colored, strong, and energetic character designs of the the game was first released.
The story is slow to begin with, driving players into a false sense of monotony. However, when the twists come, they come hard and fast. The story takes some surprisingly dark turns for its goofy facade, with some truly intense, surprising, and sad moments. No need for spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Stranger’s Wrath tells a story that’s oddly mature for a game with such crass humor and cartoonish character designs. This is nothing new for those familiar with the storytelling of the other Oddworld games.
The story and levels are almost completely linear. Players receive one task at a time, complete it, and move on to the next. Those accustomed to the modern norm of multiple ongoing narratives at once and branching level design may find it tedious. The pattern of getting a bounty, going through a linear level, beating a boss fight, and then coming back for another bounty can get pretty repetitive.
That said, each level is very polished, with objective design and great pacing. Thanks to the HD PSN release from 2011, the game still looks great for what it is. There’s a lot of variety in the dusty desert, from crumbling temples to barren cliffs and dark caves. Meanwhile, subtle touches like red flowers placed on foliage near important parts of each level show the attention paid to each stage. Areas usually consist of a few traversal puzzles, light obstacles, and arrays of enemies that must be eliminated with a little planning and ingenuity.
To dispatch enemies, players must collect various small creatures within the environment around them, then save them for later use. Each type of “ammo” has its own use, from a rabid furball proximity mine to a skunk smoke bomb. Players can load two types of critter into their crossbow at once, and use them to strategic effect to clear each area of enemies. This rewards creativity, as capturing enemies alive (by stunning them then sucking them ghostbusters-style) results in a bigger payoff back at the bounty office. Ammo collection and different ammo types are pretty fun and interesting mechanics, especially considering how long ago they were introduced. Even the more mundane mechanics for sprinting, dealing damage, and platforming feel enjoyable and polished. The tilt controls can also be used to better aim in first person, but in practice it doesn’t help much.
One thing, however, prevents these mechanics from holding up fifteen years after they were conceived: the controls. The controls are the most glaring issue with Stranger’s Wrath, and being on Switch does them no favors. It looks like very few changes have been made to the controls for the new platform, and that can’t be understated. The third person camera is so sluggish it hurts. Side-to-side movement is somewhat tolerable, but when looking over a side (of which there are many) or up a climbing rope, the camera moves so slowly that it’s hard to avoid tapping your foot in boredom while waiting forever for just look a little further. This is particularly unfortunate, considering that Stranger’s Wrath on the Vita was so well adapted to a small, portable format.
Conversely, first-person aiming is so sensitive that it’s a real struggle to aim accurately even with a Pro Controller. To add insult to injury, there is only one camera sensitivity slider. Setting the sensitivity low enough to aim in first person means essentially giving up the ability to move the third person camera, while making it sensitive enough to properly pan in third person makes shooting a horrible, vast nightmare.
Effort is simply lacking to update the controls to a modern standard. Great remasters like Link’s Awakening completely overhaul everything in the game to make it new again. Acceptable remasters will settle for making only a few quality-of-life updates. The lack of attention to updating Stranger’s Wrath instantly ages the game beyond what most players outside of nostalgic fans can tolerate. It’s not just a remaster of a fifteen-year-old game, it’s a re-release of a nine-year-old remaster of a fifteen-year-old game.
The other major issue with the game is that it doesn’t benefit from being on the Switch. Some titles look perfect for the Switch, benefiting greatly from portability, while still having a depth worthy of being put on a big screen if possible. Unfortunately, most first person shooters don’t feel good on small handheld controllers for the Switch, and Stranger’s Wrath falls into this camp. The game doesn’t benefit much from portability, and can be played on any other console as well. At least, its simple and clear level designs are easy to read even on the Switch’s small screen.
All in all, Stranger’s Wrath was a great game… fifteen years ago. It’s still pretty good, but after so long it doesn’t age well enough to warrant the $30 price tag. It’s a little too simple and repetitive to be fully redeemed by its careful design. It’s still a surprisingly entertaining romp, and will likely provide plenty of fun for younger gamers or nostalgic fans. However, by modern standards, there are plenty of better games on the Switch that have a similar level of polish but play better and benefit directly from being on a portable console.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is out now on Nintendo Switch. Today Technology was provided with a Nintendo Switch code for the purposes of this review.