This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Oddworld: Soulstorm.
Back in the wild, romantic days of the PlayStation 1, when pixels were large and masculine and memory cards were to their modern equivalents what a pedal-powered double-decker bus is to a motor scooter, there began the Oddworld series, wherein some visionary genius sat bolt-upright in bed and said, "What if there was a world that's like primitive Earth, but - get this - everyone looks weird, and has eyes the size of Jammie Wagon Wheels? For some reason, I feel like this is a creative well that will never run dry." Very much the James Cameron's Avatar of its time, in several respects, because it initially announced it was going to be a five-game epic, but never quite successfully fired the outboard motor on that one, merely sputtering along for a few games before disappearing over the horizon of indifference.
But back then, we didn't have the experience we have now with the many failed attempts at cinematic universes, from which we learned that pledging a multi-sequel epic before the first installment is even out is like getting a positive pregnancy test and proceeding to book a church for your child's future wedding; you're just tempting fate to ensure your child is born with no genitals or really weirdly into Sonic the Hedgehog. Oddworld started out with this rather original, mystical, and darkly comedic vibe, but, in later games, made the tactical error of leaning more towards the comedy when the comedy was based mainly around farts and doing embarrassingly bad Star Wars prequel-level gags in the Monty Python old lady voice, and was generally about as funny as the children's bone cancer ward's production of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
So, while I wouldn't say the Oddworld franchise never got off the ground, it certainly never really cleared the treetops, and is presently weaving around the painfully solid giant redwoods of irrelevance by remaking the first couple of games; sort of an attempt to recapture that original freshness, the way one does with Febreze and a pair of old underpants. First, there was New 'n' Tasty!, the remake of Abe's Oddysee, and now Soulstorm; not a remake of Abe's Exoddus, but more of a retake, or reimagining, or recidivist, or some other word beginning with "re", possibly even the one you're thinking of, you terribly un-politically correct viewer!
Let's not waste time and skip straight to the TL;DR part of the fractious Reddit relationship story that is this game; I kind of hate Soulstorm. I hated the experience of playing it. But the question I found myself asking was, "Is this because of unintentionally bad design, or from its attempt to faithfully recreate the PlayStation 1 era, before video gamers were spoiled by autosaves and analog sticks and the warm, convivial atmosphere of grudging societal acceptance?" Well, I'd say it's a little of Giant Redwood A and a little of Giant Redwood B.
The plot involves Abe, bumbling messiah of the Mudokon people who all look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Tadpoles, fresh from having rescued his people from the factory in the first game, now getting roped into rescuing another batch as he's hunted across the plains by his enemies; thankfully without so many fart jokes, but having taken those out, the game doesn't have anything to replace them with. The general tone of the story is bland, with Abe stumbling from one gameplay encounter to the next without much apparent decision-making on his part; it's like watching Mr. Bean recast as Lawrence of Arabia.
Anyway, Abe's Oddysee and Exoddus were, back in the day, what we used to laughably call "cinematic platformers" or, even more laughably, "realistic platformers", which usually meant "character can do an infinite number of pull-ups onto ledges", which doesn't strike me as realistic, but then I get most of my exercise lifting Creme Eggs to my face. So that's faithfully recreated in standard 2.5D gameplay, complete with the classic "cinematic platformer" thing where it's weirdly difficult to walk off a ledge. The gameplay is also based around escorting NPCs, and a game based around escorting is so often akin to, say, a family dining experience based around sitting on spikes, but not so much in a puzzle game in the Lemmings sort of area like this; figuring out how best to navigate your dudes past a few screens of hazards when your dudes have all the facility for self-preservation as a blind hedgehog on a turnpike.
Bearing that in mind, when I fuck up in a puzzle game, I want to feel like it was because I wasn't smart enough, not because some element of the game decided not to work the way it had worked before. Sometimes, your followers' neurons will fire fast enough to run past the ceiling crusher when you tell them to; sometimes, they won't. Sometimes, they'll all hide in a locker when you tell them to; sometimes, they won't, and when the enemy patrol turns around, they all get shot dead before they even have time to show their hall pass. Sometimes, the enemy patrol turns around and shoots you dead; sometimes, they don't, because their A.I. fucked up and they've stopped moving altogether, which gets particularly farsical if you've dropped a mine on their patrol path. "Boy, that was some really impressive patrolling up to now! Can't wait to see it again! Oh my goodness, is that a reunion performance of The Three Tenors behind you?!" "Boy, missing out on that would haunt me to my dying days!"
When the elements of a puzzle game don't act consistently, the result is frustration; it's like playing chess against a six-year-old who's just decided his bishop can now move sideways and shoot lasers out of his hat. These are the frustrations that I classify under "recreating the retro vibe, genital warts and all"; there's also an array of wonderful, fresh, new diseases that Soulstorm has acquired from not maintaining social distancing with modern video game trends. For one thing, it's nice that games can now instantly save your progress when you touch a save-point without all that fucking around with double-decker bus memory cards, but when you've just lost five dudes 'cos a helicopter enemy randomly decided they can see through smoke clouds now, and want to kill yourself and retry the area, suddenly, those insta-save points become fucking landmines.
Oh, and we all know how much modern video game audiences love digging around in the trash like they're your mum at a speed-dating event, and so there's a fucking crafting element in the game; we find ourselves having to laboriously check every dustbin and locker, all of which are like fussy prom dates 'cos they require you to be perfectly-positioned before they'll consent to being rooted around in, in order to craft items that are essential for progress. Or, we have to scrape together enough pocket change to pay a toll on the gate to the next area, often by taking empty bottles to a recycling machine, and that's not even crafting; that's just fucking me about. Rather undermines the main theme of escaping from wage slavery, because we seem to have taken over the factory's fucking janitorial services.
We also have the occasional cockeyed notion that this game about carefully escorting people needs some action set pieces, so our dude who's mainly built for tiptoeing around like he's sneaking off to raid the fridge has to accurately fling rocks at a giant robot's weak spots while it fires multiple explosive counter-arguments at your bony bum. So in brief, Soulstorm either does too much, or not enough of being too old-fashioned, or too new. ...Yes, I've confused myself, as well; let's just leave things at "don't buy it".
- The odd man out: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- For you see even across time, space and alternate dimensions the fart joke remains universally hilarious
- Oh boy who remembers rumble packs