Formats: PS4 (Reviewed)
Developer: Just Add Water/Oddworld Inhabitants
Oddworld is one of gaming’s great ‘lost’ franchises, one that burned brightly for a comparatively short time, but dimmed as it failed to find purchase in the AAA world. Debuting on the Playstation 1 with Abe’s Oddysee and its sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, the franchise garnered a great deal of attention with its idiosyncratic and lavishly-designed world, one promised to be expanded on and developed over a series of games.
Sadly, things seemed to lose momentum with 2001’s Xbox exclusive Munch’s Oddysee, a change of protagonist and third-person gameplay proving unpopular among fans and the property’s general weirdness failing to click with Xbox owners. With the property’s momentum effectively killed, 2005’s Stranger’s Wrath, while arguably the series’ best game, was practically sent out to an undeserved death at retail, prompting Lanning to pull Oddworld Inhabitants out of games altogether.
Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is their comeback release, an extensive remake of Abe’s Oddysee with HD visuals and several tweaks to accommodate modern gamers. The game’s still-technically-titular star is an enslaved Mudokon working at RuptureFarms, Oddworld’s biggest meat processing plant. Having all but wiped out most of Oddworld’s species in the production of meaty treats, the ruthless Glukkons that run RuptureFarms plan to stave off bankruptcy by introducing a new snack – made from their Mudokon workforce. When Abe discovers this he escapes, endeavouring to save his Mudokon buddies from the slaughter. Abe’s journey takes him out of RuptureFarms, out into the wilds of Oddworld and back again as he discovers power within himself he could never have imagined.
It’s a simple premise that still works wonders, the emaciated and stitch-lipped Abe remaining one of gaming’s most inexplicably charming protagonists, and Just Add Water have done a great job of not just remaking his game but remoulding it for the current generation while preserving the spirit of the original. The first thing that grabs the attention is the visuals: New ‘n’ Tasty is gorgeous-looking on PS4, the game’s darkly cartoonish aesthetic scrubbing up exceptionally well in HD, providing some of the most beautiful environments seen on the new console to date.
The gameplay has also translated well… for the most part. Just Add Water have taken to the PS1 original with a fine tooth comb, not only tweaking the levels to accommodate full scrolling (The original being flick-screen) but also adding new elements here and there. The original Abe’s Oddysee was a notoriously challenging game, very much in the tradition of brutally precise platform adventure games like Flashback and Another World/Out of This World, and Just Add Water have been careful to make additions that facilitate the player without lessening the challenge. The most important of these is a qucksave/quickload option (Operated by clicking the touchpad on PS4), which makes a world of difference in a game where death comes often and at the slightest mistake. Abe has also been given the ability to throw coins to distract Sligs – the game’s omnipresent gun-toting enemies – when trying to sneak past them. This tactic, however, seems to have limited reliability so it’s unwise to rely on it too much when navigating the game’s expansive levels.
The game’s memorable GameSpeak system – a range of phrases, whistles and farts used to communicate with other Mudokons – has also been built upon. Though the system is in practice rather simple, consisting of simple commands and Simon Says-style memory tests, it remains great fun to use and a key part of the game’s considerable charm. You can also chant, which can have environmental effects, heal your health in certain areas (Another new addition) or possess Sligs to clear out their buddies (And themselves) from some sections.
Not all the changes work, however. Abe remains a tricky bugger to control, the analogue sticks neither doing much to help his natural sluggishness nor giving the tightness necessary for some of the pinpoint platforming required. Jumps in particular can be a bit of a trial, with Abe’s long stopping distance giving you a tiny window of success in some of the fiddlier sections which have you dealing with small platforms and environmental hazards at the same time. Input in general doesn’t always feel as tight as it perhaps could be, with the context-sensitive ‘use’ button in particular often requiring a couple of jabs before doing what you want it to.
To be fair, however, the controls in the first game weren’t exactly one-to-one either, and while JAW have done a lot to make the experience gentler on less skilled/saner players, the fact remains that this is a game that still very much adheres to a strict, old-school design philosophy which doesn’t always have flexibility in mind. The quicksave system ameliorates this to a significant degree, but one still has to be comfortable with working with the game rather than the other way round.
This will naturally suit some players better than others, particularly those more used to less methodical styles of play. It would be interesting to see if we get a remake of Abe’s Exoddus, itself designed in part as a response to Oddysee’s difficulty, and with luck New ‘n’ Tasty will perform well enough to allow this to happen. It’s certainly as good a remake of Abe’s Oddysee as we could have expected at this point, and JAW demonstrate some interesting ideas on how to retool an older game for a contemporary audience that they will hopefully get the opportunity to refine.
Above all, however, it’s just good to see Oddworld back. The current age of indies crafting idiosyncratic mid-budget titles feels like a good fit for Oddworld Inhabitants, and their universe sounds like exactly the kind of thing that would go down well in an industry that has only recently discovered its own potential for lore-based and episodic storytelling. Oddly, it may just turn out that Oddworld Inhabitants have finally found their niche, New ‘n’ Tasty providing a hugely promising first course for the new generation.