Review: Oddworld: Soulstorm

20 Apr 2021

Having grown up during the halcyon days of the original PlayStation yet totally separate from the hype that surrounded the library it sported was kind of weird. I had my eyes set on a Saturn being the rabid SEGA fan that I was in the ’90s, though that never came to pass until well after its life cycle ended. But occasionally I would find myself curious and somewhat intrigued with some of the games that Sony managed to keep exclusive or mostly exclusive to their first true foray into the gaming market. Nowadays, it seems that visual media as a whole is absolutely drowning in new takes or flat out re-imaginings of popular properties.

Video games haven’t been immune from this blatant attempt at poking at your nostalgia, and have been doing so for years now. Technically speaking, it makes sense. The resources and technology available for the original releases do pale in comparison to what’s available today. The original release of Halo: Combat Evolved visually speaking pales in comparison to its Anniversary counterpart, as does the visuals in the original Halo 2 in comparison to its own Anniversary release. Crash Bandicoot and its subsequent Naughty Dog sequels/racing spinoff were given a full facelift and quality of life tweaks through the N-Sane Trilogy and Nitro Fueled re-releases. Hell, even the Spyro The Dragon got the N-Sane treatment because of the potential of a possible nostalgia pickup.

Given this precedent, it goes without saying that developer/publisher Oddworld Inhabitants would get busy with their own re-releases and remakes of their prior games. It’s not hard to get your hands on a copy of Strangers Wrath, Munch’s Oddysee, or even the ground up remake of Abe’s Oddysee (dubbed New ‘n’ Tasty!). Given that they would like to re-imagine the series proper, it makes sense that Abe’s Exoddus would receive the ground up treatment as well. Regardless of the length of time it took to get here, Oddworld: Soulstorm looks to build upon the spirit of the original and be something that might be more in line of what was originally envisioned. Released digitally on April 6, 2021 with a physical release coming on July 6, Oddworld: Soulstorm is available on PS4, PS5, and PC via Epic Games Store. The PS5 version was played for this review.

Damn The Man

Fresh off the events of New ‘n’ Tasty, protagonist Abe was not only able to escape the clutches of the almost comically evil Rupture Farms but also free his fellow Mudokons in the process. Despite his fellow cohorts celebrating their newfound freedom and imbibing on whatever substance this universe considers beer (dubbed Soulstorm Brew), Abe feels uneasy about his newfound hero status. In his mind, he was just a guy that stumbled across something sinister and went with his flight response and stumbled into being a beacon of hope. While he is urged by a Mudokon shaman to find himself, the celebrations going on around him are short lived.

Meanwhile, frustrated by his failures and self sabotage from the last game, the sinister Molluck the Glukkon orders his Slig forces to lay seige to the temporary encampment. Exacerbated by the highly flammable brew strewn around the place, Abe and the rest of his allies must flee to safety. However, Abe stumbles across a Mudokon slowly dying from a gunshot wound. Before ultimately passing on, he hands Abe a wrapped package and urges him to seek out the “Keeper” with that in tow.

While Abe does collaborate with Alf in the continued liberation of their people, some of the beats that were present in New ‘n’ Tasty do rear their heads in a few ways. Given that this a sequel that’s basically set five minutes into the future, some of this isn’t quite that surprising. But some may find the re-emergence of these beats to be a bit annoying. Personally, I don’t mind this sort of thing if it serves the bigger plot of the game in a meaningful way. But I can see this irking people regardless.

However, there are gameplay elements that do change the story depending on how you handle things on that end. It’s a nice way to mix up what you might expect, sure. But not everyone is keen on replaying stages for different endings. Though the overall plot may be focused on the corruption of corporations and how those subjected to the evils that come from it deal with it, most of the time you’ll find that you’re getting a slow burn when it comes to the plot. Little bits move the story here and there, maybe an exciting set piece or two to keep things interesting, things like that. Regardless of that, the plot does enough to keep your attention even with the slow pace of it. Unfolding the mystery and uncovering the endings are engaging. Putting the effort into seeing them depends on the player.

Metal Abe Solid

Looking at Soulstorm at first glance, you might think that it’s just another simplistic PlayStation-era platformer that you’re meant to breeze right through. While some of that is true, this is more of a puzzle platformer with a high reliance on stealth. Because this isn’t the classic “jump on heads and go right” type of platformer, that might throw off some of the more casual players taking a passing glance at it. I’ll admit that I might have started off treating this like any other platformer at first, but level design and the dearth of tutorial tips make it very clear from the get go that this is a 2.5D platformer that wants you to take it slow. Base platforming mechanics are simple enough. Abe is relatively agile; he’s able to execute double jumps, rolls, and ledge grabs with the best of them. Where things start to divert a little bit is where things start to get stealthy.

For one, this is not a game that rewards reckless behavior. It’s pretty damned essential that you use all the stealth tools at your disposal, because one small mistake can send you right back to your last checkpoint. It’s pretty brutal on that front, so having a solid plan will work in your benefit. Things start off simply enough, as you’ll be able to tiptoe past sleeping Sligs at first and generally expand in scope as you play. Tiptoeing evolves into pickpocketing, which goes right into binding unsuspecting Sligs. When the game allows it (usually signified by an in-universe limiter), you’ll have the ability to chant and possess your foes to turn the tables on what usually involves a small to decent-sized group of them. This mechanic doesn’t wear out its welcome, though more often than not it does provide a little bit of unstructured chaos. It may not come by very easily, but it’s something to look forward to here.

In addition to working the stealth angle, Abe will spend a lot of his time scavenging for items. Trash cans, random urns, the pockets of sligs, vending machines, and so on are ripe for the swiping. Sometimes there will be times where you can’t progress without finding a specific item by way of this method, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of flow all that often. Some of the things that you acquire will service you in gameplay by way of a crafting system once you progressed far enough. More often than not, resources are somewhat easy to come by. But the system in general is about as simple as you can get. No ridiculously complicated recipes, no pointless QTEs, just grab it and craft it. What you craft from here is usually in service to stealth, but having this here does flesh out the gameplay even if it does feel like busywork sometimes.

Since Abe is considered the liberator of his kind from the clutches of the Glukkons, corralling and directing his fellow Mudokons is an element here that some may find a bit divisive. Once they’re rescued, they’ll follow you until you direct them to a nearby Bird Portal. You can issue commands to keep them in place, start following you, act passive, or go aggro. More often than not, I found myself just issuing the start/stop commands here because of the way they follow you when you issue that command. Where you go, they’ll go. Sometimes that can be an issue when you’re trying to keep them from perishing from environmental hazards or getting them to stealth correctly when in perilous situations. While it isn’t perfect, it’s far from broken. The ultimate fate of these guys, on top of how many Sligs you dispatch, has bearing on what’s known as “Quarma.” Totally ignoring or letting these Mudokons perish will not do you any favors if you’re looking for the good ending. The Slig body count will have an affect, sure, but anything other than an ally-ignorant speedrun will require you to revive your comrades and escort them to safety.

So how does this all ultimately come together? While there is enough to keep you occupied, the pace of this game is often slow and a bit plodding. Much like the genre it’s trying to do justice, the stealth gameplay is always in the foreground and all that’s surrounding it supports it. Soulstorm definitely angles itself as more of a carefully crafted thinking individual’s platformer, and the amount of thoughtful planning is basically a requirement to getting from point to point. While there are exciting set pieces to keep you engaged, the amount of spectacle and excitement here is subtle at most (this extends to DualSense haptics as well). It all comes together cohesively enough, but those expecting something fast-paced should look elsewhere.

Industrially Bleak

Technically speaking, one of the good things about 2.5 platformers is that they aren’t always as resource heavy as their more 3D, naturally higher polygon counterparts. Make no mistake, Soulstorm packs a hell of a lot of detail into every nook and cranny of the crapsack world Abe finds himself in. Much of the environments presented here do fall into that whole “real is brown” kind of vibe that was popular a while back, and some environments you find yourself in are almost totally pitch black. However, looking at this game as presented is a bleak feast for the eyes. While some recent releases are able to present an undesirable environment with bright neon colors, Soulstorm looks at that and slams the door in its face. It isn’t afraid to look at you and go “See this place? It’s supposed to look like nobody wants to be here! That’s the entire depressing-ass point! It’s a capitalist-controlled nightmare facility that enslaves their workforce surrounded by the blight that came from relevant business practices!”

Though that’s not to say that other elements aren’t well executed either. While the PS5 version does sport silky smooth framerates that do complement more robust TVs, it wasn’t very often that I noticed any sort of performance dips while playing. Part of me wonders if the PS4 version can pull off 60 frames a second consistently, but anyone playing on PS5 or a relatively recent gaming rig shouldn’t see much issues with performance upon firing this game up. This extends to the smattering of very well-detailed cutscenes as well. Given the level of detail and the fact that the framerate remains constant between cutscenes and gameplay, the former definitely feels in-engine.

I can’t exactly say that the music would be anything other than bleak and often subtle. Actually, music isn’t really in the foreground at all. Depending on the tone at the time, it seems that it was used more as an accent for gameplay than a defining feature. Oftentimes you’ll be dealing more with ambient environment noise, and even that kind of feels muted. I’m a little mixed on that, because I do enjoy a good soundtrack that complements the gameplay in a relevant way. But sometimes the silence was a bit on the deafening side, and I found myself wanting a little more audible oomph in that department.

Voice acting here is good, at least. Mudokons by nature are a mush-mouthy bunch, but they’re not annoying to listen to. If anything, Sligs might end up being the most irritating choice with their throat-destroying aesthetic. Mollucks are the most normal sounding of the bunch, but the obviously evil voice acting doesn’t always land. While there is care in delivery here, I can unfortunately see some people not being all that enthused with that acting aesthetic. This is nowhere near Mega Man 8 levels of bad voice acting, but some people might draw unreasonable comparisons in its direction. Really, the nitpicks here are mostly that. Seen as a whole, the art and sound direction are collectively cohesive. It’s just when you dig down a little bit, you start seeing a few things that may not please everyone.

I’ll Drink to That

Oddworld: Soulstorm is a game that wears the reverence it has for the original release prominently on its shoulders while building on the foundation set for it. Oddworld Inhabitants was clearly not satisfied in giving this entry the N-Sane Trilogy approach and deliver a 1:1 remake of Abe’s Exoddus. Instead, they decided to build upon it in a way that falls in line with some modern gaming conventions while retaining the original vision along the way. Looking at it from that perspective, keeping an eye on the forest horizon while occasionally looking at the trees seems to have paid off for them.

I can’t say that what I played is a bad game, but saying that the audience for this isn’t somewhat narrow in scope would be doing it a disservice. Then again, Inhabitants just wanted to make something that’s serviceable, and I feel safe in saying that it succeeded on that front. It’s not very often you find yourself doing stealth in a 2.5D game these days, but it’s here and it’s doing its thing with reckless abandon. If you don’t mind the slow burn pace of the gameplay, you’re going to find yourself helping Abe stick it to the man to be an enjoyable experience.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review code provided by Oddworld Inhabitants for PlayStation 5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Feature image courtesy of Oddworld Inhabitants.