Version tested: PlayStation 3
Editor's note: This HD remaster of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath for PS3 doesn't have a confirmed release date yet, but it's due to be released very soon on PlayStation Network. The price will be £9.99/€12.99/$14.99.
Just Add Water has done a beautiful job on Stranger's Wrath. It's rebuilt the character models, upgraded the audio and readied the textures for the scrutiny that comes with a 720p resolution. It's boosted the frame-rate to 60 frames per second, and it's even found the time to throw in new difficulty settings.
It's a lovely restoration, understated yet effective, and it emphasises the fact that, back in 2005, Oddworld Inhabitants did a beautiful job on Stranger's Wrath too. Half a decade later, this is still a sharp and fiercely inventive shooter that lets you loose in an unusually convincing fantasy world.
It's an example of what happens when a clever developer explores the cracks between genres and when established franchises are allowed to drift into bizarre new territory. Best of all, it shows you the kind of things that video games can do when their narratives are powered by characters rather than set-pieces.
So while Stranger is a taciturn bounty hunter exploring a landscape that - despite the tusks, talons, and general slack-jawed weirdness - is a recognisable spin on the Old West, he's there to do far more than just link together the typical series of action scenes that pass for plotting in most story-driven games. Instead, you're given the chance to truly inhabit a protagonist who turns out to have some genuinely intriguing motivations and conflicts knocking around within him. Then you set off on an adventure in which you learn a lot more about who he is and what he wants.
Without Stranger, there would be no plot. He is the plot, really, and while it's unfair to spoil any of the astonishing surprises that lurk in wait for newcomers, it's safe to say that this is an uncommonly rich adventure, revealing subtext and emotion as elegantly and effortlessly as it unleashes its brutal twists and its devastating reversals. It has both a theme and a message - it's a game that's unashamedly about something. And although it toys with standard beats like betrayal and redemption, the redemption is delivered with real moral force for once, while the betrayal arrives from an angle you'd never have suspected.
That's the power of constructing a game around a character, and it's not limited to the narrative alone. When it comes to mechanics, Stranger's there to ensure that everything you do in his world feels fantastic. Whether it's easing into a run that suddenly becomes a chuntering four-legged gallop, tangling bandits up in Bolamite webbing or capturing a downed criminal by vacuuming them into a Bounty Can - with that endlessly satisfying pop - Stranger's Wrath takes standard traversal and combat ideas and finds ways to make them feel fresh again.
Devices like resources and health are transformed into ingenious systems that are fun to use, as living (and often fairly vocal) animals and insects stand in for your ammo, and Halo's famous shield system becomes a recharging stamina bar you can then tactically exchange for HP. Elsewhere, the shift from third-person platforming to first-person combat is performed with a single click of the stick, and even stealth is incorporated with little fuss via a simple radar prompt that tells you when you're hidden and when you've been spotted.
It's a confident handling of complex ideas, in other words, and it all comes together to create a hero who really sets the pace for the game he inhabits.
In the first part of Stranger's Wrath, when you're picking your way from one beautifully-rendered deadbeat town to the next, talking to idiotic chicken folk and fulfilling bounties by taking down a selection of luminously warped outlaws, you're also learning to cope with a world that's dizzyingly rich in options. The narrative is relatively linear, but each encounter could play out a dozen different ways as Stranger's weird arsenal slowly evolves, and you get a sense for when to heal, when to run, and when to move in close for a good pummelling.
Experimentation is encouraged, particularly when it comes to toying with different load-outs for your dual-wield crossbow. There are standards, like the Zappfly, which offers an electrically-charged knockback that is earned through a lengthy recharge. Then there are exotics, like those Bolamite Spiders that snare enemies in sticky knots, or Chippunks who lure foes into ambushes with foul-mouthed babbling.
Towards the deadlier end of the scale you'll find explosive Boombats and heat-seeking Stingbees, capable of making a DualShock 3 shiver and shake with excitement as you burn through an entire clip in seconds, and while you'll need to spend a few minutes hunting most of your ammo in the wild before every encounter, the sheer freedom your weaponry brings you when it comes to approaching each fight easily makes up for any time wasted in scavenging.
And so the first two thirds of Stranger's Wrath zip past in a glorious blur of boss-hunting and exploration as you tackle a roll-call of gorgeously depraved freakery. From Meagly McGraw, who rides around in a turret strapped to the back of his huge friend Tiny, to Fatty McBoomBoom, whose name alone represents a high-water mark in video game creativity (and whose wrestling move, the Vertical Slice, is a developer in-joke I've only just got), Oddworld knows how to build a memorable bully. The result is a brisk onslaught of varied shoot-outs that is best approached with ingenuity and quick wits.
While you fight, you're also exploring some of the most beautiful locations last-gen tech ever created. Towns like Buzzardton and New Yolk City are glorious hick constructions of dusty clapboard and greasy metal, while Mongo Valley feels like a generous chunk of Yosemite National Park even when it's riddled with snipers.
My favourite on this latest play-through has been the shattered remains of Last Legs, a citadel you approach by boat just as the river's starting to ice over and the snow's beginning to fall. Last Legs is simplicity itself when it comes to art design, using a handful of different greys and some barbed chunks of dark metal to draw an entire war-torn landscape that's as vivid as it is sparse.
It's just before Last Legs, incidentally, that Stranger's Wrath switches into a third act gear-change that players are still arguing over. While it's undoubtedly a shame to say goodbye to the knockabout business of snaring bounties and following the trail of money - or Moolah - from one boss to another, the shift towards a more straightforward agenda is entirely justified by the narrative. You're also left with a new method of gathering resources and some upgraded ammo to play with as you head towards the story's violent conclusion.
This last section of the game is also the part that benefits the most from Just Add Water's careful tinkering. The engine rarely misses a beat as the battles start to get larger and increasingly hectic, while the cleaned-up textures bring a touch more character to the game's final, oppressively industrial, environments.
The improved frame rate has also seen late-arrival toys like the vortex-creating Spark Stunkz transformed from a stuttering explosion of particle effects into the handy, creatively over-powered tools that they were originally intended to be. It was a weird moment when I loaded the first of them onto the crossbow and then fired one at some passing Wolvarks: the hardware can finally cope with the game's original intentions.
So yes, Just Add Water's done us all a real favour here, recovering the best Oddworld game ever made for a generation that either missed it the first time around or is just too lazy to get the original Xbox out of the attic.
It's particularly poignant given the history. On its initial release, this wonderful piece of work was all but ditched at retail by a publisher that didn't seem to understand what it was dealing with. Now Stranger's Wrath has finally received the lavish treatment it deserves, and the gaming world has a chance to reclaim one of its brightest treasures.
9 / 10