Retrospective: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath

The Weird West.

(A warning: Spoilers tend to go with the territory in retrospectives, but I'm going to reveal Stranger's Wrath's greatest twist early on in what follows. If you're planning on playing through this game for the pleasure of watching the plot unfold - and this is one of the few games where that wouldn't be an entirely self-destructive objective - you might want to do that before reading any more.)

Pluck a favourite game from the air, and picture yourself playing it. Who are you? If it's an FPS, you may well be a grizzled super-soldier, armour-clad and shaven-headed, despatching fiery justice and grim witticisms as you avenge some manner of contrived atrocity. If it's a cartoon platformer, you're probably a wise-cracking furry of some description, or a lovable robot whose arms keep falling offat the least appropriate time .

If it's fantasy, things get even easier to predict: are you a sexy lady spellcaster with sickly skin and a complex magical necklace, a grouchy dwarf weighed down under rusty armour, or a chirpy elf with glistening eyes and shafts of spiky hair? And, whatever the game, it's likely that you're an amnesiac of some kind - a real pandemic in the realms of digital adventuring - your slowly-returning memories meshing perfectly with your escalating move-set.

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Outlaws are worth more to you if they're still alive - tricky if you're using Boombats.

Sure, it's a cliché to bang on about clichés, but videogames can be so mind-bogglingly creative, fizzing and sputtering with Technicolor starbursts as they pull you through fantastical worlds, fusing text with sound and sound with light, meshing the abstract with the intensely detailed, that it's not hard to feel that the characters these dazzling adventures revolve around haven't quite kept up.

More often than not, the role the player ends up wedged into has been constructed largely by a process of crumbling compromise, designed not to spark the imagination, but instead to avoid alienating as much of the potential audience as possible.

You may be the last remaining heir to the throne of Groamgust, the keeper of the flickering flame of the Totternose People (I'll stop here, because I'm particularly bad at this sort of thing), but you've probably been built from the ground up to ensure only that few players actively hate you from the word go, even if few really love you either. No sharp edges, no lurking surprises, no real opinions: we've been so many people, that it's becoming a blur, a fading mass of rebels, bikers, stealth operatives and cartoon ninjas. So many digital lives, and so few of them have stuck.

But one has, for me at least: a figure emerging from the dust and tumbleweed, a hat pulled low over his bright green eyes. At first he seems to be the epitome of the tired old Western Loner, but he's both so much more, and so much less too. He's the cliché, and the surprising truth behind it, the hero and - brilliantly - the supreme coward, and his game hinges upon that very point.

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Live ammo has to be caught at regular intervals in the first half, but the game is often rather generous.

Let's be clear: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is a very clever game, its stealth elements so ingeniously straightforward (hinging, in fact, on your mini-map simply announcing whether or not you're hidden) as to make almost every other developer's solution seem like an over-complicated kludge, and its weapon-set so elegantly triangulated that you'll still be wringing new strategies from it on your third and fourth playthrough.

All the Oddworld titles are fundamentally brainy, of course, often almost to their detriment: their boil-ridden and slithery art can seem too coldly calculated at times, while the pamphleteering storylines touching on everything from sweatshops and the environment to society's attitude to disabilities often tread close to sermonizing.

One thing always saves them from lapsing into terminal condescension, however, and that's the fact that, even in a universe populated by boggle-eyed alien loons, Oddworld Inhabitants zeroes in sharply on human nature every time, rummaging around deep in its cast and almost always drawing out something poignant. So it is with The Stranger.

You can tell a lot about a game from where it hides its secrets. Stranger's Wrath doesn't dole them out in niftily edited cut-scenes, or sprinkle them into the inane soliloquies of a boss encounter. Instead, its darkest mysteries and biggest reveals are kept up close and personal, thrust deep into a dusty pair of old cowboy boots. Halfway through the game, or thereabouts, the boots come off, and the adventure is never quite the same again.

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