Oddworld Inhabitants must have wondered what they did wrong. Stranger's Wrath is a fabulous game that takes the promise of a groundbreaking title, namely Halo, and not only matches it step-for-step on many of its own terms, but succeeds in taking the concept confidently into new directions and stylistic tangents, to the extent where it shakes off its dependence on that influence and becomes its own landmark. It is, in short, a greater leap forward for the action genre than Halo 2 even tried to be.
Yet, in the face of poor sales, poor press coverage and (as Oddworld Inhabitants have stated in no uncertain terms) poor marketing from EA, as well as a troubled development process during which their original publisher (Microsoft) jettisoned the project for commercial reasons, this prodigiously talented developer has cancelled all talk of a follow-up (although its purported title— The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot—will forever stay with me) and decided to "broaden" (that is, shift) its focus from the games industry to producing CGI films.
And who can blame them? They've created one of the best action games of this generation and it's not only failed to sell (at a time of year when no other similar releases can touch it) but hasn't even reached the critical acclaim that the other underperforming and misunderstood classics of recent years have. Perhaps its brilliance is just a bit too conventional for critics to group it alongside Rez and ICO, but for my money it ranks as the biggest tragedy of them all. Like Eternal Darkness, Prince of Persia: TSOT, Mario & Luigi: SS, Beyond Good & Evil and Second Sight this is yet another genre-evolving title that should and would have appealed to a much wider audience if people were actually made more aware of it, let alone of how good it is.
Technically, Stranger's Wrath is staggeringly accomplished. As you gallop across the great plains kicking up dust with all four paws, you keep on waiting for some kind of loading break, but it just never comes. Even the short transitional streaming cut-scenes of Stranger walking into a building can be skipped after the first viewing, and it's this seamless gameflow that overshadows the most dispassionate view of the game as being little more than a series of (fairly repetitive) set-pieces and boss encounters. It is a fair accusation to some extent, but no more relevant here than it is to, say, Halo or Viewtiful Joe or Resident Evil 4 or other tight, focused game designs of recent years.
Having such a single-minded gameplay purpose only highlights the lashings of extra detail and love that have been put into the game's glorious setting. Does it matter that the towns are virtually wastes of space but for a single shop from where the bounties can be collected, or that none of the NPC yokels therein are in any way crucial to the actual gameplay? Not at all. As far as scene-setting, humour and just plain likeability is concerned, these aspects are just as integral to the game as is the care lavished on the deliciously dusty visuals and the excellent sound production (rarely has a protagonist had so much presence in a game world as Oddworld's stomping, grunting, galloping beast).
Taking time out of the game's often breakneck progression to enjoy the simple pleasure of listening to the townsfolk talk to each other highlights, ironically, the grand overarching pleasure of the title as a whole. Oddworld Inhabitants certainly know how to entertain their audience—as their confident move into non-interactive mediums attests—and the game manages to be genuinely funny; remarkable really since most of the humour arises from such a cheap source as funny voices, and even more remarkable because those funny voices belong to the Oddworld Inhabitants development staff themselves. And frankly, that's Oddworld in a word: remarkable.
Stranger's Wrath should never have turned out like this. The game is almost contemptibly ahead of its peers both technically and in its watertight design and structure. If it puts a foot wrong, this reviewer was far too enamoured with the title for it to register. The last time I was this awe-inspired by a videogame was upon realizing the size of San Andreas, but that was a comparably fleeting, one-note wow-factor, whereas Stranger's Wrath just keeps on bettering itself, in full control of the player's expectations right up until the final cut-scene plays, after which I was compelled to view the credits and applaud this strikingly talented development team, boo-hiss the EA marketing credits, and lament a crushingly huge loss to the industry.
Forget Brad's criticisms of the game's plot. Yes, it does end suddenly and disappointingly po-faced, but for the most part narrative drive and player motivations are wisely handled with brevity and style and little else. The real story in Stranger's Wrath is that of a development team at the height of their powers, creating the most alarmingly auspicious statement of intent since Retro Studios' Metroid Prime, and getting utterly shafted by an industry in which a company the size of Microsoft lost confidence in one of the best (not to mention exclusive) games for its Xbox, and in which even the world's biggest third-party publisher couldn't sell that same game, one of the best action games in years, because it lacked the right brand recognition, or license, or failed to hit the right demographic or market niche.
The fact that Stranger's Wrath appears to me to be eminently sellable seems like the most bitter and bizarre injustice of all, and Stranger's wild hunt for moolah becomes cruelly ironic as a subtext. There ought to be a bounty on someone's head for this crime.
This is an odd world indeed.