Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath on the PlayStation Vita is the handheld port of the HD remake of a spin-off from Oddworld Inhabitants’ seminal puzzle-platform series that begin in 1997 with PC classic Abe’s Odyssey (did you get all that?). As such it marries the typically off-kilter Oddworld sense of humour with an imaginative alien world setting and some wonderfully creative gameplay mechanics, all buffed up with a HD cloth and lovingly squeezed onto the Vita’s pretty little screen.
Story-wise, nothing has changed between the very first Xbox-exclusive release of Stranger’s Wrath in 2005 and this one. You play the role of Stranger, a part-canine, part-feline, part something-or-other humanoid bounty hunter with a deep voice and a short temper, tracking down wanted outlaws in exchange for moolah – the game’s currency.
Stranger is a simple character, but not without his mysteries. For a start, he’s ill, possibly even dying from a mysterious ailment, and it’s his saving-up for the cure-all operation to fix it that forms the basis of his initial motivation. The arid, Old West-inspired setting inhabited by anthropomorphic chickens and toad-like thugs is brilliantly imagined, and the perfect fit for Stranger’s particular brand of justice. When he rolls into a windblown town looking for a doctor, he finds himself drawn into a fight to save a dying race from extinction at the hands of a powerful Demon who has cut off their water supply.
The adventure takes him to various dry, dusty canyons and dark forests, across rushing rivers and through abandoned towns and, while there isn’t a lot of variety, it doesn’t get boring – mostly because controlling Stranger is a joy. Run for a few seconds in any direction and he’ll drop to all fours, galloping across the sand and dirt without need of a horse. Jumps and double-jumps help him to reach higher ledges, and he’s hardy and nimble enough to survive a fall from any height provided he can see the ground – and it’s a good thing, too, as Stranger’s Wrath is often quite a vertical game, asking you to scale canyon walls and cross rickety bridges to reach your target.
The platforming can be tricky thanks to an occasionally unwieldy camera, and there are clipping issues in the HD versions (both on the PS3 and Vita) that can infuriate – though these are rare. Minor puzzles such as hitting distant switches to open doors, or attempting to bag a group of enemies without being seen, flesh out the gameplay, and the combat when you do get into a scrape is enjoyably simple. Smacking thugs in the face or head-butting them is surprisingly fun, and if you take too much damage Stranger can shake it off in seconds if you get out of the firing line and hold down triangle – a trick that proves handy in a tight spot.
Although the game is played primarily from a third-person viewpoint (during which you’ll attack with the standard combination of light and heavy attacks), double-tapping the Vita’s touchscreen switches to first-person and brings up Stranger’s trusty double-crossbow. A bog standard bow that fires steel-tipped wooden bolts just wouldn’t be “Oddworld” enough, and so Stranger’s weapon fires live ammunition, using the native wildlife in place of ballistics. Once you acquire the Zapp-fly during the tutorial you can use it to stun and bag the other types of ammunition wherever you find them.
Crossbow rounds come in a variety of flavours to suit any situation and you can equip any combination of two ammo types that you like. For example, the reusable Zapp-fly will stun enemies or activate energy panels in machinery, while the chip-punk is used to “pull” enemies away from their posses; thud-slugs are like mini beanbag rounds that knock thugs off their feet, and bolamites wrap them up in sticky web and leave them tied up on the floor until they wriggle out. There’s something oddly charming about walking around with a loud-mouth Chip-punk sitting on your bow beside a chittering, psycho-eyed Fuzzle – a cute little bundle of teeth and hatred that can be used to lay traps for patrolling baddies – that feels natural in the context of the game.
Selecting ammunition is made incredibly easy on the touchscreen and feels quick and intuitive, but beyond that and the switch from third to first person, the Vita’s various functionalities are largely underused – but at least that means they aren’t abused to the point of gimmickry.
“Bountying” enemies means incapacitating them and then holding down Square to suck them into Stranger’s bizarre wrist-mounted device for safe transportation to the nearest Sheriff’s office, and these simple fetch and retrieve missions make up the bulk of the game. With no multiplayer element and no real shifts in the gameplay, it’s potentially easy to get a little bored with the quests in Stranger’s Wrath, but it’s worth sticking with it if only to play around with the ammunition and listen to Stranger’s deep, John Wayne-riffing tones.
Graphically, Stranger’s Wrath looks almost identical to the PS3 version released last year, although shrinking it onto the Vita’s screen is actually a boon as it makes everything look that little bit sharper. Animations are just as slick, but there’s something about the Vita version that feels as though it’s meant to be, which is testament to Just Add Water’s porting. Bringing it onto the PS3 (the first time Stranger’s Wrath had ever been on a Sony console) was a major plus for PlayStation gamers, but the Vita version is just slightly better thanks to those few touchscreen flourishes and how the off-the-wall universe fits the Vita in the same way that LittleBigPlanet’s does.
VERDICT: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath remains an excellent game, and one that should be on the must-play list of any discerning console gamer. For £9.99 you really can’t complain about the price and with the quality of game design on offer it’s a perfect fit for your Vita’s collection. If you missed out on any of the previous versions, the portable iteration on Sony’s handheld is the best of the bunch, combining hi-def visuals with intuitive – if sparse – touch controls and delivering an experience unlike anything else on the Vita.