DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold

Let’s get back to that much-delayed DROD replay, shall we? The second game in the series is Journey to Rooted Hold, and the most immediately striking thing about it in contrast to the first game, apart from the increasing sophistication of the puzzles, is that it has characters, and that the characters are an important part of the game. This is apparent from the very first room, where Halph shows up.

Halph is one of the few major recurring characters in the series. He’s the nephew of Beethro, the player character, and most of the rooms where he shows up use him for his unique puzzle-solving mechanics. Beethro can give Halph a few simple orders: “Follow me”, “Stay here”, and “Open this door” (which Halph does by striking the associated orb, which might be in a place Beethro can’t get to at the moment). It’s pretty similar to the commands you can give to your followers in the Oddworld games, come to think of it, even if the door-opening mechanism was a little different there. But where Oddworld made things complicated for the player by assigning a chord of controller buttons to each utterance, JtRH cleverly manages without introducing any new controls at all. To toggle Halph between follow mode and stay-put mode, you just nudge him by trying to walk into his tile. To tell him to open a door, you try to walk into the door. Trying to walk into stuff is something that was already possible, but didn’t do anything other than waste a turn until Halph showed up.

Even though ordering Halph around can make for pretty good puzzle content, I think I prefer him as a character when he’s not obedient. That’s his main role in the story: running off into other rooms when Beethro tells him not to, petting the roaches when Beethro says to back away, taking that one crucial step onto a force arrow that makes it impossible to get back to Beethro even if he arbitrarily decides to start being obedient again. This makes him a terrific foil. Beethro, as we know from his puzzle solutions, is a planner, and Halph leaves his plans in shambles. Beethro didn’t even want him in the dungeon at all — at the beginning, he instructs him to just wait by the exit — and the main impetus for delving deeper in the beginning is just chasing after Halph to bring him back safely to his parents — something that hasn’t yet happened in the games I’ve played. And it isn’t just Beethro’s plans that he lays waste: Halph shatters his preconceptions, too. Monsters don’t attack him, which calls the whole idea of “monsters” into question. Beethro solves complicated monster-slaying puzzles to get from room to room, but sometimes Halph just shows up ahead of him and can’t explain how he got there.

Apart from Halph, all the other characters are citizens of the Rooted Empire. As early as the first floor, you start encountering weird gray-skinned guys with silly voices, who just hang out and watch you solve puzzles and comment on your technique and whether it meets their personal standards. These guys were the equivalent of Challenge Scrolls before there were Challenge Scrolls. There are Challenge Scrolls in the same rooms now, of course, formalizing the whole thing, but the watchers are still there, kind of redundant but preserving a touch of character. On the second floor, you meet the Negotiator, who sits behind a grand desk and tries to persuade you, in a lengthy cutscene-like dialogue, to leave the dungeon voluntarily before the Slayers get involved. This time through, I noticed that the Negotiator basically lays out what we eventually learn to be the main overarching conflict driving events in the DROD setting, but does so in long-winded terms that the first-time player doesn’t yet know enough about the setting to understand.

Floor 3 introduces 39th Slayer, who’s a big enough part of the game to get a separate post of his own.

Stranger’s Wrath: Mechanical Experimentation

I have to say, Stranger’s Wrath is a vast improvement over Munch’s Oddysee. It just feels more professionally put-together, more detailed and varied. Even the menus feel better. I was a little worried that the shift to a more established gameplay genre would force a mold over it, and there is something to that: much of the environment is FPS brown, including the player character. But it makes up for this with a number of game-mechanical innovations on the formula.

I’ve already mentioned one: living creatures as ammo. Then there’s the approach to health recovery. When this game was made, the fashion in shooters had shifted from recovering health by picking up health packs to recovering health by simply not getting hit for a little while. Stranger’s Wrath is closer to the latter: by holding down a button, you attempt to “shake it off”, standing still and hitting your torso to literally expel the bullets that hit you from your body like a wet dog shaking off water. The one limitation is that shaking off damage uses up stamina, effectively trading it for health. But stamina is restored at a fairly rapid clip as long as you’re not doing anything strenuous, like running or fighting, so the end result is effectively the same as in those stand-still-for-a-while health recovery systems, except for one thing: it requires an action of the player. Really, it feels a lot like reloading, just for health rather than ammo.

Then there’s the bounties. In order to get money for upgrades (or to save up for your surgery), you have to bring people in, dead or alive. Alive is preferred, but tends to be harder. To bring them in alive, you first have to disable them or render them unconscious — in a clever bit of cartoon/reality merging, nonlethal damage is displayed as the number of stars swirling above an enemy’s head. There are some ammo types specialized for capturing rather than killing, but successfully capturing a boss still tends to require extra puzzle-solving, because of another factor: the bounty-collection device. To collect a bounty, you have to stand over a fallen foe (subdued or dead) and spend a moment sucking them up into your bounty-collector. If you leave a corpse uncollected too long, it disappears. If you leave a subdued enemy uncollected too long, they recover and have to be subdued again. If you try to collect a bounty while people are still shooting at you, you tend to die. And you can’t do it at all if you can’t get near the fallen enemy. There’s one boss who stands on a ledge that you can only reach by climbing along an electrified wire. You can only climb it while the power is turned off, but as soon as you turn it off, she’ll try to turn it on again. The easiest way to keep her from turning the power on is to kill her; to take her alive, you have to subdue her from a distance before starting the climb, and reach the ledge before she can recover. So that’s a nice little puzzle, but even when fighting ordinary grunts, this is a ruleset that encourages finesse, like separating enemies from each other so you can safely subdue and bounty them one by one.

As I said about Killer 7, the experimental mechanics are enabled by the weirdness of the story and setting. This game isn’t trying to represent reality, so it can afford things like living ammo and a bounty-sucker-up device. But at the same time, it’s not as driven by gratuitous weirdness as a Suda game.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Back to Oddworld, then. The fourth and (as of now) last of the series is something of a break from the previous games, but not as much as you’d think from first glance. It’s a shooter rather than a puzzler, but it’s a fairly puzzly shooter, in a stealth-and-tactics way. It’s Western-flavored, putting you in the role of a bounty hunter in a series of dusty frontier mining towns amidst mesas and badlands, but the outdoors sections of the Abe games had a significant Western vibe as well. It’s more overtly macho than the previous games, with a gruff brawler for a hero, but the previous games had their macho side as well.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that where the character of Abe was a tough guy disguised as a weirdo, Stranger — that seems to be his name; he isn’t “the Stranger”, he’s just “Stranger” — is a weirdo disguised as a tough guy. He’s a bit animalistic, with a face that’s a bit like a lion and a bit like a goat, and an odd way of using his feet when climbing a rope. If you make him run for a sufficiently long distance, he drops to all fours to run faster. Even weirder, his ammo consists of animals as well: small living creatures scavenged from the wild and fired from a sort of hand-mounted double-barreled crossbow. Instead of looting ammo from your fallen adversaries, you go hunting for it.

The one really big difference from the previous games is motivation. Abe and Munch were out to save their people. If Stranger has a people, I haven’t seen them. He seems to be the only one of his kind in a land populated by lumpy outlaws and the chicken people they prey on. No, Stranger’s motivation is money. In the previous games, that was the motivation of the bad guys. It’s been mentioned that he needs the money for a life-saving operation, but the result is that he’s not much concerned with causing destruction if it doesn’t get in the way of his bounties, and is even willing to steal from the chicken people himself if given the opportunity. It does, however, inspire him to take some care with those bounties. Part of the basic mechanics of the game is that bringing them in alive is worth more than killing them. I’ll probably go into that more fully later.

Munch’s Oddysee: The End

In the lengthy closing cutscene of the good ending, we finally see what use Abe and Munch got out of their trip to the surface and back: Lulu is now wealthy enough to win the Gabbiar auction. Except this still doesn’t really make sense. Abe has to mind-control Lulu through the entire process — Lulu doesn’t even like Gabbiar, doesn’t want to spend his entire new-found fortune, has no intention of just handing the can over to a couple of known criminals. So if Lulu isn’t a willing collaborator, why does it need to be Lulu? Can’t Abe just wait for the winning bid and then mind-control whoever won? I can imagine possible reasons why this wouldn’t work, but if the creators of this story even considered the possibility, they give no sign of it. No, Lulu is the only possible choice not for practical reasons, but for reasons of dramatic irony: you made his fortune by mind-controlling Glukkons, now you take it away by subjecting him to the same treatment.

I do want to keep going with the next Oddworld game once I’m through with IFComp for the year, but I have to say this one, even in its revamped form, was a step down from the first in most respects. There’s just an awful lot of filler where you repeat things you already know how to do in a series of similar-looking environments. The final level brings out some new wall textures to create a palatial look, and the effect is just to emphasize how much all the previous levels looked the same. There was a point toward the middle of the game where it started introducing ways to upgrade your Mudokon followers, turning them into powerful hand-to-hand or ranged combatants. It seemed like that might build up to something interestingly tactical, but the whole mechanic pretty much gets dropped after a few levels, probably because it made things too easy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Eggs? Eggs. Eggs!

Perhaps I’ve just been inattentive, or failed to read between the lines. It would be easy to do in a game where the story and gameplay are so separate. I can keep the Lulu side of the plot straight because it’s integrated into the levels, but there’s some purely interstitial story as well. Mostly it takes the form of headlines on a newspaper displayed after you complete a mission. The top story is generally the mission’s aftermath — “GLUKKON DONATES PROFITS TO LULU FUND! MAGOG MOTORS OUTA GAS!!!”, for example — but there’s also been an adjacent series in smaller type about the impending auction of the last remaining can of Gabbiar. Gabbiar is the roe of the Gabbit, which is to say, Munch’s species. Munch is generally assumed to be the last of his kind (hence his side of the rescue missions involving Fuzzles instead). So that roe, if still viable, could be the last hope for the continuation of his people.

I hadn’t really paid much attention to this plot thread before, assuming that it would assume prominence when it was ready, but there’s something else that’s got me thinking about it: the emergence of Labor Eggs. I had seen the phrase “Labor Eggs” in the game’s help text before, when it explains that the ending will depend on how many Mudokons, Fuzzles, and Labor Eggs you rescue. But only now, in the last few levels, do I get an explanation of what the phrase “Labor Eggs” means. It just means the eggs of Mudokons, kept by the Glukkons to be hatched into laborers. Which raises questions about where these eggs come from. As I’ve noted before, every Mudokon we’ve seen appears, at least, to be male — although these are aliens, so who knows?

Now, there is at least one specifically female character, also mentioned only in the newspapers: a Glukkon queen, who requires Gabbit lungs for some medical purpose. Which, now that I think about it, shows extreme short-sightedness on the part of the Glukkons. They have a desperate need for Gabbits, but Gabbits have been hunted to near extinction, so what do they do with the last clutch of viable Gabbit eggs? Package them as food. This is really par for the course for Glukkons, though. Their domination of the planet is based on ruthlessness, not good planning.

At any rate, the deal with the Labor Eggs is that they’re in boxes, which you have to pick up with a crane and drop into a hole. In the level where they first appear, there are 22 such boxes, all in the same area. You can’t access the crane until you’ve got rid of some guards, but once you’ve done that, there is nothing at all interfering with the task. This moment is pretty much pure repetitiveness, lacking challenge or interest. And that’s a distillation of the worst aspect of the game as a whole: its tendency to give the player busywork, to fill out scenes with activities that aren’t challenging or interesting. “Labor Eggs” may be a doubly accurate name.

Munch’s Oddysee: The End of the Massive Side-Quest

Finally I’m through with the Lulu Fund shenanigans, which turned out to take up the bulk of the game. To recap: Abe and Munch’s plan involves making a low-level Glukkon named Lulu stinking rich. They do this by sneaking into various other Glukkons’ offices, possessing them, and making them give their life savings to Lulu, after which they die from the shock of suddenly being broke. It’s a nasty scheme for a grotesque world. Lulu, as far as I can tell, is oblivious to why everyone is suddenly being so generous with him, but honestly he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so who knows what he’s thinking? All I can say for sure is that he’s pleased with developments.

The last of the Glukkons you rob is dressed differently from the rest, with a glittery purple cowboy hat and aviator-style sunglasses. He doesn’t act any different — like all the Glukkons, he just stands in his little office waiting to be possessed, repeating the same seven self-aggrandizing barks in a gravelly Brooklyn accent (“I’m at the top of the world”, “How did I get so perfect?”, “I’m going to need an ass the size of a truck to fit this wallet”, etc.) But the outfit makes it clear that he’s a special Glukkon, a boss Glukkon, even if there’s really nothing to distinguish him otherwise. (There may be a lesson in that.) Afterwards, Lulu, with uncontainable joy, wears the same outfit on the flying barge that brings him to Vykkers Labs, the floating fortress that’s been your goal.

It looks like my guess was right: the whole point of the Lulu scheme was to let Abe and Munch sneak back to Vykkers Labs aboard that barge. And that’s where the story stops making sense to me. First of all, this isn’t the first time we’ve been to Vykkers Labs. It’s where Munch started the game. Abe had this whole mission to rescue Munch, and although that didn’t quite go as planned, due to Munch escaping without his help, he did have a considerably simpler way of reaching the Labs back then. Secondly, if Vykkers Labs is where they needed to be, why did the original plan involve leaving at all? Now, Abe’s Oddysee had a similar overall arc. There, Abe escaped from the meat plant, had a series of adventures in the world outside, and then in the end returned to where he escaped from to free the remaining captives and destroy the place. But there, there was a clear reason: Abe didn’t have the ability to finish his task until he visited the ancient temples and received powers from his people’s gods. (Powers which he seems to have lost after the conclusion of that game, by the way.) What did Abe and Munch gain by leaving the Labs before their task was complete? They’re no more powerful than they were when they escaped.

Project Lulu makes sense as game design: it provides an excuse for an arbitrary series of levels that don’t advance the story individually. But I don’t know that it makes sense as plot.

Munch’s Odyssey: What I’m Noticing This Time

Coming back to this after yet another lengthy pause, I’m struck afresh by a couple of things I hadn’t been thinking about much before.

First, I was finding some of the platforming unduly difficult. I’d quicksave just before trying a jump, then attempt it multiple times without success, falling short even after attempting a run-up. This turned out to be because I had forgotten how to run. Munch’s Oddysee on PC has a strange system for this. You essentially have three gears: Run, Walk, and Sneak. Tapping upward or downward on the D-pad shifts your speed one gear. All this despite controlling the character with an analog joystick, which has speed control built in! I suppose it’s because this whole gear system was added for the sake of keyboard-and-mouse. It doesn’t seem to have been present in the original Xbox version. In fact, when in Walk mode, I find I can still slow down to the point of entering Sneak mode just by pushing the stick less far. I just can’t run without shifting up.

Honestly, I’m glad to have a discrete Sneak mode. In situations that require sneaking, you really don’t want to stop sneaking just because your hand jostled a little. It’s still weird to use the D-pad to toggle it in this way, but I suppose they were running out of buttons. The face buttons are already overloaded, with the A button assigned to both Jump and Use Object (so you can’t jump when you’re near something usable), and the other three doubled up, doing one thing when tapped and another thing when held down. It’s all pretty complicated, and I frequently make mistakes like telling my followers to attack when I really want them to pull a group of levers.

The other completely unrelated thing that’s catching my eye this time around is how butch it all is. Which is a little surprising considering how it’s all framed as weirdos vs bullies, with the weirdos as the good guys. Well, Abe may be an ectomorph who sings his enemies to death rather than throw a punch, but he’s still visibly muscular, in a lean and wiry way. Moreover, the biggest of the bullies — the new extra-large Sligs with the beefy arms and the handheld miniguns and the four-legged robot undercarriage — are primarily there to be possessed and controlled by Abe. Seriously, this was the central aspect of the first two levels I played after coming back. While controlling a large Slig, your main concern is mowing down the lesser Sligs, directly confronting violence not with stealth or cleverness, but with greater and more powerful violence. The game wants you to have it both ways: You’re simultaneously the bullied and the bully, the weirdo with unsettling mind powers and the hulking revenge fantasy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Revamp

Let’s rewind a little. I’ve been meaning to finish Munch’s Oddysee for months now, and last month added an extra motivation: an unexpected update to the game, apparently the first in six years. In fact, not just an update. The press release calls it a “new port”. I’m guessing that there’s a new Oddworld game coming soon, and that both this update and the inclusion of New & Tasty in the Humble Montly are meant to get people talking about Oddworld again in preparation for it. (It’s obviously working in my case.)

Unlike New & Tasty, it doesn’t seem fundamentally changed from the previous version. It’s basically the same game, with the same rules and the same levels. The character models are more detailed and the framerate is higher, or so it claims. Having not played in a few months, I can’t tell the difference. But the feel of the controls is definitely improved, particularly in the menus, where moving the selection with a joystick was hit-or-miss before. And the sounds are much better, both in playback quality and in design. I complained before about cartoony boings, and those are basically gone. Munch’s footsteps no longer offend the ear. Abe falling down a cliff no longer sounds like Popeye in a fistfight. There’s still a certain amount of slide whistle on large jumps, but it’s a very reasonable amount. The sound design was my one biggest annoyance with the game, and I really wasn’t expecting it to just spontaneously get better. Maybe I’ll be better motivated to finish the game now.

The one thing that worried me about such an extensive rewrite was: Would it recognize my saves? Or would I have to start over from scratch? It turns out that my saves were accessible, but the save UI is weird enough that I didn’t realize this at first and wound up replaying the first few levels anyway. Also, it must be converting the old saves to a new format rather than just using them directly, because they all have the same timestamp, around the time I launched the game. As a result, the save menu can’t arrange them chronologically like it usually does, and instead sorts them in reverse alphabetical order by the name of the level. I had been saving at the beginning of every level, and had no idea of the name of the last level I had played. Fortunately, there was one converted save named “Quicksave” — which is distinct from the actual quicksave slot used by the new code.

Munch’s Oddysee: Slog

Another day, another level. That seems to be how fast I’m getting through this game right now, on those days that I play it at all. One level = one session is a reasonable equation, but I feel like my lack of binging, especially as I approach the end, signals a flagging of interest. The latest level was chock-a-block with land mines and other explosives, with large numbers of Slig guards, including a new, larger type, a sort of Slig giant with a more powerful gun and a more blatantly robotic lower half. None of this made the level more interesting. It just made it take longer.

Nonetheless, I do want to finish the game, if only to justify to myself moving on to Stanger’s Wrath, which is of particular interest to me simply because I know so little about it. I hadn’t even heard of it before it wound up in a Steam bundle. So for all I know, it may be even more dreary than these later levels of Munch’s Oddysee.

Munch’s Oddysee: Product Placement

So, Munch’s Oddysee has these vending machines dispensing power-ups in the form of soft drinks. Some can be used by both player characters, some are exclusive to Munch. A drink called “Expresso”, for example, makes either character run faster, while “Zap!” lets Munch attack nearby enemies with electrical arcs from his cranial implant. Health can be restored with cans of SoBe energy drink, from vending machines with the SoBe logo with the two lizards.

I’m informed that this isn’t the case in all version of the game. Apparently there’s a HD remake for Playstation 3 and Vita that uses a made-up “Health Up!” brand name instead. But in the version I’m playing, it’s SoBe, except for one Health Up machine I’ve seen. I don’t know what the deal is with that.

This is far from the first or worst instance of egregious product placement I’ve seen in games. The example I always think of is Lemmings 3D (aka 3D Lemmings), which stuck Jelly Belly logos all over the place, and even made a huge jar of jelly beans into a major part of one level’s geometry. To this day, whenever I see Jelly Bellies, I think of Lemmings, which is presumably the opposite of what was intended. I also think of the obscure 2002 action-adventure Darkened Skye, which was actually designed from the ground up as an advergame for Skittles, even basing its content on then-current Skittle commercials and including a Skittle-based magic system. The truly remarkable thing about Darkened Skye, however, was that, unlike most games based on junk food, it tried to hide it. The packaging mentioned Skittles only in the small print on the back, and you could play it for a couple of hours before encountering any Skittle content. Today, it’s remembered for nothing else.

And that’s why I feel the way I do about product placement of this sort: that it’s the sign of a game that’s lost its way as art. It’s letting money dictate content. Well, okay, that’s going to be the case regardless. Budgets are limited, and studios need to make games that will sell. But this is letting money dictate content in an obvious and intrusive way, and I have to wonder if the increased brand awareness is enough to outweigh the resentment it engenders. I’ve heard tell that gun manufacturers pay handsomely to get their wares included in the latest military shooters, and that’s creepy, but in a way, it doesn’t seem as bad to me, because at least guns are relevant to a shooter. They belong there in a way that Earth beverages don’t belong in the Oddworld.

The Oddworld setting even gives the whole deal some additional ironies, starting with the way that the whole story is one of struggle against capitalist excess. Putting ads in games is, when you think about it, totally something Glukkons would do. But also, beverage manufacturers in particular were the main bad guys in the previous game. Now, understand that there’s a completely deliberate irony of Abe and the Mudokons using and even relying on the products of their oppressors. Abe’s Oddysee makes it clear that Abe has eaten and enjoyed the Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies made from his people’s sacred animals, and Abe’s Exoddus has him drinking a Glukkon-made beverage from vending machines as part of solving puzzles, much like he does here in Munch’s Oddysee. But the premise of Abe’s Exoddus is that the Glukkons are using the addictiveness of that very same beverage to re-enslave the Mudokons, and late in the game there’s a revelation about how it’s made that I won’t spoil. As such, I have to wonder if SoBe really thought this through. This is the sort of thing that advertisers tend to be sticklers about. The story of Munch’s Oddysee itself doesn’t seem to contain anything so outright negative about its soft drinks, but the game does make all the cutscenes from Abe’s Exoddus available from its main menu as a recap of the story so far. Considering how ham-handed the product placement is in the first place, I suppose it’s just a matter of nobody involved knowing what they’re doing.

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