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.