Oddworld: Soulstorm Review

Oddworld: Soulstorm has been a long time coming. A direct sequel to Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, Soulstorm is a loosely drawn reimagining of the second Oddworld game, Abe’s Exoddus. Soulstorm looks shiny and PS5-new, with beautifully detailed characters and vast sweeping landscapes in its backgrounds, but it has an old soul. Soulstorm’s stealthy platforming feels like a throwback: It’s unlike any game I’ve played in a long time, and that’s refreshing. But with old-school gameplay, Soulstorm retains some archaic design choices that feel outdated in 2021. The pain from those choices is accentuated by the game’s many serious technical issues, which can blow even the most carefully played sequences at the drop of a hat. Soulstorm has a lot of heart, but its poor tuning makes it a bit of a slog.

Like its predecessors, Soulstorm puts you in control of Abe, a now free slave with the ability to take control of his former captors using a special chant. Each level strings together a gauntlet of side-scrolling stealth-platforming puzzles. As Abe, you’ll sneak across each stage, jumping across platforms to dodge traps while avoiding conflict as much as possible. All the while, you’re searching for your fellow Mudokons, Abe’s species of lanky green Oddworlders, most of whom are still slaves in factories and mines. Staying out of harm’s way requires careful planning and timing. Like many stealth games, you’re carefully monitoring guard movements and vision cones to find the perfect moment to move from one hiding spot to the next, or to dispatch a guard. There’s a tense, nail-biting thrill to maneuvering your way into and out of danger.

Though stealth factors into most areas, there are also a fair number of pure platforming sequences. Dodging flamethrowers, buzzsaws, spikes, and other dangers is also often a matter of getting the timing right. Soulstorm’s best platforming sequences feel more puzzle-like than a reflex test, balancing time pressure and a need to methodically feel your way through whatever lethal obstacles it throws your way.

In both situations, patience is a virtue. Though running and jumping are responsive, most other actions take time. Hiding in a locker or stepping out of one takes a second. If you don’t get the drop on a guard, they’ll shoot and kill you before you can aim and throw a rock. The windows for moving around and staying out of sight are pretty small, so you need to know how every enemy in the area moves and how they’ll react to whatever you plan to do. If you ever have any doubt, waiting and seeing is the best course of action. That means, of course, that you’ll progress through each encounter quite slowly.

Abe isn’t a fighter, but he has some tools at his disposal. He can find and craft makeshift weapons like rubber band balls, smoke screens, and explosive sodas, which can either help him avoid detection or knock guards unconscious. Abe also has the ability to control certain enemies with the aforementioned chant ability, which lets you use guards to open doors and fight enemies. While there are often many options to deal with any given situation, all of these tools are fairly straightforward and obvious in their application. If it looks like you need to make a smokescreen to block a patrolling guard’s vision, then that’s probably the best thing to do. Soulstorm’s particular brand of stealth measures your timing more than your creativity.

This is doubly true when you’re leading a group of AI-controlled Mudokons around. After recruiting them, the Mudokons will follow close behind Abe unless you tell them to hang back. Though they’re packed closely, a group of stragglers makes your movements infinitely larger and easier to spot. And while they can technically defend themselves if you give them tools, they’ll die very quickly if seen. They’ll also step right on a landmine, even if you jump over it. Moving around with allies in tow requires you to take the slowest, steadiest pace and give every obstacle a wide berth. It can make for interesting and more strategic play but stings when someone gets smashed by a piston because they didn’t take that one extra step to dodge a giant swinging pendulum.

No matter how slow you move forward, that demanding precision is where things fall apart for Soulstorm. The character AI for both your enemies and Mudokon allies is relatively unpredictable. In some cases, it’s purely a glitch: When your alert status drops from “Medium” to “Calm,” guards don’t always revert to their peaceful guard patterns, making it impossible to pass without engaging them. In other cases, the AI simply reacts poorly: When you enter a locker, your Mudokon followers are supposed to find other lockers and hide, but I lost many followers because they stood still like a deer in headlights rather than enter an empty locker. Too often, the machinery of an encounter would break down and force a reset or a less than desirable outcome. With an antiquated checkpointing system and no option for a manual quicksave, a costly AI error can roll you back to the start of a very long, slow-moving sequence that becomes less interesting with each try.

There are also plenty of other impactful bugs. I encountered enemies that could see beyond their vision cones, I’ve lost control of mind-controlled enemies, and I’ve woken up at least one sleeping Slig because it was floating in mid-air rather than on the ground. As with all games in the modern era, it’s possible that all of these issues will be fixed in future versions, but until they are, a game that offers little room for error is rife with technical problems that force you to retry. At the risk of beating a dead horse, it can’t be understated how big a deal it is that Soulstorm relies purely on progress-based checkpoints for saving. You can easily find yourself stuck in a poor situation if you, let’s say, roll through a checkpoint as an enemy is about to find your hidden Mudokon pals. It can also force you to repeat mundane tasks like picking up items and crafting. Both problems cause difficult sequences to take longer and make bug-induced resets more frustrating. Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, a game from seven years ago, had a quicksave feature, so this feels like a huge oversight.

Soulstorm’s setting and story are charming, though. The story, which picks up from the end of Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, brings us back to Abe and his flock of revolutionary Mudokons, who are now free and on the run from their former masters, the Glukkons. Abe’s escape has thrown Oddworld into turmoil. Through traveling and meeting more escaped Mudokons, he finds that his symbolic position as the first Mudokon to successfully throw off his shackles will require him to take on a real leadership role. The established but still-unique look of Oddworld’s characters makes the world and its story immediately captivating. For longtime fans, seeing that world reimagined with PS5-level graphics may be worth the price of admission, despite the game’s technical shortcomings.

Even if you don’t already have an affection for Oddworld, Soulstorm looks great. The levels feature what developer Oddworld Inhabitants calls a “2.9D” visual style: 3D art on a 2D plane, which twists, turns, and shifts to make the levels feel less linear. In the background, you can often see an entire level stretched out into the distance, along with rocky mountain faces, massive buildings, and factory machinery, which all create an incredible sense of scale. Abe, important as he is, is just a little fish compared to Oddworld’s sprawling industrial landscape. Though the background is often just set dressing, there are a few instances where the background elements come into the fore, and while that isn’t exactly a new trick, the speedy, smooth animation of an oncoming train hurtling toward you from out of the blue remains impressive.

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At the same time, Soulstorm’s clear penchant for spectacle also frequently gets the better of it. There are a handful of set-piece sequences sprinkled throughout the adventure, most of which have unique technical problems and/or design flaws. In the game’s third level, mortar fire rains down, creating random explosions as you progress. The explosions are only semi-randomized, though: If you stand still for more than a few seconds (which isn’t unlikely in a stealth game) the explosions will find you and target you. There’s no crosshair or indicator that you should be worried about the explosions following you, and there are very few places to hide. A series of sequences where you must defend a large number of escaping Mudokon dispense with stealth altogether, pushing you to defeat the guards as quickly as you can. In both cases, Soulstorm plays against type: Abe’s movements are honed for stealth and platforming, and the game never does well when it deviates from those two core competencies.

Those core ideas, stealth and puzzle-platforming, work well in Soulstorm, but only some of the time. Though plodding and slow-paced relative to modern stealth games, there is something satisfying to its puzzle-like approach. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the good through issues with the AI, frustrating checkpointing, and technical troubles. Oddworld is an interesting world and I hope we get to see the rest of Abe’s saga, but the series needs more than a new coat of paint to breathe new life into the series.

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