So firstly, a confession. I never liked the original Oddword games. Abe's odysseys were a bit too weird for me, with that deliberately grotesque art style and those serious environmental themes. I'd been raised in the gently surreal cartoon wonderland that was the Mushroom Kingdom, thanks very much, and by contrast, Abe and Munch's adventures just seemed a bit bizarre.
And then a Stranger strolled into town. Stranger's Wrath was the first time - and to date the only time - the series took a break from Abe and showcased a different part of the universe. A less odd side to Oddworld. It offered a classic Western dressed up in Oddworld's clothes.
Suddenly, to me at least, Oddworld made sense. Oddworld wasn't one game with one theme but a whole universe, with an infinite number of tales that could be told within it. Stranger's story starts with little more than basic motivations: he's bounty hunting to make 'moolah' to pay for a mysterious operation of vital importance. It evolves into a touching tale of redemption that complements Abe's own adventures.
Most importantly Stranger's Wrath was a spectacular shooter built around a clever dual wielding mechanic. When Stranger goes hunting for the outlaws and varmints surrounding the game's town hubs he must collect 'live ammo' - adorable critters whose fate is to end stuffed on his crossbow. In truth, shooting living creatures at enemies is a bit of gimmick (it just means you go ransacking nests rather than cracking open crates when your bow runs dry), but the ammo types themselves offer a weird array of abilities. Fuzzles are fluffy proximity mines, Bolamites are sticky, paralysing spiders, and so on.
There's a proper combat sandbox, here, rivalling that of Halo, throwing up weird and unexpected outcomes when different ammo types and enemy behaviours intersect. You're encouraged to experiment, too. Stranger can equip two ammo types simultaneously, and some critters, like the enemy-stunning Skunks, work best when followed up by something with a bit more bite.
In another similarity to Halo, Stranger's Wrath shifts in and out of third-person, but there are no vehicle sections - it's basic platforming with which Oddworld Inhabitants breaks up its adventure. Still, the third-person sections do invaluable work building Stranger as a character. He's a fascinating creation: a mix of wild beast and taciturn gunslinger, and much of that weird blend is conveyed by the animation: build up speed when running and Stranger falls to the ground, effortlessly transitioning into a loping, four-legged gallop that's more bestial than manlike.
Stranger has a secret, of course, and when that secret is revealed Stranger's Wrath does something fascinating with the twist. It changes. Through the game's first and second act Oddworld Inhabitants offers a rudimentary hub structure tied to some basic RPG progression. Stranger picks a bounty, heads out of town and then, having captured or killed the outlaw in question, gets to spend the cash on upgrades.
But, then, just as you settle into this bounty-hunting, varmint-snatching rhythm, Stranger's secret is revealed and the game morphs into a more linear shooter with an accelerated pace. In a sense, this feels like a regression, a shift away from the quasi open-world structure for a more conventional final act. But it's an honest reflection of the turns the plot has made, and that gives the final hours of Stranger's Wrath a strong sense of drama and pace.
The retail release was disaster, of course. EA didn't know how to promote this Oddworld game that wasn't actually an Oddword game, so it didn't really promote it at all. Sadly, that wasn't the end of Stranger's misfortunes. A recent HD re-release never made it to Xbox due to some unfortunate politics. But still, if you can track down a copy of this overlooked classic, then it's a definitely worth a play.
And if you're an existing Stranger's Wrath fan who dreams of More, you might be interested in Ed's chat with Oddworld co-developer Just Add Water about possible future projects Stranger's Wrath 2 and the Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klott.