Oddworld: Soulstorm Review
If you’ve never played an Oddworld game and seen how it all comes together, then you’ll probably be horrified to learn that practically all of Oddworld: Soulstorm is one giant escort quest. Not only that, but the followers you’re escorting don’t have the brains God promised a goat, are gruesomely killed by anything that so much as sneezes at them, and complain nearly constantly – and all of this has been done by the developers on purpose. The challenge of this unusual action-platformer is in keeping these hopelessly useless creatures alive through increasingly deadly levels via trial and many, many, many errors.
Though it can be infuriating at times, the genius of the Oddworld series is in the moments just after I or my followers have been met with an entirely avoidable death and I can’t help but facepalm and laugh before trying again. Your lemming-like followers will thoughtlessly dive straight into deadly obstacles, take way too long to walk through an area that requires precise timing to survive, and do practically nothing to defend themselves when attacked. You are shepherd to the world’s dumbest flock of sheep, which is often entertaining and almost always enormously challenging.
Oddworld: Soulstorm is a ground-up remake of 1998’s Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus that reimagines the incredibly bizarre setting that is Oddworld. But the remake remains just as diabolically difficult as games of the PS1 era: each level finds a new way to imperil the lives of you and your followers in a devious test of your cleverness, creativity, and patience. One area might require you to sneak past armed guards who you’d have no hope of challenging in open combat, while another asks you to keep waves of enemies busy long enough for hundreds of your followers to run away.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Each%20level%20finds%20a%20new%20way%20to%20imperil%20the%20lives%20of%20you%20and%20your%20followers%20in%20a%20devious%20test%20of%20your%20cleverness%2C%20creativity%2C%20and%20patience.”]Soulstorm’s single act of mercy – and its saving grace – is its checkpoint system, which saves your progress after nearly every obstacle. Minimizing the amount of tough challenges you’ll have to replay does wonders towards your ability to laugh it off when you get maimed by an armed guard or get a dozen followers killed by wandering into a trap. Repeated failure with minimal risk allows you to master each section and devise the perfect strategy for overcoming the latest hurdle with you and your followers intact. The drawback is that the checkpointing system doesn’t allow you to manually save whenever you want, which leads to some annoying sections where you have to re-loot an area and re-craft all your weapons after every single death. That eats up a ton of game time and gets old really fast.
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The main tool you have at your disposal, though, is Abe’s awesome signature ability to possess enemies and use them as meat puppets against the enemy. You can make possessed enemies kill their friends, or help you solve a puzzle, or straight-up explode just to get them out of your way. That’s a really great way to give you an edge against the enormous odds that are stacked against you. Soulstorm is a bit stingy with how often you’re able to actually use your shamanistic powers, though, because the enemy places anti-chant devices all over the place that’ll give you a zap if you try to possess anything. Then again, it probably wouldn’t make for much of a challenge if they didn’t.
The worst sections are when you’re forced to rely on your followers to assist in combat, which is often an unmitigated disaster. Your incompetent allies are incredibly inconsistent, even when told to stand in one spot and manually equipped with the best weapons for the job. Slow to react and completely clueless, your mudokon friends often let themselves get killed without putting up any kind of fight and might just stand there with a blank expression while they watch a slig with a shotgun massacre a dozen of their friends. These sections are without a doubt my least favorite because they seemed to rely on complete luck, which had me roaring at the screen.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20worst%20sections%20are%20when%20you%E2%80%99re%20forced%20to%20rely%20on%20your%20followers%20to%20assist%20in%20combat.”]Whereas the legitimate challenge is an entertaining uphill struggle, there is also some unfortunate unintentional difficulty added in the form of bugs, and Soulstorm has a whole lot of them. In my playthroughs, I encountered everything from visual glitches to potentially game-breaking issues like my followers disappearing from the level altogether. In the vast majority of cases, backing out to the main menu and reloading the level or closing and relaunching Soulstorm fixed the issue, but bugs are so common it’s likely to increase your frustration in a game that revels in pushing you to the limit on purpose as it is.
In one instance, one of my followers refused to enter any portals and run towards freedom, meaning my otherwise-perfect run on a particularly challenging level was burned. In another, I wasn’t able to hear any dialogue during an end-of-level cutscene and had to replay the entire level to avoid missing the story. Sometimes certain enemies would just be immune to my attempts to damage them for no reason. The list goes on and on. Developer Oddworld Inhabitants is aware of many bugs and has already released a few updates to address some of these issues, but with so many bugs to squash it’s clear Soulstorm would have benefitted from a little more polish (as is the case with many games developed in the era of COVID-19).
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Of course, you could always just say “screw it” and push through each level without saving anyone, but doing so will inevitably lead to an early end to your adventure with a finale that’s completely depressing (and well-deserved, you selfish monster). There are four endings in total: the worst ending, the bad ending, the good ending, and the best ending. The worst and best endings are simply small variations on the bad and good endings respectively, the latter which can be seen by only the most dedicated players and the former which honors those who are impressively awful at keeping their companions alive. The differences between the good and bad endings, though, are very significant. By mastering each level and exploring every nook and cranny to rescue all of your enslaved brothers, you’re rewarded with two additional levels at the end of the campaign and an ending that’s worthy of your hard work and determination. It’s an incredible incentive to keep as many of your followers alive as possible, and pushed me to shoot for a flawless completion in every level.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20differences%20between%20the%20good%20and%20bad%20endings%20are%20very%20significant.”]Once you’ve played through Soulstorm you unlock the ability to replay levels, which can be useful if you weren’t able to reach the good ending on your first try. The caveat here is that you have to beat an entire level in one sitting on a replay. This seems like an intentional choice and would be fine if everything worked 100% of the time, but with tons of bugs – many of which are fixed by quitting out of the app or backing out into the main menu – this means a bug can cause you to lose an entire hour or more of progress. Ouch.
One of the things that makes Soulstorm completely worth the absolute pain in the neck that its challenging levels and numerous bugs often are is its story. The mudokon rebels are loveable, pitiable goofs, the power-hungry glukkons are disgusting, opportunistic monsters, and the setting’s dystopian depiction of untethered capitalism and environmental destruction is unique, incredibly distinctive, and hilariously macabre. Everything about Soulstorm is so charming and otherworldly it’s easy to get drawn into Abe’s journey from clueless slave to unlikely revolutionist, and as soon as the credits rolled I found myself crossing my fingers for a (hopefully less buggy) remake of Munch’s Oddysee in the near future.
Controls have also been reworked from past entries to be more responsive and, although it could still use some more work, the maneuverability you have in Soulstorm is the best the series has seen. There are definitely some areas needing improvement, like the hit-or-miss nature of your ability to mantle up ledges or swing from pole-to-pole during platforming sections, but it’s still night and day compared to the clunkiness of Oddworld: New N’ Tasty. In particular, the responsiveness of the double jump allows you to more precisely navigate obstacles and survive the trove of deadly traps that await you in any given area.
The weapons inventory and crafting system is smartly designed and gives a huge incentive to explore every nook and cranny in search of tools that make the going easier. For example, you can craft rubber stick balls to instantly apprehend almost any enemy, but the resource cost required to do so is quite high. You can also craft sticky explosive grenades to blow open pathways to new areas and detonate enemies, or build a flamethrower which makes the going much easier in every level.
The downside is that you have to start from zero materials at the beginning of each level, which can be a little frustrating after you just spent the past hour accumulating a full arsenal in the previous one, but it’s understandable because it controls the tools you have access to in every level to add some interesting challenges. For example, at the beginning of one level you might only have the supplies needed to craft smoke bombs, forcing you to use stealth alone to get through the area. Later on, when you gather more supplies and can craft different tools, your options for approaching the next areas opens up quite a bit.
Although most areas represent a massive improvement over Abe’s Exoddus, if there’s one area that could still use some work it’s Soulstorm sound design. Quite frankly, aside from the excellent voice acting, Soulstorm is an auditory nightmare. For starters, the sound levels are wildly inconsistent – sometimes voices are way too quiet and sound effects are way too loud. Sometimes I could barely hear what was going on and would turn up the volume, only for things to become earth-shatteringly loud a few moments later, which had me frantically grabbing for the remote control. Monkeying around with the audio levels in settings doesn’t do much to improve the situation, since there’s very little consistency in how loud any of the noise is.
Music is also scarce in Soulstorm, meaning most of the time you’re listening to machinery clinking around in the background or dog-like creatures called slogs barking constantly (or whining for their lives when they’re killed, which made my skin crawl). I was tempted to simply hit the mute button and spare me the unpleasantness, especially during long sessions. For a remake that improves upon so much that has defined it in the past, it’s disappointing that Soulstorm can be a real headache to listen to.