The Oddworld series has never quite evolved past its late 1990s roots; the grimy puzzle-platformer was a unique take on the genre for its time, yet hasn’t really made a mark with the handful of releases and ports since its debut. A shame, as Oddworld, with its Mudokon slaves, the half-mechanical Sligs, and industrialist Glukkons, is a place we enjoy spending time in – even if it’s a little depressing and grotesque. The most recent entry, 2021’s Oddworld: Soulstorm, came as a reimagined version of 1998’s Abe’s Exoddus on PS1. Now, Soulstorm has arrived on Switch with a handful of improvements.
Our sister website Push Square enjoyed Soulstorm about as much as antagonist Molluck the Glukkon likes our protagonist Abe – which, if you’re unfamiliar with Oddworld, is not very much. Bugs, clunky gameplay, and a lack of a fart button were among its issues, yet the Switch’s Oddtimized Edition promises to fix some of these issues, particularly the AI. The good news for Oddworld fans is that this promise has been fulfilled in some key areas. The bad news is that significant issues still abound.
Soulstorm’s narrative picks up after Abe successfully rescued his fellow enslaved Mudokons from RuptureFarms. The Glukkons are now out for revenge after their profit margins took a hit. A handful of pre-rendered cutscenes give the narrative some gravity; you can’t help but feel for the Mudokons and their plight. It isn’t long before Abe has to rescue his fellows once again from dark mines, stampeding trains, and rusted factories.
To do so, you control Abe through a series of increasingly difficult puzzle-platforming sections that throw a decent amount of variety your way in the form of both enemies and dangerous circumstances. Platforming is methodical rather than brisk, requiring you to think before making each move instead of relying on reaction and speed. Abe also respawns quickly if a Sligg sniper blows him into bloody chunks or if you mistime diffusing a mine, so when you’re presented with a new situation – say, crafting smoke bombs to create cover from enemies – trial and error isn’t too much of a pain, and Soulstorm gives you enough tools to overcome most trials in whichever way you see fit. We, for instance, didn’t like the constant scavenging for items necessary for crafting weapons and other helpful tools. Luckily, we could ignore doing so for the most part.
The two staples of the franchise – ordering around rescued Mudokons and possessing enemies – return, and while they play much the same way they did a couple of decades ago, they’re still the most unique part of Oddworld. Simple commands issued to Mudokons will allow them to help solve puzzles or stay out of sight while Abe dispatches a handful of baddies. The more you rescue, the better Abe’s fate at the end of the game, and achieving that perfect ending is no small feat.
Mudokons can be found and saved in several different ways: separate rooms that work as an enclosed puzzle, randomly interspersed throughout each level, and hordes of a hundred or more to keep safe as they scramble in the background of the level. Though many struggled with the allies’ AI when Soulstorm released last year, it seems marginally better on the Switch. We seldom had trouble ordering Mudokons to hide in lockers or billowing smoke to avoid patrols and quite enjoyed figuring out how to guide them all to safety.
Possessing enemies once again allows Abe to wreck some havoc on his oppressors. Taking control of a Sligg will always be an exhilarating reversal of power as you gun down other foes rather than sneak past them, then causing the poor chap to explode from the inside out once he’s served his purpose. Shock orbs prohibit Abe from possessing enemies in quite a few areas, however, preventing this eternally novel mechanic from trivialising a steep but fair difficulty curve.
Despite its slower pace, seemingly better AI, and possession mechanics, Soulstorm’s controls still cause problems. It’s as if a Sligg dipped your Joy-Con into a bottle of the sticky SoulStream energy drink as inputs often feel sluggish. Jumps will be missed. Abe will struggle to grab onto a ledge before a Sligg spots him. Trying to crawl so as to not trigger mines will sometimes result in rolling into said mines. Machinery that requires precise timing to pass will pulverise Abe again and again.
These control issues often snowball into halted progress. For example, one stage had us possessing an airborne Sligg to shoot another before either spot Abe, yet immediately after taking over the Sligg, the aiming reticle did not match up with the direction of the joystick, resulting in Abe getting killed. This simple interaction took us a dozen tries to clear and is just one frustrating example of many.
Worse yet, the bizarre choice to force Abe to re-loot after he dies in areas that emphasise the new crafting mechanic tried our patience. A way to retrigger a checkpoint after looting an area and crafting would’ve gone a long way to making Soulstorm a more pleasant experience. Instead, rummaging through a few dumpsters, opening the crafting menu, crafting the necessary tools, then immediately getting set on fire and having to start all over again was something we also experienced far too many times.
While Soulstorm is obviously built on the past, these design choices felt like they belonged in a bygone era. Some might find this all rustically nostalgic, harkening back to a simpler time, yet we found it a difficult hurdle to overcome on a console with smooth, well-paced platformers aplenty.
We like the Oddworld series, and we wish Soulstorm were better. The ingredients are there: the world itself and Abe’s story have a uniquely grimy charm. No section of Soulstorm’s 15-hour adventure feels quite like the last, with enough new enemies and mechanics introduced to keep things both interesting and challenging. Yet at the same time, technical issues mar the experience much like the dirt and rust that covers Oddworld, and small inconveniences add up to make completing the game much more trying than it should be. We hope one day an Oddworld game will be a must-play adventure worthy of the series’ late-'90s prestige, but Soulstorm on Switch hasn’t quite freed Abe and the Mudokons from the fetters of poor performance and archaic design.