The eagerly-awaited second game in the Oddworld Quintology, Xbox launch title Munch's Oddysee had a lot riding on it. Poached by Microsoft to bolster their hard-sold new console, much was expected of this long-awaited adventure; previous acclaimed title Abe's Exoddus promised Munch coming up next, with Squeek's Oddysee to follow – not to mention an indeterminate number of promised "bonus games", of which Exoddus was the first.
Of course, hindsight shows that in a business as malleable as video games, you probably shouldn't make such big promises, and of course, the Oddworld series went off the intended path with games like Stranger's Wrath and a bevvy of cancelled instalments such as Hand of Odd, Sligstorm and The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. Oddworld was something of a sadly forgotten commodity until, in 2010, The Oddboxx brought the entire franchise to Steam.
For the first time, Munch's Oddysee and Stranger's Wrath had escaped the confines of the Xbox. We've already seen the latter on Nintendo Switch in a really rather good port, and now Munch's Oddysee has followed suit with a technically superb version that looks great both handheld and on the dock. Unfortunately, such technical talent doesn't overcome the sad fact that Munch's Oddysee is the worst game in the Oddworld series, and always has been.
That's not to say it's outright terrible or has nothing to offer, but the move to 3D after Abe's Oddysee and Exoddus was an awkward one, with the game's opening area immediately setting off alarm bells as you take control of Abe and run around collecting small green globs called "spooce" and use them to activate mechanisms. It's not hugely different from the tutorial-heavy exhaustion of the opening stages of Abe's Exoddus, but it's a stark reminder that game design was in something of a weird place back in 2001.
You're taught how to navigate the world, utilise the series-defining Gamespeak feature to command fellow Mudokons, and generally pushed to perfect extremely specific actions in a specific order for the entire opening. This creates a fragmented, inorganic feeling that never goes away; it's in keeping with the feel of its predecessors, which took the "cinematic platformer" approach meaning every step was carefully measured, but it doesn't suit the 3D space in the slightest.
As well as Abe, you'll (of course) be able to play as the titular Munch on his quest to save his species, switching between the pair to solve puzzles. Each has their own special skills, but there's not a lot to them – Abe can possess creatures as before and command fellow Mudokons, whereas Munch can swim and order around the slightly nightmarish Tribble-like Fuzzies. Much of the co-operation simply amounts to opening doors for one another and having Abe ferry Munch around the levels. Not exactly mind-expanding, and it all feels very rote.
Play control is shaky and doesn't feel brilliantly thought-out – you use the B button for an enormous number of context-sensitive actions, and you'll find yourself frequently doing the wrong thing. Your positioning is so finicky sometimes you'll need to physically move objects away from other objects, lest the game has no idea what on earth you're trying to do.
Generally, there are too many commands applied to too few buttons, which raises the question of why the Gamespeak system doesn't use a modifier like in the Abe games – such as holding L1 or L2 then pushing a button to select the phrase. In Munch's Oddysee, everything's applied to the face buttons. The Switch has more inputs than an original Xbox controller, so why not make use of them? For the sake of accuracy? This isn't some vintage arcade title, it's a disappointing follow-up to a beloved PlayStation blockbuster. Nobody's going to get upset if things are changed for the better.
The camera has a tendency to act out in small spaces, which – as you'll recall – comprise most of the areas in the game. It's just part and parcel with the awkward feel of the whole thing. We suspect that at the time, Oddworld Inhabitants had a case of eyes bigger than their stomach. We can imagine this dual-character gameplay working on a grander scale, but levels here are short and repetitive, often requiring the same actions to be taken repeatedly with no variation at all.
The claustrophobic feel of the environments could be excused as a product of compromised design on a then-unfamiliar console, but there just isn't enough here that actually works to distract from the flaws. The traditional Oddworld creativity and humour is present in the cutscenes, but you aren't going to pay six times the price of the Steam version just to watch those.
It's a shame, because this is a terrific port from a technical point of view – it runs at a smooth 60 frames per second both handheld and docked, with graphical fidelity much higher than the original Xbox version. We experienced a few brief hitches in the hours we spent with Munch's Oddysee but besides that, it was all smooth sailing. We only wish this effort had been put into every aspect of the presentation, though. The menus are clunky and confusingly laid-out, but so is the game. Most baffling is a seemingly complete lack of subtitles – the characters all have unusual voices that can be tough to make out over the ambient sound, so their omission feels a little egregious.
It really sucks having to rate Munch's Oddysee so low – this version has obviously been made with care, but as the old saying goes you just can't polish a... well... you know. There are a handful of moments where things come together to a limited extent and the Oddworld magic show signs of life, but it's always been the ugly stepchild of the series and the already-on-Switch follow-up was a brilliant return to form – we hope that the existence of Munch's Oddysee on this format is a matter of simply getting it out of the way before a re-release of the much n better Oddworld: New n' Tasty and the upcoming Oddworld: Soulstorm.