Oddworld: Soulstorm Review – A Step In The Wrong Direction
Oddworld: Soulstorm is a bit of a disappointment. I grew up with the franchise, so learning that this new entry would delve deeper into the fiendish politics and diabolical nature of Oddworld was incredibly exciting to hear, yet it sadly falls short. Daring narrative exploration is hamstrung by an inconsistent tone and evolution of its gameplay formula that never reaches its full potential.
This breaks my heart, since I love so much about Soulstorm. My admiration is unfortunately marred by issues so frequent that I can’t help but walk away with a frown. Despite this, the foundations set forward by Soulstorm for the future of Oddworld are exciting, displaying a level of thematic maturity and mechanical complexity the series hasn’t seen before. It’s just a shame that the execution is fumbled, like Abe rolling over a mine and blowing himself to pieces.
Oddworld: Soulstorm is intended as a retelling of Abe’s Exoddus, building upon Abe’s original story as he escapes the ruins of Rupture Farms and celebrates the liberation of the Mudokon people. Consider this and New ‘N’ Tasty as part of a separate timeline which expands upon the classic narrative with increased nuance and depth. It’s Oddworld’s take on the Rebuild of Evangelion, offering a clean slate for its creator to take the series wherever it pleases.
For the most part, that story is solid, it’s just told in a way that’s increasingly fractured. The opening cutscene teases a more complicated journey for Abe to embark upon, establishing an aura of mystique that is torn out from beneath us when our hero’s home is invaded and he’s forced to flee. From here, it’s several hours until the narrative is brought up again, with levels proving too long to cement a pace to make the unfolding mystery matter.
The tone is also wildly inconsistent. Ahead of release there was so much talk about this being a darker and more serious take on the universe, and it achieves that, but it’s undermined by juvenile humour that the series can’t escape from. You can’t fart on command anymore, but dialogue is still somewhat infantile, and influencers delivering lines with the enthusiasm of a rock doesn’t help matters.
Evil corporations are still evil, but we’re introduced to the entities above them that are truly calling the shots. Glukkons aren’t the big baddies anymore, they are simply pawns in a wider game of chess where the pieces are being moved far from their control. It’s a purposefully political examination of labour practices and corporate greed which I can appreciate, but it’s woefully two-dimensional and plays with controversial topics in a less than delicate manner.
Abe will crack wise about slavery and torture when messing with speech commands in a way that feels grossly tone deaf, even if the game deals with such subject matter so directly. Don’t make light of it for jokes, confront how disgusting such circumstances are and confront them.
But the world has heart, and that often shines above the rest of its inconsistencies. When you’re saving Mudokons, solving puzzles, and taking in the grandiose nature of each level,it’s a setting that feels genuinely lived in. It also expands upon the social puzzling and platforming of its predecessors to form a mixture of jumping, crafting, and enemy manipulation that is ultimately inconsistent.
Abe is much faster than ever before, capable of double-jumping and swinging across platforms in a way that wasn’t possible in older games. This leads to an increased reliance on platforming, but the controls aren’t nearly precise enough for these sections to feel satisfying. I repeated some moments dozens of times not because they were difficult, but because the level design was needlessly obtuse. Frustrating moments like this are all too common in Soulstorm.
Having to balance finicky instances like this with relentless enemies and obstacles is seldom a good time, with Soulstorm being at its worst when all of its new ideas collide into a single obnoxious singularity. Abe can also craft now, piecing together smoke bombs and explosive projectiles from garbage found in lockers and bins. It’s another system that feels half-baked, and I often found most situations approachable without touching the mechanic at all. It’s better and far less annoying to just possess a machine gun wielding enemy and blast his comrades to pieces.
Gamespeak also returns, a method of communicating with NPCs as you encourage them to stay, follow, work, and do whatever is asked of them. However, it feels trimmed down in Soulstorm, no longer acting as the essential foundation to puzzle solutions. You can also pass on items to fellow Mudokons to be used in combat scenarios, but the act of doing so is painfully arduous so I never bothered. I’d instead ask my brainless followers to wait outside of dangerous areas until I’d rid the place of threats before calling them back in like a horde of unruly green children.
Many of Soulstorm’s levels are designed around specific ideas. One has you holding off Sligs as hordes of Mudokons try to escape, while another has you infiltrating ancient ruins while fending off bloodthirsty slugs with a torch. There’s so much variety here, but its new systems never really gel with what you’re doing at any given moment. Ironically, the experience would be much more enjoyable if it used the classic formula established by its predecessors.
The Necrum Mines is one stage that stands out. It focuses on rerouting power across a sprawling facility, knowingly switching on immobile obstacles passed by earlier in the level that I would soon need to contend with. During all of this, fellow Mudokons are at my back waiting to stumble upon a bird portal to escape. A maximum of three things are being juggled at once, which is perfect for Oddworld. Each problem has a clear and concise solution, instead of leaving things up to a half-baked crafting system. Oh, I should probably point out that most levels are disgustingly long, outstaying their welcome well before the end.
This barbarous length is softened with a real sense of scale across each landscape. Soulstorm is no longer a two-dimensional affair. Environments grow, shrink and wind into different directions depending on your current perspective, leading to genuinely inventive spaces to explore. Each new level feels positively massive, with the camera often zooming out to showcase how miniscule Abe appears in the grand scheme of things. Locales stretch on for miles, emphasising the scope of his journey and the insurmountable tasks that lay ahead. I can’t fault Soulstorm for its art direction – it’s frequently stunning and otherworldly in a way that allures at every turn. It doesn’t push the PS5 to its limits by any means, but that hardly matters.
When levels descend into lifeless industrial complexes filled with boring tower defense battles and fires to be extinguished I just switched off, wishing for an older version of Oddworld that Soulstorm clearly wasn’t interested in delivering. It’s ironic that the game’s ambitious vision for the future is what ties it forever to the past. The moment-to-moment action is similar enough to the classic originals that every wrong step forward feels like a calamitous fumble, or a needless evolution that isn’t refined enough to gel with everything else. With a bigger budget and more time, this could have been something special.
The narrative goes to some fascinating places and expands on the mythos like I never imagined it would, and I hope it’s explored further in games to come, but the gameplay loop in Soulstorm just isn’t for me. It’s too janky, unbalanced, and pales in comparison to what came before it. Oddworld Inhabitants has thrown so much at the wall and only some of it sticks, with much of it crudely sinking to the floor and wailing in dissatisfaction.
Oddworld: Soulstorm is clearly a labour of love, and I can see that in everything it does. The ambition that bleeds into its story, characters, and gameplay are all evident, but the execution is just sorely lacking everywhere it matters. Perhaps my perspective on past games is warped by nostalgia, but this isn’t the road I imagined Abe and company going down. It’s in the right direction, but they’ve veered off course and landed themselves in a ditch.
Oddworld: Soulstorm is available now for PS4, PS5, and PC.
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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously head of gaming content over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.
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