Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee

   Interest in gaming's old, 2D formulae had dipped to something of a record low in the fall of 1997, as even the historically graphics-deficient RPG genre abandoned the sprites of yore in favor of splashier polygonal models in more versatile 3D environments. Nevertheless, it was a good time for PlayStation gamers nostalgic for the sidescrolling action of adventure titles past. Not only did Konami serve up magnum opus Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but GT Interactive released a daring new game from a daring new American developer: Oddworld Inhabitants' Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee.

Something tells me they're not discussing the new 401K....
   The first installment of an ambitiously proposed quintology, this initial effort is the story of Abe, humble slave of Rupture Farms -- a meat factory with a penchant for turning Oddworld's indigenous creatures into pies and small cakes. Working late one night Abe blunders across a boardroom plan to add his race -- the Mudokons -- to the menu, and embarks on a quest to lead his people to safety and ultimately topple the processing plant before it runs all of Oddworld's edible species into extinction.

   In order to do pull it off, Abe needs to get in touch with his shamanic side, liberating his people's temples and learning the ways of the sacred animals -- savage Scrabs and timid-but-pernicious Paramites -- still nesting within, while delivering any stray Mudokons from the clutches of Rupture Farms.

   Oddysee's gameplay can be partially characterized as classic 2D action fare, but Oddworld Inhabitants has stripped away menus, life meters, and extra lives. Basic control is reminiscent of Out of This World (albeit more precise), but Abe never acquires so much as a pointy stick to help him fight off Rupture Farms' horde of Sligs and Slogs. So how, then, does this skinny blue guy with no weapons resist an army of slugs with hydraulic pants, fully automatic weapons, and slavering vicious slug-dogs at heel?

   He talks, and he chants.

   A large part of what's made the Oddworld series so unique is its emphasis on communication. Not only can Abe run, jump, climb, creep and duck like every other platform star and his mother; he can communicate with the game's other inhabitants with his limited lexicon of "gamespeak." Abe can greet, whistle, fart, give direction and express anger with a snarl or amusement with a laugh. His fellow Mudokons must be hailed with a "Hello," instructed to follow (or wait, as the case may be) and led to freedom via portals Abe opens with his shamanic chant.

OSHA's gonna have a field day
   Abe's spiritual powers also allow him to possess enemy Sligs, giving him not only some welcome firepower, but the ability to traverse dangerous pathways incognito. Additionally, possession facilitates Abe's use of the Slig's own gamespeak, allowing the player to converse with other Sligs, command the vaguely canine Slogs, and open voice-triggered locks.

   As such, Oddysee may sound like a nightmare of cumbersome and overly complex control, but surprisingly this never becomes the case. Abe's diverse repertoire of actions and phrases are remarkably intuitive, and negotiating the basic obstacles of Oddworld rapidly becomes second nature.

   Instead, challenge is left up to the game's gauntlet of puzzles and tests of skill. Levers, force-fields, "flintlocks," motion detectors, trapdoors, hand grenades, anti-chant machinery and possessable bells are in no short supply, and as if combinations of these and other assorted obstacles aren't impediment enough, it's frequently necessary to navigate them at a pulse-pounding run, a snarling Slog or two hot on your heels.

   Such moments of tension are emphasized by Oddysee's successful employment of incidental music and ambient sound. Silence broken only by Abe's echoing footfalls is shattered by thundering percussion when a Scrab gives chase or a group of Paramites drops from the ceiling, and possession of a Slig is accompanied by an industrial drum riff that effectively imparts a sense of badass.

   Miraculously, even Oddysee's voice-acting is a treat. Each character's speech is uniquely amusing, despite the game's voices all being supplied by a single individual, and the repetitious gamespeak never becomes overly grating -- something of a feat, considering the number of times the player is bound to listen to Abe say "Hello."

The Union's going to hear about this.
   Voice acting isn't limited to gamespeak, though; the game's offbeat, anti-corporate story is largely narrated through top-notch FMV sequences that seamlessly mesh with the in-game action. For all its bizarre diversity, visually, Oddworld is a breathtakingly cohesive realm. Twisted but endearing character designs have been faithfully captured with detailed, fluidly animated sprites, and transitional FMV illustrates movement between lush pre-rendered environments.

   Finding and rescuing all 99 Mudokons is somewhat difficult, and without the aid of a strategy guide few players will find them all their first time through. Getting the game's better ending is dependent on saving most of them, though, lending the game additional replay value if you missed a few too many in your hurry to master Abe's powers and take down Rupture Farms.

   Despite more good points than can conceivably be crammed into this review, Oddysee isn't without its faults. Fledgling developer Oddworld Inhabitants didn't quite iron all the bugs out of this one, and glitchy happenings such as Abe's trusty steed Elum vanishing into a mysterious void between screens or a Scrab sauntering through a stone wall to impale you when you least expect it are fairly commonplace. Also, when one mistake can result in having to start several screens and several difficult puzzles back, Abe's ability to lead only one Mudoken at a time can be monstrously frustrating when a pocket of three or more little guys must be escorted individually through one of the game's more challenging minefields.

   Still and all, these flaws amount to a minor nick in the paint for a game that nailed pure, innovative adventure four years before the advent of ICO and has lost none of its charm over time. With its dark humor, memorable characters, and perfect balance of puzzles and twitch gameplay, Abe's Oddysee comes highly recommended to fans of Oddworld's later installments who may have missed the series' genesis -- or for anyone looking for an intelligent dose of 2D nostalgia.

Retrospective by Erin Mehlos, GIA.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee
Developer Oddworld Inhabitants
Publisher GT Interactive
Genre Adventure
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Released  09.19.97
81 screenshots
Box art