Oddword – Abe’s Oddysee (PS1 game, GT Interactive, 1997)
I have always had a soft spot for the odd and quirky, while at the same time being a big fan of platform games. On the face of it then, this was right up my street, a somewhat left-field puzzle-platform game released for the PS1 by GT Interactive in 1997, with quirkiness and cleverness by the bucket load!
You play as ‘Abe’ a Mudokon enslaved to work at the ‘Rupture Farms’ meat processing factory. Upon finding out that the meat being processed is that of your slaughtered fellow Mudokons and it is only a matter of time before you are to become pie filling with them, you set upon a mission to escape from the factory, taking as many of your co-workers as possible with you.
The gameplay is platform based, but with a significant dollop of strategy and puzzling built in. You have to make your way from one side of a static screen to the other, periodically reaching save points. You can walk, run, crouch, roll and jump, and can creep and hide in shadowy areas. You can also climb or jump down and climb back up to reach the different vertical levels within a screen (these can often be cunningly hidden behind objects in the foreground). You have to avoid a multitude of enemy guards, with the different types behaving in different ways. You can talk to your co-workers using button combinations, saying hello and asking them either to activate a switch, wait, or follow you. You can also call out to the guards, but as soon as they become of your presence they will normally set off after you and will often fire without hesitation.
Your co-workers can be released by leading them to an escape screen and then ‘chanting’ at bird portals which are scattered throughout the levels. Your co-workers will then automatically run through the portals to safety as you chant. An added dimension to the strategy needed to progress is that your chanting can also see you taking control of some guards, using them to reach inaccessible areas or kill other guards to make your route through the level possible. When possessing a guard you can then talk to the other guards and instruct them with a new set of commands available to use. As you progress you can pick up and throw items such as rocks, meat or grenades to either divert or dispatch the enemy guards. There are lifts to operate, bombs to detonate and alien creatures to ride. In fact the gameplay options are many and varied.
The first thing that strikes you is that the game looks absolutely fantastic. It is beautifully drawn with some lovely animation, fantastic presentation and the dark atmosphere that is generated is spot on. There are also some excellent cut scenes between levels that flesh out the story. The sound is fairly minimalist but what there is works perfectly and adds to the foreboding mood that is always present.
The gameplay is the area that may divide players. There is no getting around it, this is one tough game. Progressing isn’t too hard, but progressing and saving sufficient numbers of co-workers becomes hugely tricky. There is always a delay between you asking them to follow you and their setting off, which, when you have to make precisely timed movements (for example through one of the many meat guillotines that have to be negotiated), can make life very difficult indeed. There are also a myriad of hidden areas which you can easily overlook. When I watched a YouTube play-through I realised that having played this game for many years, even on the very first level I was missing significant areas and therefore failing to rescue large numbers of Mudokons. And this matters, as your ending, i.e. whether you ultimtely live or die (assuming you make it to the end of what is both a very long and exceptionally tough game) depends completely on your sucess in rescuing sufficient numbers of your co-workers.
The game also suffers from some screens being a matter of trial and error. You get so far and die. Start the screen again. Get a bit further and die. And so on. The distance between the save points coupled with the (at times) brutal difficulty level means that you often have to replay screens over and over again before progressing. The game is so delightful, for the most part you don’t mind, but players that are easily frustrated or have with low boredom thresholds may be better to give this a miss.
If on the other hand you like a challenge and are looking for something a little different that will tax the old grey matter, then this is a wonderful game. It is beautiful (in its own way), utterly charming and totally bewitching. It is also tremendously clever. Having to work out the correct method to clear a screen and then execute that perfectly is enormously satisfying. There are slicker platform games available for the PS1. There are better looking ones too. But I am not sure that there are any that are quite this clever or quirky. And that is easily enough to put it firmly in the ‘highly recommended’ category from me.