Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee – PC
Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants/Digital Dialect
Publisher: GT Interactive
Release Date (NA): September 9th, 1997
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
During my years of childhood gaming, during the days of the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation, the gaming world felt like a sort of lawless wasteland. The market was simply flooded with games–both good and bad–that were ripe for exploration by my young mind. In those games I found portals to other worlds that excited my imagination and curiosity, offering experiences that elicited the entire palette of human emotions. Some games, however, I wasn’t quite ready for. Hiding among the rubble of that lawless wasteland were games like Twisted Metal and Mortal Kombat (special mention to the ‘exorcist‘ cheat in Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX) that my young mind couldn’t yet internalize due to their graphic content and mature themes, yet my parents purchased them for me all the same, unknowing of the mental anguish and torture their child would go through. Just about every gamer has a game in their past that they know deep down they weren’t quite ready for. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee was that game for me, and boy, did it change me for good.
Abe’s Oddysee is a cinematic puzzle/platformer game released during the late 90s, marking the first iteration of the Oddworld project, which would go on to include Abe’s Exoddus, Stranger’s Wrath, and Munch’s Oddysee. Taking control of an alien mudokon slave named Abe, the player navigates the gritty, 2-dimensional space of Oddworld in their attempt to escape enslavement and free as many of their fellow mudokons as they can in the process. Oddworld is rife with vicious creatures and environmental hazards that would love nothing more than to rip helpless Abe to shreds at a moment’s notice, meaning that precision, speed, and cunning are required in order to survive.
During the first few minutes of gameplay, Abe begins his journey in the depths of Rupture Farms, the meat processing factory where he works. He is being hunted down, in fear for his life because (spoiler alert) he has accidentally found out about the factory’s plans to process and serve up the mudokon slaves as the newest confection. The spaces are cramped, dingy, and depressing, and Abe’s outlook is no better. Every space is set up as a single, isolated section with its own layout and unique challenge, with each space or ‘screen’ operating relatively independently of the others. Enemies, friendly mudokons, and deadly traps populate every space in new and creative ways that can only be bested in a small handful of ways, teaching the player new tricks and ways of thinking along the way.
The gameplay, itself is extremely challenging. This is accomplished in large part by the precision of the movement mechanics; the slightest misstep can lead to the most gruesome death. Abe is an extremely vulnerable protagonist, since about 90% of the things he encounters will kill him with a single blow.
He’s not entirely helpless, of course; through telekinetic abilities, he can take control of certain enemies, leading them to their deaths or using their weapons to wreak havoc on others. Abe is extremely vulnerable while doing this, meaning the ability should be used sparingly, and the developers even wove in a few puzzles where the challenge is to figure out how to safely mind control an enemy without getting killed in the process. This is an extremely fun ability, and perhaps one of the most unique things about Abe’s Oddysee.
New gameplay elements and items are introduced slowly over time, taking full advantage of the existing puzzle mechanics along the way, making the game feel really fleshed out. Each puzzle is structured in a way so that the player is constantly learning new rules and strategies in a non-linguistic manner, with each concurrent challenge only slightly out of their immediate reach. In all honesty, this should be standard procedure at this point for any game, but not that many adhere to it, even to this day. It’s refreshing to see a game as old as Abe’s Oddysee carrying the torch for good game design.
One of the interesting things about Abe’s Oddysee is the way that it builds its atmosphere through game mechanics. For instance, not every situation that Abe runs into is immediately violent, and the violence that does exist makes sense in context. For example, in the Rupture Farms section of the game, the guard enemies, known as sligs, will patrol, snooze, or just stand around, showing no hints of violence or hostility toward the other mudokons. This makes sense, since in the game world their primary goal is to stand guard and the only mudokon they’re supposed to be hostile toward is Abe. However, they will shoot at Abe without questions when they see him, and it’s extremely easy to get your fellow mudokons caught in the crossfire. Their deaths don’t really matter to the sligs, as long as Abe gets killed in the process. This very economic, detached attitude toward the importance of life is extremely fitting for Abe’s Oddysee, reinforcing the themes put forth during the establishing cutscenes and existing atmosphere, which portray Oddworld as a place overrun by the evils of unchecked industrialization.
Other enemies, such as the bestial paramites, will only attack Abe if he turns his back to them or if they’re large in numbers. Even the sligs shout a distorted “freeze!” when they see Abe, giving a split second’s time to get out of the way before they begin firing off their machine guns. This sort of dynamic adds a very cautious quality to the game, rewarding players who can plan well ahead of time while not totally punishing those who make the occasional mistake.
Of course, the player will get punished, a lot. Mistakes are extremely commonplace in Abe’s Oddysee, since the game relies heavily on those split second decisions and pinpoint accuracy in order to do well. This is reinforced through the game’s precise mechanics, which gives Abe more than a couple ways to move around; he can walk, tip-toe, roll, hop, and execute running leaps, each of them landing Abe in a very specific spot on the map according to an invisible grid. This is extremely reminiscent of the very first Prince of Persia game. I would even be inclined to say that the mechanics were directly inspired by the precision of Prince of Persia, there being an almost 1:1 ratio in terms of the way the games feel compared to each other. It is an extremely well-crafted system that integrates excellently with the other gameplay and puzzle elements, and with enough time the player can learn and internalize it, crafting one of the most genuine gaming experiences I’ve had to date.
So, we’ve established that Abe’s Oddysee is a difficult game, and it’s the good kind of difficult. However, sometimes this difficulty is crafted through more artificial or unforgiving ways. The greatest offender by far is the bizarre saving and checkpoints system. Saving only ever occurs when Abe passes certain checkpoints, and they are sometimes extremely far apart. This means that any mistake that results in death causes the player to have to redo entire sections, which can be extremely frustrating with how precise and unforgiving the controls are. I’m not necessarily suggesting that a quick save feature be implemented, but perhaps if the checkpoints were a little closer together or more thoughtfully placed they wouldn’t be as annoying as they are. As awful as it can be, there is something to be said about how masterful you become after repeating a specific section over and over, to the point where you can execute the appropriate actions through sheer muscle memory.
As any good game should, Abe’s Oddysee sports a pretty decent amount of side content, in the form of hidden puzzles just off the beaten path of the game world. These puzzles offer Abe the chance to rescue a few extra mudokons, while really ramping up the difficulty. These are the perfect spaces to do something like this, since it doesn’t punish players who aren’t interested, while offering an extra challenge to the more hardcore players. Since they’re hidden, however, the average player will probably only run into a small number of them during their first playthrough. I really enjoyed the ones that I found, and kind of wish they were a little bit more obvious so that I could experience more of them.Being a cinematic platformer, the art and sound design are almost impeccable. Each enemy has a distinct profile and set of animations, complete with their own sinister and distinguishable noises to cue the player into what might be going on in the next frame. Contrasting with all this is the goofy and happy-go-lucky voice acting for Abe, which injects a little bit of joy into the otherwise bleak world. The levels are well-designed and fleshed out, making it easy to determine what will kill Abe and what will not. The background to each frame features awesome pre-rendered paintings that depict the gloomy and gritty landscapes of Oddworld. This means that no two frames look alike, making the in-game world feel that much more like a real place.
Abe’s Oddysee is a highly challenging cinematic puzzle/platformer with severely dark overtones, but it never takes itself too seriously. The world and ambiance are expertly crafted and the puzzles are well-designed, the perfect companions to the extremely tight and precise movement mechanics that reward players who take the time to become a little more practiced at it. Riding on the heels of awesome games like Prince of Persia and Another World, Abe’s Oddysee succeeds in crafting a world that fully envelopes the player in ways not many games can accomplish, at the same time not afraid to punish the hell out of them, knowing full well they will come back for more time and again. The game is not without its issues, such as a brutal saving system and the occasional esoteric puzzle, but at the end of the day it is a masterful creation. While a little too mature for my child self, I’m glad I can look back on it now for the wonder that it is.
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