Imagine an instance where an indie film is promoted as one of the biggest blockbuster movies of the year. Think about the backlash when the mainstream filmgoing public runs afoul of such elements as untraditional storytelling, plot structure, and dialogue--without being told to expect them. That's what will likely happen with the release of Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee for the Xbox. It's the next in a game series that's certainly not for everyone, though it's been heavily positioned as such as of late.
Quick history lesson: First planned for the PlayStation 2, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is the third game in the Oddworld series, but officially the second game in the Oddworld quintology. The first two games appeared on the PlayStation and featured a relatively new game construction of button-activated voice controls--making communication a major part of the game--and a clumsy quasi-reptilian janitor named Abe as their lead character. After happening upon a board meeting where the planet's glukkon overlords were discussing using his race as their new taste sensation, Abe took it upon himself to free his fellow mudokons and shut down the meat-processing factory where they worked and were imprisoned. Later, he went back into glukkon territory to shut down a factory that was making a tasty, addicting drink called Soulstorm Brew out of the bones of his ancestors.
It's heady stuff, and it's not exactly subtle in its attempt to satirize big business and consumer culture (probably to the degree that a Japanese monster movie is social commentary on nuclear weapons and environmental destruction). Things are even more overt in Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, in which you play as a creature named Munch, who's the last breathing member of his race, the gabbits, due to the glukkons' predilection for gabbit caviar. It's up to you to hunt down the last can of caviar, which is going up for auction soon at an exclusive glukkon event.
If Abe seemed an unlikely choice for a hero in the first two Oddworld games, he comes off like Captain America next to Munch. Munch is a huge-headed, small-bodied creature whose single flipper propels him along awkwardly on land (he's provided with a wheelchair to move faster at key points in the game), and he speaks much like how you'd imagine that Abe might after a serious stroke. It's hard not to think of Woody Harrelson's performance in the film The People vs. Larry Flint when playing Munch's Oddysee.
The gameplay in the first two Oddworld games focused heavily on puzzle solving through communication, mind control, and platform jumping, and it's more of the same in Munch's. Those who enjoyed the two previous games will be glad to know that Abe makes a return appearance in this game. In fact, it's probably as much Abe's "oddysee" as it is Munch's, as you flip back and forth between the two characters to solve different puzzles. Abe is very good at working out puzzles that involve running, jumping, and climbing, and Munch is excellent at getting around in the water and can shock enemies with a device that glukkon scientists implanted in his head. Likewise, Abe is able to talk his mudokon brethren into helping him operate complex machinery and, if they're warrior class, attack the slig guards. Similarly, Munch can get the fuzzles--small, furry animals like tribbles from the original Star Trek series, but with teeth--to help fight guards as well.
Many times, the puzzles in a given level will require you to flip between the two main characters several times. (The fuzzles won't listen to Abe because they're afraid of him, while the mudokons think that Munch is funny and don't take him seriously.) For example, you might have Abe mind control a guard using a chant in order to grant Munch access to an area where he can free the fuzzles and have them attack the other guards so that the path is then clear for Abe to get the mudokons to a spot where Munch can pick them up with a crane and drop them to safety.
The difficulty level in Munch's Oddysee is more forgiving than in earlier Oddworld games. You always respawn near where you expired, you can save anywhere, and you can often resurrect some of your followers if they die accidentally by turning in special fruits that you've collected at certain key spots. (These fruits can be used to open chutes and upgrade standard mudokons into warrior mudokons, as well.) This provides you with more freedom to experiment with possible solutions to the puzzles. As before, your many abilities are introduced gradually and well. And, new to the series, the game's analog control is very precise, offering varying degrees of movement. By and large, the gameplay in Munch's Oddysee is very fun, and those who enjoyed Sony's ICO should find plenty to like here, but the game isn't without its share of drawbacks.
The main difference between Munch's Oddysee and the previous two Oddworld games is that this is the first in the series to feature a fully three-dimensional world. The positive side to that is that the game's environments are obviously brought to life much better in 3D and you're able to explore its wide open spaces, but the downside is that at times it's hard to tell where to go next. In the first two games, you were confined to relatively small sections in which it often became quickly obvious what tasks you needed to complete in order to move forward, even if those tasks weren't necessarily easy to complete. Here, the puzzles aren't quite so "clean." As in previous Oddworld games, solving many of the puzzles is contingent upon having solved the preceding puzzles, but puzzles that will have to be solved much later also appear in the environments, even if you are not ready for them yet. To the game's credit, those areas are blocked off in an attempt to keep from confusing you, but you'll still end up wasting time trying to figure out if you can access them or not. The solutions to the puzzles are often less straightforward than before, too. Instead of a lightbulb going off in your head when you suddenly realize what you need to do (as would happen in the first two games), sometimes you'll have to fumble around the environments until it eventually becomes clear.
The puzzles in Munch's Oddysee are also much more repetitive than in previous games in the series, where they were more varied. Some sections--such as the Paramite Run, in which Abe must drink the Oddworld equivalent of espresso and carry Munch to the other side of a course filled with mines and hungry paramites (which are part crab, part horse, and all bad)--are very entertaining, take full advantage of the series' shiny new 3D world, and are nothing like the level that preceded them. But they're the exception, not the rule. In many levels, you feel like you're doing the same thing as in the last, especially toward the end, in which the game falls off significantly. (The sections where you must use a crane to pick up and drop more than a dozen egg crates is especially monotonous.)
One graphical aspect of Munch's Oddysee that detracts somewhat from its gameplay is the game's 3D camera, which follows behind you after a short lag. It's hard to understand why the camera wasn't set behind you as in Rare's Banjo-Kazooie series or Crystal Dynamics' Soul Reaver line. Certainly, it's not fun or efficient to have to line up the camera in order to make a jump. There are also times when the shifting camera will cause you to accidentally steer the fast-swimming Munch into an object like a floating mine. The instances where the camera is a problem aren't great in number, but they're frequent enough to be an issue requiring more work to play around than it should.
Camera quirks aside, Munch's Oddysee is a fantastic-looking game--easily one of the prettiest games of the Xbox launch. It's full of sharp textures, numerous different pulsating light sources, and stunning water effects. As always, the game's CG sequences are some of the best we've seen, and this time the game's in-game graphics have almost caught up with those cinematic sequences that awed us in the past. From top to bottom, the developer's high production values shine through in the game's graphics.
The soundtrack is similarly strong, but the music tracks loop too much during combat and can drive you crazy during a particularly tough section of the game. Even a great song can begin to grate on you if you hear it long enough. And sadly, communication isn't as key to the gameplay as before. Granted, it started to get rather complex in Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, but the way that it's been simplified here makes it feel rather dumbed down.
Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is a very smart game with great puzzles, yet there's not enough variety in those puzzles to keep it completely entertaining throughout. It's a good game in a series of excellent games that will likely be criticized more than it deserves to be due to its prominence as an Xbox launch title. Like the games that preceded it in the Oddworld series, it's much more of an art-house pick than a holiday season blockbuster. Only this time, it fell prey to not only the hype of being the next in the impressive series, but also to being a launch title for the coming Xbox. Regardless of its hype, Munch's Oddysee is a strong, imaginative game, although one that's held back by a few key factors.