Game Description: The power-packing Xbox hardware delivers the third Oddworld title in one of the most brilliantly realized settings to grace any gaming system. Blending unique gameplay, humorous characters and interactions, and the aforementioned graphics, Munch's Oddysee simply feels unlike any other game in the 2001 console gaming lineup. Players control two characters in the game: Munch, a wheelchair-bound hero, and Abe, a character some gamers will recognize from previous Oddworld games. Their goal is to find and free the Mudokon queen, keeper of the remaining eggs of an endangered species.
"Innovative" is probably the most overused word in video gaming right now. Its understandable—after all, the medium is still relatively young—that new advances are happening all the time, but the term is used far too often in proportion to the innovation actually happening in the industry. Most games stick to the basic shooter/racer/sports foundation and make minor tweaks from there. Even significant innovation doesn't mean much unless it makes a positive impact. It would be undeniably innovative if I wrote this entire critique from right to left in a mix of Morse code and Pig-latin, but I doubt many would appreciate my thinking outside the box. Innovation is not the end-all and be-all that turns dirt into gold. A great example of this is Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, a game that combines its own original, undercooked ideas with redundant elements culled from many different genres to form an innovative, uneven, tedious mess.
At first glance, Munch's Oddysee shows flashes of greatness, featuring a stunning storyline that makes up for the gameplay deficiencies. Munch is the last living member of his species thanks to industrial exploitation, and the only hope for Munch is to retrieve the last can of eggs on the market and raise the babies inside to revive his race. The game explains this with a batch of brilliant cinematic cut-scenes—you'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel a strange bond with Munch as he describes his lonely existence and sets off on a quest to save his strange aquatic species with his Mudokon friend Abe, enlisting help from other creatures of Oddworld along the way. The first moments with the adorable Fuzzles, clumps of fur with eyes and a mean bite, hearing their delighted squeals at being freed from a cage, are simply magical, in a way that all games should be and so few are.
The unusual idea of moving two characters through the same level, while manually switching between them, is pulled off without a hitch. Abe being a humanoid-type creature and Munch, a one-legged fish, each have strikingly different abilities. Abe can give orders to Mudokons, possess the minds of enemies, move faster, and jump higher than Munch. Munch can communicate with Fuzzles, operate machinery, and move through water, though he is slow on solid ground. Both characters use sodas from scattered vending machines as power-ups to get past specific obstacles, like Expresso to give a speed burst and Bounce to jump higher. And each character bosses around its gathered critters with a simple set of button commands. This all controls very simply, with a single button used for context-sensitive action. Using this can get frustrating when two different actions are present at one time, and jumping is jerky and inaccurate, but its tolerable. When one of your characters dies, you can revive them at specific points in the level, and combined with Munch's Oddysee save-anywhere option, these keep the game from becoming too frustrating.
For the first couple of hours these fresh elements jelled to form a solid experience. It required few reflexes and little brainpower, played a bit slow, and felt vaguely shallow, but the wondrous plot helped fill in the holes, and I expected the game to curve upwards in difficulty and introduce new elements as it moved along. Its a shame that never happened. Not only does Munch's Oddysee play all of its cards early on, its not even playing with a full deck. Everything is unusually simplified and one-dimensional, yet repeated ad nauseam. It feels like Oddworld Inhabitants had some great preliminary ideas and not enough time or imagination to follow through on their promise. A great example of this is Munch's ability to hijack machines. I could think of dozens of contraptions for Munch to take control of, but the game only introduces a couple throughout the entire game, none of them inspiring or complex. The vast majority of the time, you'll be using a crane to drop bombs on enemies and rescue Mudokons. This isn't too bad at first, but when you're lifting five Mudokons one by one to safety for the umpteenth time, it gets very tiring.
Similarly poor executions of other great ideas plague the rest of the game. Objectives like herding sheep, carrying Mudokons to safety through a minefield, and possessing the minds of enemies become tiresome and tedious while being drilled into your head with dozens of repetitions on end. The combat that makes up much of the game isn't much better. Winning battles with your herds of allies is as easy as a press of the "Attack" button, and due to Abe and Munch's weak combat abilities, its a spectator sport if there ever was one. When Munch uses a vending machine or possesses a robot for extra combat power, mashing on the attack button is all you need to do to take out nearby enemies. And when you need to use Abe's mind-control ability to clear out the opposition, too often you'll have to repeat it over and over to finish the job.
This repetitive method of play is only compounded by the dull, drab world painted around it. I cant think of another platformer in recent memory that used such uninspiring colors and patterns. The textures are at times blurry and blotchy, but even when the environments are technically solid, they still feel tired and lifeless. Perhaps that was the point, to drive home how hopeless a place Oddworld really is, but combined with the rote work that often passes for gameplay, they only make Munch's Oddysee feel even more slow and laborious.
Even with these significant flaws in how Munch's Oddysee plays, the biggest crime of all is how the game squanders its incredible storyline and character designs. The scene-stealing Fuzzles suddenly disappear from the game a few hours in, and when this happens, the game introduces a confusing plot device and drops all pretenses of developing the characters. There is never a consistent idea of where you are going, thanks in part to that plot device, and no dialogue to speak of outside of the handful of cut-scenes. While this would have been acceptable if the game itself was not so lacking, Munch's Oddysee desperately needs more plot to keep players caring about the characters and the final outcome. Instead, it dashes out of the starting gates only to slowly crawl across the finish line, hampered by repetitive play and an overall mood that captures all the vivid excitement of Ben Stein. Next time around, Munch's Oddysee could use a lot more Odd and a lot less Oddysee.
Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee began as Oddworld designer Lorne Lanning's great Xbox prodigy. The prospect of evolving the series into full-blown 3D was certainly enticing, and Lanning's cheerful enthusiasm and unwavering support for the Xbox console convinced us all that Munch's Oddysee would be even more ambitious than its predecessors. Similar to NFL Fever 2002, Project Gotham Racing, Dead Or Alive 3, and the forthcoming Jet Set Radio Future, Munch's Oddysee was an opportunity to bring an acclaimed but undersold franchise into the limelight as a premier showcase for the Xbox. In light of such potential and high expectations, it's unfortunate that Munch's Oddysee ultimately falls short of its aspirations. What could have been a game that enveloped gamers into a socially conscious tale of slavery, genocide, and tyranny is merely a typical action-platformer with some enchanting cut scenes thrown in for atmosphere.
What I found most disappointing about Munch's Oddysee was not the structure of the puzzles or the linear progression of the gameplay. On the contrary, I was impressed with the creativity put into the puzzles. The gameplay centers around teamwork between Munch and Abe, and Lanning did a superlative job with this unique feature. Additionally, I rarely found the game to be repetitive. I surmise that my patience with the game may have resulted from shortened playing sessions (usually lasting for an hour or so at most) instead of my usual epic indulgence. However, while many concepts are repeated, I found the puzzles challenging and interesting enough to remain engaging. I always took my time while playing, surveying my surroundings and tossing ideas around before settling on a course of action. As a result, I didn't find the game to be a jumbled mess of trial and error, but a well-thought-out platformer that rewards brainpower over quick thumbs.
What disappoints me about Munch's Oddysee is that it is just that—a good platformer. The story, told via some of the most gorgeous full-motion video I've laid eyes on, is a gripping tale of a rag-tag band of heroes starting an insurrection against a tyrannical race of creatures in a desperate bid to save oppressed specie from lives of slavery and inevitably gruesome deaths. It's exactly the kind of mature, thoughtful tale that is sorely lacking in modern gaming. If games are ever to be viewed as a creative medium equal to that of film or literature, it is vital that the shackles of convention be broken to allow such stirring concepts to evolve the art. Munch's Oddysee, with its dark humor and appealing characters, could have stood as a testament to this potential. Instead, it only reminds us how far gamers are from their own "Invisible Man" or "Schindler's List." What starts as an opportunity to captivate us ends merely entertaining.
Why does Munch's Oddysee fail? It is simply because there is little to bind the gameplay with the plot. Players will progress from one brain-bending puzzle to the next, leading Mudoken, Fuzzles, or what have you from a starting point to a clearly marked finish, at which time a brief cut-scene may elaborate on the details of the story. The result is that the gameplay feels very disjointed. Players may be amused by Munch, Abe, and their cohorts, but any deeper empathy is unlikely. Further, the cleverly dark humor never sees its potential. The characters are all very interesting and full of humorous personalities, but there is little during the interactive portions of the game to evolve it beyond whimsical one-liners and unfunny scatological gags.
I really had high hopes for Munch's Oddysee, as I feel that the Oddworld series is one of the most unique and beautifully realized game concepts of the past few years. The design of the dark industrial worlds, populated by grotesque creatures with oddly appealing personalities, represents a creative standard rarely equaled. If only the gameplay could have risen above convention and predictability by further integrating its narrative, I might be writing about a modern classic. Instead, I'm writing about a good platformer—nothing more.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Comic Mischief, Violence
Parents have nothing to fear from the interactive portions of Munch's Oddysee, but a couple of pointedly dark cut-scenes earn the T rating alone. However, the themes of environmentalism and rescuing creatures from harm are decidedly positive, which might make some consider Munch's Oddysee suitable for younger audiences. Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is, at best, an interesting but deeply flawed game with an above-average plot and decent length.
Fans of the 2D Oddworld games, Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus, might be miffed at just how differently Munch's Oddysee plays, but if the character designs were the big draw before, they may still have a good time with this one.
Action gamers will quickly become frustrated with Munch's truly laborious pace and simplistic, repetitive nature.