"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.
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