Tim Newsome-Ward & Darren Flowers Interview (Desktop Daydreams)

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

Around this time last year, I happened across a rather interesting indie horror game called The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead. Developed by Bradford-based indie studio Desktop Daydreams, it’s a 3D first-person horror game coming to PC and Xbox One, and, if I may say so myself, I think it looks pretty damn cool.

You haven’t heard of it? Allow me to bring you up to speed. The game places you in the shoes of Ri Anderson, a Custodian (think a neurological Sherlock Holmes mixed with equal parts Judge Dredd and Inception‘s Dom Cobb and you’re on the right lines) who has to enter the mind of a suspected murderer and navigate through their various memories to get to the truth of a (probably rather grisly) murder case. This process of entering minds and poking about with their memories is facilitated with the use of a special program called The Corridor (think The Matrix‘s VR program, only with less gun-blasting lobby scenes and designer sunglasses and more creepy monsters and mind-bending madness). As the name might suggest, the program displays the suspect’s mind to the Custodian as a virtual corridor, which acts as a hub area from which the player accesses the various scattered memories of the subject. I say scattered, because the order in which they are accessed is randomised each playthrough. The player has to navigate their way through mysterious mental echoes to find important clues, avoid creatures and gradually build up a case of evidence in order to make a final judgement on the suspect at the climax of the game.

Sounds neat right? Intrigued by the game and its curious cognitive concepts, I previously spoke to the game’s Designer, Tim Newsome-Ward, on the eve of the game’s August 2014 Kickstarter campaign to find out more. Although the game generated positive media coverage, was selected for Steam Greenlight and picked up plenty of new fans along the way, in the end the project sadly didn’t reach its minimum funding goal. Since then we haven’t heard much from the Desktop Daydreamers, and to an outsider, it looked like the lights might have ultimately been switched off on The Corridor for good.

Thankfully, I can tell you right now that this is definitely not the case. I once again met with Tim and his colleague Darren Flowers, Desktop Daydream’s Creative Director, to talk about what’s new with The Corridor, and it sounds like things are very much full scream (sorry) ahead.

Pig Head

“It’s a been a tough road,” laughs Tim good-naturedly as he nurses a hot cup of coffee, “We’re still going strong even though we’ve had a rollercoaster ride at the beginning of this year.” It’s a bright sunny Bradford morning when I meet Tim and Darren, and in contrast to their pleasant and cheery company, the nice weather and the plush furnishings of Waterstones’ cafe, I’m about to learn just how dark and tough this rollercoaster ride through the harsh reality of indie development has been for the tiny two-person studio. I kick things off with a rather unsophisticated opening question; what happened next after the Kickstarter failed?

“We had to think positively,” Tim recalls. “Steam have given us the okay, so we thought look, let’s keep working on the game keep pushing as far as we can.” Their resolve to keep going in the face of adversity is even more impressive when it’s revealed that the team’s programmer left the project at the end of last year. “We got to Christmas, and then our coder Chris left, so we lost our technical side. As a designer I’m part technical and part arty, and Daz is full art on the creative side of things, so we just thought oh shit!” he laughs. “We’ve known Chris since university, and we mean no disrespect to him; he had other things to do and his own financial concerns to deal with. He had to move on. We still talk to him and he’s still interested in working with us at some point, but basically he couldn’t dedicate the time that we needed and that’s fair enough.”

Chris’ departure inexorably forced the team into the unenviable position of having to find a new programmer – fast. “Everything we’d done up to that point was just a prototype, there were no solid or fixed frameworks; everything was hashed together to get a playable idea down. What we really needed was someone who could come in and tackle the engineering side of things. Someone to come in, take the reins and tell us what we need to do from a tech standpoint. We were humming and hawing for ages, but eventually we just turned to the community to see if there was anyone who liked the idea. We set up a post on the Unity forums at the beginning of this year which contained a few screenshots and the basic premise of the game.”

Little did they know however, that their programming soulmate was just around the digital corner. “We got tons of replies from coders, so it took a while to sift through all these applications. Eventually, we contacted Tony Li from Pixel Crushers in the States – he’s been fantastic as he bought into the whole idea and just gets what we’re going for completely. There was just something about Tony that made you know he was going to deliver; he was very much to the point and he came across with a lot of confidence. He was really good because he just knew what we needed and was totally professional. We sent Tony the GDD (Game Design Document) and he read through it and said what would work and what wouldn’t. We actually ended up ripping out more or less everything we’d started with and started again from scratch.”

On top of the personnel setbacks, another big concern from a technical standpoint was the game’s engine. Up to this point, The Corridor had been developed using Unity 4, but the release of the shiny new Unity 5 engine in March 2015 posed an enticing, but costly temptation for Desktop Daydreams. “Unity 5 had just launched and we thought wow, that looks nice! We’d already built a lot of the game in Unity 4 by this point – we had about five or six full levels finished and looking nice with the physically based shading kit, so we set these up in another test project and started converting them over to Unity 5.”

The decision to move things over to the newly announced Unity 5 was a particularly agonising choice for Darren. “I went kicking and screaming into Unity 5!” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do it at all, because there’s only two of us tackling this side of the game, so to completely changeover from Unity 4 to 5 would be a lot of work. We’d both put so much time into the game already, but were at a point with Unity 4 where I think we’d pushed it to its limits.”

Nevertheless, as Darren explains to me their visual aims for the game, it certainly sounds like all the extra work that went into migrating the project over to Unity 5 was well worth the trouble. “The main thing we had to be sure of was that it would be visually acceptable. We’ve set ourselves quite a high mantle – we’re not skimping anywhere, and if there’s something that doesn’t look right then we do it again. At first, when opening what we’d already made in Unity 4 in the new engine, it didn’t quite have that ‘wow’ factor, despite all the new shaders, lighting and textures in there. Now though, there’s nothing of the original game left – we’ve rebuilt everything, and it all just looks totally different and so much better now. We’ve worked on levels where we’ve completed everything, and then decided it’s not good enough, so we scrap everything and start again. It can be quite tearful binning something that you’ve spent the past six months working on, but we’ve had to do it because we want the game to look and feel the best that it possibly can.”

Basically, we started the whole game again, and reassessed everything,” Tim adds.With the new lighting, everything has this new realistic look to it because of the new physically based shaders and stuff, it works really well. It feels a lot more in line with other games that are already out there, but it’s going to take more time yet. We’re getting to a point where in the next few days we’ll be at the Alpha stage, all the in-game systems and mechanics are present and working. We’ve still got to do a lot of work in terms of getting levels and memories working, and getting the actual gameplay of those levels up to scratch, but because all the base frameworks are in place that will be a lot easier now. Looking back, we’ve done the right thing moving to Unity 5 because we think that we’ve got a much better game now as a result.”

With a new programmer in place, and the migration from Unity 4 to 5 well underway, Desktop Daydreams’ next move was to seek out potential publishers. Tim and Darren reached out to Microsoft, specifically their ID@Xbox program, who were quick to help step in and support the game. “We thought about what we needed to do next and decided to approach Xbox One and the ID@Xbox team. Having been Greenlit on Steam gave us a bit of leverage, and Xbox shipped us through the ID@Xbox onboarding process really quickly. We’ve got the XDKs, they sent the kit out really fast. It was really surprising and nice because they wanted to see a bit of the game, some screenshots and what figures we’d got from Steam. They were really good and supportive – it was like wow, we’ve got some kit from Xbox, even though we haven’t really got anything solid to show yet! I think they just saw the idea, thought that it was good and decided to get us onboard.”

Understandably in light of the tumultuous events, the game’s release window has now been delayed to Spring 2016. “Originally, we were aiming to have the game out by Christmas of this year, but with all the setbacks with losing staff and upgrading to Unity 5, it’s pushed us over into next year. I think towards the first quarter of next year, around April-ish hopefully. It’s going to be another few months before we get to Beta, but once we’ve signed off on the Alpha and we’re happy with everything, the Beta will progress pretty quickly as it’ll just be a case of building levels, building the gameplay in those levels, getting the story working and then testing it all. Testing is a big phase though, so we’re thinking of trying a closed Beta. We would like to do an open Beta, but with the game being so story-focused, we don’t want the narrative to get out there and onto YouTube before the finished thing is actually out and ruin it for people. We might release some specific playthrough videos or small slices of trailer footage, but it’s tricky because of course we want people to play it, but we also don’t want to give away the story. When you’ve only really got two people working full-time on a game and you’re going for top quality on all parts of it, then it does take time. It’s all part of the cycle of development; it’s been hard work, but we’re getting there.”

“We’ve been working on this for so long, and we’ve had such a knockback with the changeover to Unity 5 – all those events have put us back at least six months or so at least – that we don’t want all the people who helped us get through Steam Greenlight to forget that we’re still bringing this game out,” Darren earnestly attests. “Hopefully the game will have matured a lot, and it’s now just about giving us the time to get the finished thing out. But hey, these things happen when you’re making your own game with basically just two people and no budget!”

Without a central office for the team to work out of, there’s also a pressing need to keep morale levels up amongst everyone on the team. As well as Tony, Tim and Darren also regularly collaborate with animator Andreea Lintaru, but due to both geographic and chronological concerns, it’s hard to find time when everybody is free to touch base. “I think for a team to successfully work virtually without an office, everyone needs to be self-disciplined and have that drive to get up and do what you need to do,” says Tim. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose motivation and it’s just not going to work. Thankfully though, the DIY attitude of indie development certainly seems to have focused the team’s ongoing efforts, and kept them a close-knit group. “We’ve been working on the game for over two years now. We’re such a small team for a project of this scope and we’ve got to do everything ourselves. It’s an exciting process, but in terms of finance we’re running on fumes really. It can be a strain at times, but that’s also part of the fun of it all; you can only rely on yourself to get everything done. Daz tackles the creative side of things and I do the design, Tony writes the code and Andy animates. It’s how it is, you’ve got to learn what you need to do and just get things done.”

Spider Man

With the main pieces of Desktop Daydreams’ story over the last year in place, our conversation moves onto more specific details about the state of The Corridor itself. As a story-heavy singleplayer horror game with a mixture of linear and non-linear parts, I’m keen to hear how they still plan to get these potentially conflicting narrative elements working together cohesively. “We want it to be different to your typical linear video game story even though you’ll play it linearly with junction points where you’ll be able to choose your path,” Tim tells me.

“We had an idea first that when the player moves through these memory booths, you’d end up in a completely random level, but we decided that to get it right it just wouldn’t be a practical thing for a team of our size to do. So instead we decided to come up with a set amount of levels and really, really polish them.”

Interestingly, Tim explains how they have looked to real world brain psychology for inspiration when designing the structure of these in-game memories. “How would you access the memories in somebody else’s mind? Would you randomly access these memories, or would they come to you in some sort of structure? Could you travel back through that mind again and go to a different memory? Thinking in terms of the science behind real life memory engrams, we don’t really know how they work or how they are stored in the brain, so we built that idea into the in-game science and lore of The Corridor. The game might give you two hatches to go through, each taking you different ways – so that concept plays into how this virtual mental corridor is structured. We came up with the idea to have these branching points where you have to make a choice, and then once you’ve played through a memory, you’ll go back to the main path.”

“As you choose your own path through the game, you might do or see something in a memory that might influence how you perceive the story, and your decision process might be completely different if you went another way. You are going into these different memories at various branching points, and although it might feel disjointed along the way, when you get to the end you’ll be able to look back and piece it all together.”

While we’re on the topic of jumping into people’s minds and rooting through their memories and whatnot, I ask how the process of integrating Oculus Rift support is going. Unfortunately, although the whole premise of The Corridor makes it an ideal fit for VR, sadly it sounds like things are still at an early stage here. We haven’t got any of the Oculus kits at the moment,” admits Tim, “but we’ve also not really been at the stage where we felt like we needed one just yet. It’s still something we really want to do though, because I think it adds to that feeling of immersion we want. We’ve been building the levels with a 60fps target in mind, so things have already been optimised a lot for VR. It’s a time consuming process, but we’re getting there.”

Aside from the general narrative concerns, another big challenge for the two developers is designing a horror game around the personal and mutable tastes of its players. “We’re trying to scare people – that’s our main aim really, but it’s such a subjective thing. What do you do exactly?” Darren muses.

“Creating a universal fear is a very hard thing to achieve,” adds Tim. “We’ve done a lot of research into different types of horror, and ultimately fear is a relative thing to each person. People take their own personal fears and experiences into the games they play. Jumpscares are probably going to be a scary factor for some people, but we don’t want to overuse them as a mechanic.”

“A lot of games rely purely on jumpscares, but I find that once I’ve had one or two thrown at me then I just quickly get used to them,” interjects Darren. “It’s about keeping that fear in the player throughout the game. We’re almost trying to get people frightened of themselves. They might walk into a room and see something and make a decision based on what they’ve seen. Later on, it might turn out that they made completely the wrong decision, and we might try to make that realisation a bit upsetting. We want people to be aware of what they’re doing within the game’s environments all the time. Getting that idea to work within a horror framework is quite hard.”

“That’s why a lot of horror games don’t work, because they probably don’t have that level of fear to them.” Tim reasons. “It’s all about getting that uneasy feeling of being somewhere you don’t ever really feel comfortable. Some horror games are largely about the combat and the blood etc., but for us I think the important word isn’t so much horror, but fear. One of our main points of reference which we always go back to is Silent Hill. That first game had that feeling of constant dread, you never really knew what was coming, you never felt safe at any time – that’s the atmosphere we’re aiming for. It’s not necessarily about being anxious of dying, but rather capturing that feeling of tension and discomfort and sustaining it throughout an entire game.”

Darren suggests that a crucial factor in effectively creating and sustaining anxiety in the player is the aesthetic design of the world. “A lot of that goes back to the environment design. For example, one of my favourite bits from the first Resident Evil is the part where you move the bookcase in the Dormitory and go down into this flooded chamber just before you reach Neptune’s Aqua Ring. The creepy music playing in the room before you get to the flooded lab was so effective and it just sent shivers up and down my spine. It’s about creating that sense of fear and eeriness and having it pervade throughout the game continuously; We’re trying to create similar moments and memories in The Corridor that will hopefully stick with players for a similarly long time.”

“I think above all, you’ve got to capture that feeling of the unknown, so we want the environments to be as diverse as possible. They might throw unexpected things your way, so it’s not just about what you’re seeing and what you feel, but also questioning the nature of the spaces that you’re in as well. Am I actually in this environment or is it something else? One minute you might be outside, one minute you might be in something very cartoony, but they’ve all got that element of horror running through them, that similar atmosphere of fear that we’re after. Silent Hill did it with the radio static; if you were near to a creature you’d get the static crackling through on the portable radio. You might not even be able to see what you were close to, but it still sent that shiver down your spine.”

Silent Hill has not only inspired the team artistically, but also in regard to what elements aren’t necessary for The Corridor – such as a combat system.

“The only thing I didn’t really gel with in the game was the combat. You’d find a creature and have to batter it to death with a dodgy stick! It just felt like it was taking something away from the mood for me,” Darren reasons.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to put combat in The Corridor,” Tim affirms. “A full combat is not in the game because we’re trying to keep things true to the story of the game. The player’s character is attached to a machine that connects them to another person’s mind, and you’re entering their thoughts and walking through a virtually constructed representation of their memories to see what they’ve done and to find evidence of a potential crime. Would you really be there to fight things? Would you be there to shoot and kill? Your character is more of an observer, but would you still have to defend yourself from this other mind? We’ve gone through all these questions so many times! Thinking along those lines, we’ve come up with a scenario where you might come across a gun or weapon, but it might not be necessarily for shooting something or someone. If you fire off the gun, then you might actually just ruin the puzzle it was the solution to.”

Having said that, the team has experimented with the idea of a combat system to see how it could function. “We’ve temporarily got guns in the current game at the minute actually,” Tim reveals. “You can run round and shoot at stuff as part of a test mode we’ve built, and it is quite cool to have those weapons in there to see what combat in the game would be like. But we’ve got to be realistic and remember that to build an entire combat system with such a small team and to suitably balance the levels to accommodate combat would be a real strain on our already limited resources. It’s also a question of whether the game actually needs all this stuff?”

Darren jumps in right away to answer. “I don’t think it does. I remember playing Doom 3 for the first time and I was petrified. There was a time where I walked through a dark room and I could hear something breathing next to me, and when I got a tiny bit of light in there I could just see this bloke stood next to me! He didn’t do anything, but still, that moment was very creepy! The moment the combat started though I just lost interest in the game as it was not really what I wanted anymore. I really liked that emphasis on the fear element, I liked the uncomfortable feeling that you got from the characters and the environment.”

Angel Statue

I get a particularly insightful look into Tim and Darren’s different design philosophies when the topic of Konami’s cancelled P.T. comes up in our chat. Specifically, it’s talk of P.T.‘s metagame puzzles which sparks up an ongoing debate the two developers are still currently working through for their own game about how much help should be offered to the player in a game via the user interface. Darren wants to create a totally immersive experience in The Corridor, one that doesn’t overtly direct or influence the player by highlighting items or displaying textual hints whatsoever.

I like that feeling of total immersion where there’s just the barest minimum of UI elements present to guide the player. I like to know what I’m doing in a game without being explicitly told what I’m supposed to be doing. For example, if you see an item such as a book, if it’s part of the game you might be able to interact with it, if it’s not, you can’t. I don’t like it when you walk into a room and you’ve got two or three objects that you’re obviously supposed to interact with and they’re all shining brightly. Personally, I’d rather have those items not so directly indicated to the player,” he says.

On the other hand, Tim would prefer the UI to subtly call out important items and offer additional information to the player when necessary. “It’s about finding that balance. A lot of games will highlight important items in the game world, and we’re trying to work out what the best method is of calling out important items to the player. Do you highlight or put a glow around an item, do you change the cursor to a hand icon when it’s hovering over it? Do you put important items in more light, do you design that room in such a way that the items stand out? Do you make them aesthetically pleasing, or do you put a little red carpet running right up to each thing? There are good examples of this in games like Bioshock, where important primary narrative items had that golden glow to them, where secondary pickups like ammo and audio diaries had more of a subtle silvery shimmer. If you’re going for a totally immersive experience though, where the idea is to put the player into the game as if they were actually there, then you don’t want to have those sort of effects present. It’s a hard thing to get right!”

Darren suggests that a careful ‘less is more’ approach to the level and item design is vital for such a stripped down UI to work. “Basically it means that you’ve got to put less clutter in a room. If you put too many things in one area and people are searching absolutely everywhere, they will likely get bored, so the trick is to put less items into the environments but make them more meaningful and clear.

It’s fascinating to see how the two guys go back and forth on this tricky issue. Ultimately, they tell me that they’ve decided to go with a traditional UI and hint system, and give the players who want a hands-off experience the option to turn all UI hints off. “In The Corridor, we’re going to put the option in of being able to turn off visual hints in the user interface, so if you want you can play through without any overt visual feedback to guide you through the game,” elaborates Tim. “It’s been a point of contention, but some players will want that sort of fully immersive experience, while others will want more direction.”

“At the same time, we don’t want people to get totally stuck, to the point where it becomes frustrating. If the player has been working around for five hours and just can’t find the solution to a puzzle then you can just turn the hints back on again. I remember playing games like the original Tomb Raider, where I’d be looking for a missing cog puzzle piece for about four or five days! By that point I just didn’t want to play anymore, but then once I finally found the missing cog it was simply the best thing ever!” he laughs.

As we finish our coffees and our conversation draws to a close, Darren speaks about reconciling the contradictory schools of thought around what constitutes good indie game design. “I was reading something the other day on Facebook from Ga-Ma-Yo where one lad was giving some advice, which was basically when you make a game you need to make it for yourself. Then somebody else said no, that’s totally wrong, you need to make it for everybody! I think we’ve done a bit of both; we’ve made a game that we’d like to play but we’ve also tried to do a game that other people would really want to play as well.

Tim echoes his sentiment. “We have to be realistic. It’s bad to say it, but we’re running a business, we’re trying to make a living doing this, and you’ve got to consider the market. You’ve got to make something people want to play, something that people will want to pay money for. When you’re an indie developer, you’ve got to do something a little bit different to put yourself out there, and people will pay for quality. The good thing is that now we’ve got all the core mechanics working, it’s more a case of just building assets now and getting them all working correctly. The end product will hopefully be something that gamers will absolutely love to play.”

At the end of the day,” Darren laughs “we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love gaming. It’d be great to get a game out there that we were involved in that people enjoy. But loads and loads of money would also be alright as well, I’ve got a wife and two small children to feed!”

Here’s hoping 2016 goes plain sailing for Desktop Daydreams. You can follow Tim and Darren’s progress over @desktopdaydream on Twitter, and keep an eye glued to their website and Steam Greenlight page for the latest updates.

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – Review

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(Reviewed on PS4 and Xbox One)

No Alf Measures With This Fresh Meat

17 years ago, the gaming world was presented with one of its most unlikely yet most loveable mascots. Blue, alien, dopey, and most certainly odd, Abe the Mudokon made his debut in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. Developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, figure-headed by series creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the game introduced players all over the world to the eponymous loveable blue stitch-lipped hero of the title, and his quest to save his enslaved Mudokon people from becoming tasty snacks at the…well, figurative hands at least, of the industrial Glukkons.

A 2D side-scrolling action adventure game, Oddysee was renowned at the time for its unique art direction, detailed environments, cinematic CG cutscenes, challenging difficulty, and, of course, its oddball characters. The game’s story followed Abe, a Mudokon slave labourer (think cute blue and green aliens with rather fetching ponytails) working as a lowly floor waxer in Rupture Farms; a shady and dangerous meat packing plant run by Molluck the Glukkon (think a purple suit wearing greedy Octopus and you’re on the right lines). Hard at work waxing the factory floors late one night, Abe eavesdrops in on a Glukkon profit meeting, only to discover that Mudokon slaves are next on the menu to be chopped up and served as tasty pie fillings. Yikes!

Hearing this fantastic news, our petrified hero goes on the run and begins his adventure. Over the course of the game, Abe escapes the meat plant, seeks out his hidden power by braving two shamanistic rites of passage out in the wilds of Eastern Mudos before returning to Rupture Farms to use his new-found power to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons. Simple right? Well, not quite. You see, as far as video game characters go, Abe was just a wee bit underpowered in comparison to your regular gun slinging action hero. Unlike your typical armed to the teeth space-marine clichés, he had no guns or any physical means of defending himself; instead, all you had to rely on were your quick wits, Abe’s handy but limited possession ability and his noisy bowel (seriously) to make it through each screen in one piece…and not in several smaller bloodier ones.

Anxious Abe

Abe, our loveable schmuck/hero finds out that Mudokons are next on the menu. Gulp!

Players would need to guide Abe on his journey through traps and environmental obstacles, and past trigger-happy guards and vicious wildlife all out to kill him in a variety of increasingly unpleasant ways. Because of his positioning as a hapless everyman-sort of character (only with far-from ordinary flatulence problems) Abe became a popular mascot for the PlayStation brand back in the late ’90s. A sequel, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus followed in 1998, before Oddworld Inhabitants moved development on new games in the series over to the big green Xbox machine, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee in 2001 and later Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath in 2005.

Anyway, I digress. Jump forward all those years to today, and our loveable blue chump has made the transition to PC and next-gen consoles in Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – a complete HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, with development this time being carried out by Otley-based studio Just Add Water. So, as Abe would say, “Follow me” and let’s get stuck in.

Boardroom

Molluck the Glukkon, along with the rest of Rupture Farms’ shady executives.

The gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty is simple. Just like its 1997 predecessor, the aim of the game is to guide our hapless blue hero through each dangerous area alive. Landmines, trapdoors, electric chambers, meat grinders, flying landmines and many other horrific hazards are strewn liberally throughout the environments, usually in deadly combination with each other. Slig guards (think robotic trouser-wearing slugs with machine guns) march around with incredibly itchy trigger fingers, eager to mercilessly gun you down on sight, snickering loudly when they do (the swines), and dangerous wildlife that are more than happy to devour you become very present and real threats as you progress into the later levels. In other words, there’s a lot to worry about, and one wrong move is usually fatal.

However, it’s not just all about getting Abe out alive. Throughout the course of the game, you can choose to try and save as many fellow Mudokons as possible, simply ignore them, or, for those especially black-hearted gamers out there, actively go out of your way to kill them. How many you save/ignore/kill affects your Karma, or ‘Quarma’ as the game likes to call it, which ultimately influences which ending you’ll get. If navigating through all those previous hazards and enemies sounded difficult solo, trust me, it can be even harder with several Mudokons in tow. Saving your fellow Muds is tricky, but getting them to follow you is in fact incredibly easy; you just need to talk to them.

Chatting to your fellow Mudokons is done by using the ‘Gamespeak’ function; pressing the d-pad directional buttons when standing next to fellow Muds lets you interact using simple greetings and imperatives. This was a core feature of the original game, and it returns here with several small improvements, such as multiple variations on each response, and most importantly, a dynamic randomised library of fart sounds, which are both hilarious and actually essential to progression in certain areas of the game.

Additionally, this is the first of many fantastic improvements that Just Add Water have made to the original game. Whereas you could only give commands to one Mud at a time in Oddysee, you can now address multiple Muds at once in New ‘n’ Tasty – a feature which was only later introduced in Abe’s Exoddus. This removes a lot of the tedium that plagued the original game when you’d have to individually lead every single Mud in an area to the bird portal escape, before going back and braving all the obstacles you and your previous Mud just successfully navigated to do it all over again with the next escapee.

Bird Portal

Abe opening a bird portal for Mudokons to escape. Impressive stuff, feathery friends!

All the levels that you’ll be, running, jumping, sneaking and farting your way through have been carefully updated from the Oddysee, and some have been ever so slightly redesigned in order to better fit with the new screen mechanics. This is because one of the major changes from Abe’s Oddysee to New ‘n’ Tasty in terms of overall gameplay design is the conversion from a flip-screen camera to a scrolling one. In this sense, it’s almost like an entirely new game on a mechanical level, as all the original environments and puzzles have been built to accommodate this new change. It’s an incredibly awesome alteration to the original design that I absolutely adore; not only does it remove the small but irritating delays you’d get when moving from screen to screen in Oddysee, but it really helps the strange and wonderfully bizarre environments you’re moving through feel much more intricate and cohesive.

Don’t worry though, the new scrolling camera doesn’t suddenly make the game unfairly punishing. There’s plenty of ambient audio noises and helpful visual cues that clue you into what nearby enemies and hazards lie ahead so that you’re not constantly worried about bumping into some unseen threat that’s not currently onscreen. For example, the Sligs now have a radar-like scan ability on their visors, which keeps them challenging and effective with this new screen change; it effectively lets them search areas outside of their screen bounds. In the original, you could generally escape them by just running offscreen and hiding, whereas in New ‘n’ Tasty, they will give chase but now also stop to scan the environment when they lose you. It’s a cool mechanic, as it keeps them deadly and prevents you from running (and farting) rings around them without deviating too much from Oddysee‘s blueprint.

Slig Shooting

Watch out for Sligs, they can chase and scan for you offscreen now in New ‘n’ Tasty.

On a contrasting note, New ‘n’ Tasty does deviate from the original game’s template when it comes to difficulty, as there are now three difficulty modes to choose from when starting a new game. Rather than sticking slavishly to the Oddysee‘s challenging difficulty, which inspired Marmite style love it/hate it responses from gamers when it originally released, New ‘n’ Tasty opens things up for those completely new to the franchise. Although this might be something that returning hardcore fans of the Oddworld franchise might initially scoff at, in my opinion, offering the player a choice of difficulty options is a very considerate design decision.

On easy or medium difficulty, Abe has a health meter represented by a flock of birds (which can be viewed by pressing the Triangle/Y button), and can take a couple of bullets from a Slig before going down, as opposed to the one-shot kill of hard mode. It’s not a huge advantage; Abe still can’t take much punishment, and certain things will still kill in one hit, such as those annoying flying landmines, but this small concession to include a health meter makes many of the enemy encounters much more palatable for an unfamiliar and new audience.

Difficulty Select

The ability to choose your preferred difficulty level is a great move, giving newcomers to the series an accessible and gentler starting point without diluting the original challenge for returning hardcore fans.

New ‘n’ Tasty also implements an inspired solution to Oddysee’s spread out checkpoint system. The original game could feel incredibly punishing at times, often sending you a significantly long way back in a level upon each unlucky death. Thankfully then, the new game allows players to make their own ‘QuikSave’ checkpoints as they play, eliminating much of the frustration from a game in which difficulty and repeated deaths reign supreme. Simply tap the DualShock 4’s touchpad/Xbox One controller’s View button once to make a QuikSave, and then when things inevitably go wrong and you don’t quite time that jump right, or that pesky Slig manages to riddle Abe with bullets, never fear! Just hold the button down to instantly load your last QuikSave and you can seamlessly carry on as if that hideous yet darkly comedic death never happened.

This change to the checkpoint system doesn’t make the game significantly easier; it just makes it significantly more enjoyable to play. This is an Oddworld game afterall, and a violent death awaits Abe around every corner. Throughout your adventure with your loveable blue chum, Abe will get shot, electrocuted, minced by grinders, ripped apart by hostile wildlife and experience many other pleasant ways to go; being able to cut out the tedium of having to wait for a lengthy checkpoint load lends the game a more fast paced and arcade-y feel which suits it perfectly.

Speaking of hideously comical deaths, the fun and humour in New ‘n’ Tasty feels much more prominent this time round compared to the original game (hell, even the online manual is a hilarious read). The new ragdoll physics in play now mean that when things do go wrong (and trust me, they often do), the results are gloriously daft. Seeing Abe get shot mid-leap by a Slig, only to then flop down onto a tightly-packed pile of landmines below is both humiliating and amusing in equal measure. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the way the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their Mudokon loincloths. You will die a lot whilst playing New ‘n’ Tasty, but you’ll also be cracking up just as much, as each fantastically ridiculous demise plays out before you.

Scrab

Abe face to…well, beak, with a fearsome Scrab.

Graphically, it’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. Having played the game on both the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s worth pointing out here that while the PS4 version remained smooth throughout, the Xbox One version did seem to repeatedly struggle to keep at steady 60. I’m no expert on framerates and I have a hard time distinguishing frame rate dips and such with the naked eye, but playing both versions of the game side by side, things did feel noticeably slower and not quite as snappy on the Xbox side of things unfortunately. However, it’s only a small disappointment, and the gameplay still manages to feel fast and enjoyable on both platforms (I haven’t personally played the PC version, but I’m sure that it’s probably closer to the PS4 version in terms of smoothness).

The Oddworld games are known for the grotesquely beautiful art direction, and New ‘n’ Tasty absolutely delivers on that front. It’s one of the first things that you’ll notice when you fire up the game, and it creates a pleasantly weird dichotomy; the levels look at once both nostalgically familiar yet also excitingly different, bursting with a vibrancy and brightness that the original sorely lacked. Even the menu screen looks fantastic, which displays Abe in all his HD glory.

Rupture Farms Escape

Even the interior shots of Rupture Farms look really vibrant and colourful.

All of New ‘n’ Tasty’s environments have been painstakingly recreated in a full 3D engine (Unity to be precise), as opposed to the pre-rendered backdrops of Oddysee, and the world looks far more interesting and detailed as a result. Oddworld itself looks nothing short of beautiful, particularly so in the more rural levels of Paramonia and Scrabania.

Paramonia

The outdoor areas are real graphical treats for your eyeballs.

The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms, the colours and lighting effects still manage to pop out at you. The early moments inside the plant showcase great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. The twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside is another visually jaw-dropping moment, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages of the Stockyards.

Slig Foreground

Each level has plenty of intricate things going on in both the background and foreground.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. At various points in the game you can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling about (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and on a more grisly note, Scrab and Paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms levels. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

Additionally, new camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Rupture Farms Exterior

Rupture Farms, in all its orangey, industrial glory.

On the topic of moving through the lovely environments, back when the game launched in July last year on the PS4, I initially did have a couple of specific issues with New ‘n’ Tasty‘s controls, though thankfully these have since been addressed. The game’s default control scheme has been configured with today’s gamers in mind first and foremost; the original title’s controls have sensibly been revised and brought into line with what brand new players to the franchise would typically expect a platformer to handle like today.

One of these revisions is a change to the way the jump controls operate; When you pressed jump in Oddysee, it would make Abe hop forwards in the direction he’s facing; pressing jump in New ‘n’ Tasty now makes Abe jump vertically straight up in the air. This took a while to get used to as a big fan of the original Oddworld platformers, and it was hard to unlearn Abe’s original behaviours that I’d become so familiar with over the years. For other returning old school Oddworlders like me then, it can take a bit of practice to get the timing down for the hop (pressing the jump button ever so slightly before the desired direction seems to do the trick), but it’s not a massive hurdle, and likely something that a new player wouldn’t even think twice about.

Abe Hop

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

A slightly more frustrating concern however was that originally all of Abe’s movement in New ‘n’ Tasty was governed by how much pressure was applied to the left stick. Pressing the stick fully to the left or right made Abe run at full tilt, whilst applying gentler pressure caused him to plod along with his characteristic walk. Due to the overall faster pace of gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty, having both the walk and run controls assigned on a continuum of sensitivity to the same controller input made sense for the most part, and perhaps made things a bit more intuitive for a new player who hadn’t previously played the originals.

Scrab Chase

The chase sequences and puzzles feel faster (and far more terrifying) than ever before.

However, without a clear tactile distinction between running and walking, a lot of the more intricate platforming sections quickly started to make the new movement controls feel maddeningly imprecise. I spent a decent chunk of my early hours in New ‘n’ Tasty desperately fighting my own ingrained 17-year old muscle memory until I could start to develop a feel for the appropriate walk/run sensitivity needed to make a pixel-perfect precision movement between obstacles under pressure.

For example, while navigating through the more meticulous meat drill puzzles in some of the game’s challenging secret areas, it could sometimes feel incredibly inaccurate and frustrating when I’d just slightly overshoot/undershoot the correct left stick pressure and repeatedly send Abe careening into the gnashing blades of death over and over again. After only a few such sections, I really missed being able to toggle running on and off with a separate button like you could in Oddysee.

Meat Drills

Watch your step Abe!

Thankfully though, in a very neat move, Just Add Water later patched in an optional control setting which gives you the option to assign the run control to a separate shoulder button press, just like in the original game. Problem solved – and now I have absolutely no excuse for my terrible platforming skills…sorry Abe.

Finally, to top off the whole New ‘n’ Tasty experience, Just Add Water have also not only revamped Oddysee, but added their own piece of unique content to the franchise as well. Alf’s Escape is a brand new piece of DLC that tasks players with a rather unique and interesting spin on the main game’s platforming mechanics.

Unlike the main game, you’ve only got the one Mudokon to rescue here, and it’s none other than the fan favourite, mailbag-checking, amateur shrink and barista extraordinaire of Oddworld Inhabitants himself -yup, Alf from Alf’s Rehab and Tea fame of course. The DLC is essentially an intricate and extended obstacle course for two, an elaborate Oddworld version of Takeshi’s Castle if you will, in which you first have to navigate through successfully solo, before reaching Alf’s bar and making back to the start of the level in tandem in order to escape.

The action here can get insanely fast and can require some particularly quick thinking to pull off. Having to coordinate your movements so that both Abe and Alf can escape uneviscerated is challenging, requiring both quick reactions and nimble finger dexterity in equal measure. There’s also some cool easter eggs for observant oddballs to ogle along the way, so remember to keep your eyes figuratively peeled and not literally peeled as you dodge the myriad of meat drills, swinging buzzsaws and many other nasty, sharp pointy objects that are in your way.

Abe Grin

Overall, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a bit of a paradox. It feels like a completely fresh and brand new experience whilst also delivering a heady rush of nostalgia for fans of the original game. It’s faithful to the original’s legacy, whilst also carefully taking thoughtful creative liberties here and there when necessary. The smooth framerate and responsive controls make the game a real pleasure to play, and without the flipscreen changes of the original, there’s a faster and more enjoyable rhythm to the gameplay thanks to the on the go QuikSave system. If you’ve already guided Abe out of Rupture Farms (and beyond) all those years ago, then New ‘n’ Tasty will far surpass your expectations. If you’re new to the series, then get ready for a whacky and delightful adventure into the world of Odd.