GamePro: Epic 1’s Looking Large in ’97 [1996]

Date: December 1996

Author: Air Hendrix

Source: GamePro, Issue 99, pp. 58-60.

1 Straight from the offices of the developer, GamePro brings you an exclusive early look at Epic 1, an inventive new action/adventure game that’ll rock your PlayStation next spring.

Nestled in the coastal hills of San Luis Obispo, California, a young game-development company is quietly putting the finishing touches on a game that will take the PlayStation by storm when it’s released next year. A fusion of Hollywood and video game talent, the company—Oddworld Inhabitants—isn’t chasing the fool’s-gold dream of interactive-movie games like Supreme Warrior. Instead, it’s taking a fresh approach that meshes evocative storytelling, vivid graphics, and ground-breaking gameplay. The game? Oddworld Inhabitants: Epic I starring Abe (formerly title Soul Storm; see “E3 Explodes”, August), a side-view platform action/adventure game that, at first glance, distantly resembles a Balckthorne-style game. But what takes Epic I to the next level is its multilayered gameplay, Succeeding requires you to learn how the enemies behave, devise a smart way to evade them, then have the twitch skills to pull it off. And Oddworld is doing a fine job of making that process a fun, captivating adventure.

Another Slig bites he dust…

The Plot Thickens

Epic I opens as its main character, Abe—a slave laborer in a meat-processing facility—learns that his kind is next in line to be ground up into the latest tasty treat. Naturally, it’s time to split. As he’s dashing out the door, a near-death experience summons a shaman, who charges him with saving his race from the butcher block. To accomplish this, he must explore the ruins of his people’s ancient civilization in order to acquire the powers he needs to defeat his foes.

An intriguing hook, but unlike most action/adventure titles, Epic’s plot is an integral part of the game, not just the cut scenes. Oddworld president Lorne Lanning, explains: “Rather than devoting all these 32-bit capabilities to moving something in 3D, we wanted to make something that would provide the action of a console game and the conceptual story value of a PC game. Playing Epic I will feel a lot more like what you expect from seeing a good film in the theater.” That’s a tall order. But with the help of some landmark features, even this early version is well on its way to creating what Lanning calls a “StoryDwelling Experience.”

Abe devises a way to trap one of the native creatures, an Elum, for use as a mount.

Game Speak

Oddworld’s first challenge was to breathe life into Abe. “We wanted to make characters that were less a piece of artwork that was moving around, and more a living life form,” Lanning said. One of the results is Game Speak, which enables the player to use the controller to create dynamic conversations between Abe and other characters—not just RPG-like balloons of text, but actually talking out loud. The controller’s loaded with a preset vocabulary of 16 words and noises, and your choice of words alters the outcome of each scenario. In rescuing one of your fellow sausages-to-be, for example, you have to chat them up and convince them to follow you. Many of the obstacles in the game also revolve around Abe’s ability to learn and repeat sentences and songs. Such audio interaction imbues Abe with a charming personality, which keeps you involved and interested in the game and its story.

With the gorgeous red hues of the desert level behind him, Abe uses this pulley system to descend to another level.

Story Dwelling

But that’s only one step in the process of creating a living, breathing game. And, while perfecting your jumping and fighting skills is a crucial part of Epic I’s action, the gameplay’s not all about being Rambo. “Sometimes you’re very aggressive, other times you’re very evasive. We want to keep people entertained not only with twitch mechanics that are important to the gameplayer, but also by delivering payoffs in entertainment value,” Lanning said. To meet that goal, Oddworld is steering well clear of using arbitrary puzzles with brain-stumping solutions. Instead, the gameplay revolves around learning the behavior of other characters so you can weasel your way past them. Some enemies sense only motion, so if you sneak between dark spots when they’re facing the other way, you can glide right by them. Others are tempted by certain foods, or are so angered by certain actions that you can get them to chase you, then lead them into a booby trap. Even better, Abe can “possess” other creatures, which basically means he becomes them. So if you’re facing a pack of guards, you can possess one and fill the others full of holes before they know what’s up. Unique, engaging details like these reel you into the characters and the plot of the story, while still delivering fun, challenging gaming action. That’s where Epic I stands out from the crowd.

The armed guard (known as a “Slig”) in the upper right is actually Abe. On a previous screen, Abe took possession of his body so he could sneak up on the other Sligs and take them out.

Storm Front

Impressive graphics finish off the package. Spectacular pre-rendered backgrounds drip with colors and detail, creating gorgeous alien landscapes. Abe and the other characters move with an uncanny, life-like fluidity that draws you in as topnotch animation should. In the end, what’s remarkable about Epic I isn’t just the cool graphics or inventive gameplay, it’s how the game manages to enmesh the player in an engaging character and a fantastical story. Just as awesome flicks don’t hit the theaters every week, Epic I could be an experience that’s rare in gaming… One that’s worth getting stoked for come spring.

Excerpts from one of the first cinematics in the game, these images show Abe being captured and dragged in to face the boss of RuptureFarms, where he learns he’s about to become lunch-meat.
These images show scenes from the forest and desert levels that Abe will face in the first half of the game. Notice how each setting has elements in the foreground and background that Abe can interact with.
These drawings depict the early stages of the design of Abe’s character and his main enemies, the Sligs.