Outland Review

26 Apr 2011  by
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Outland was one hell of a pleasant surprise. On the surface, it’s a phenomenally pretty platform game in the Metroidvania style: you jump and hack your way through a series of levels, all of which have branching paths and opportunities for backtracking. As you proceed you acquire a variety of abilities and upgrades, which – in turn – give you access to both new areas and new sections of old areas.
That’s all well and good by itself, but Outland has combined inspirations from a wide variety of games in order to create something new, unique, and unbelievably polished. Name-dropping time!

Bosses draw inspiration from the rightly-fêted Shadow of the Colossus and La-Mulana; the gorgeous silhouetted visual stylings (eyes up, please) are reminiscent of Limbo; the platforming is as swift and responsive as the NES’ Ninja Gaiden. The game’s controls feel as natural as those of Prince of Persia’s Sands of Time trilogy and, just like in those games, you can instinctively perform impressive-looking manoeuvres on the fly.
The big thing, though, is that the game draws the light/dark mechanics from notoriously difficult bullet-hell SHMUP Ikaruga. (Or fellow platformer Silhouette Mirage, and if you remember that give yourself a pat on the back.)
The ground rules: most of the enemies throughout the game are either ‘light’ or ‘dark’ and you can shift your own polarity on the fly. Dark enemies are invincible to dark attacks, and the same goes for light – you need to be in the opposing polarity to hurt them. There are also plenty of turrets firing light or dark projectiles and beams which you can absorb if you match their polarity, but you’ll always take damage from physical attacks.

The combination of these elements has wrought something truly special.
You might drop down off a platform to find a corridor filled with beams, all of alternating colours. You could pause in between each one to switch polarity and get through unscathed… or you could charge right through, switching polarity just as you’re about to touch the next beam, and then leap off the edge to avoid a flurry of bullets from a nearby turret. You switch polarity again so that you can land on a platform that’s only tangible if you’re light, wall-jump onto a ledge, switch back to dark, and then take down the handful of enemies waiting there. Then you pause for a moment to reflect on how awesome you are.
The game and the controls are both swift enough and responsive enough to handle this, and thanks to the beautiful art style and the incredibly lifelike animation, every motion has weight. This, combined with the team’s eye for design, makes the game a joy.

Combat, for instance, is simple enough on paper – you’re mostly reliant on either a three-slash sword combo, an uppercut attack that can knock enemies into the air, or a sweep attack that hits low – but it looks amazing, and you adapt both this and your polarity to deal with different enemies. Some can be stunned with an uppercut, and you can follow this up with a mid-air sword combo to finish them off. Others might fly, or be invincible from the front, or attack from range. It’s when you get a mix of enemies with a mix of polarities, as well as a few turrets spewing out bullet-hell patterns, that things get interesting.
Special mention goes to the bosses, which are some of the finest and most memorable I’ve seen in a long time. Each is unique and offers up very particular challenges. The first boss (a Shadow of the Colossus reject) is the most ‘standard’ of the bunch with a basic attack pattern, but every other boss has something interesting going for it, whether you need to perform a frantic Canabalt-esque run across disintegrating ledges, or bounce around platforms as the boss teleports around. I want to say more, but I don’t want to ruin anything else.
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See, as we learned with Braid, it’s not so much about what mechanics you have but what you do with them, and the level design has this in mind. Up until the closing areas you’ll see new and innovative uses of both the polarity system and basic platforming conventions.

The best praise I can give without ruining too much of the sparkling design is to say that, about halfway through the game, I finished a level and discovered that the next area was called The Maze. Rather than sighing, rolling my eyes, and making a snide remark about how there’d probably be a sewer level along in a moment, I smiled in anticipation.
I smiled. I smile about twice a year, and I smiled at a level called, of all things, The Maze. Happily, my faith that the game would offer up a unique and fun take on mazes was not misplaced – in this case, the maze had plenty of alternate routes accessible depending on your current polarity, and the map made it easy to navigate.
As selfish as it sounds, though, I do wish Outland did a little more. It’d be nice to have more weapons, or some more useful abilities that don’t rely on your sparse energy bar. While most of the game is flawlessly balanced and provides a challenge without being frustratingly hard, the last few areas contain some tricky jumping puzzles with failure dropping you down to an earlier part of the level, forcing you to replay long segments. The first level, while you’re still being drip-fed abilities, is also perhaps a bit slow.

I have to say that it’d be nice if it took more advantage of the backtracking potential, too. The only reason to go back, other than to find hidden shrines to increase maximum health and energy, is to grab artifacts that unlock concept art. Concept art is lovely for a game as pretty as this, but it’d be nice to have some upgrades or extra equipment to hunt down – this isn’t the longest game in the world, and having more in-game incentive to backtrack through old levels would be wonderful.
Still, further replayability can be found in the alternate modes. There’s an online co-op mode of which I’ve hardly scratched the surface, although I can say that there are a variety of unique levels which will require some serious co-operation between players. You’ll want to go into these with friends, rather than randoms.
Another great addition is the Arcade mode. You race through each world as fast as you can, racking up points and multipliers as you defeat enemies without taking damage. Outland is very much a classic platformer, so this works wonderfully. I’ll be going back to this to post some scores to the leaderboards, not least because it’s more than a little reminiscent of fellow sword-swinging platformer Strider.

Yes, there are things to complain about, but they’re nagging annoyances rather than serious problems. The long and short of it is that Outland is a wonderful, wonderful game that compares favourably to almost anything else on the console digital download services. Hell, if it had been released back when platform games were the most common form of shovelware and first-person shooters were a pipe dream, I daresay it’d still be talked about now as a high point of the genre. I’m not sure there’s any greater praise I can give to a game like this.
Outland is fast, it’s fluid, it’s unbelievably gorgeous, and it’s got some of the finest level and boss design I’ve seen in a long time. If you fondly remember the days of sitting down in front of your NES or Mega Drive or Amiga with a new platformer, or if you recall Flashback, Strider, Castlevania, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, or anything else I’ve name-dropped in this review, you shouldn’t hesitate to pick this up immediately.
Version tested: Xbox 360

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