Outland is a genius combination of bullet hell shooter and "Metroidvania" platformer. Its stylish presentation and polished mechanics make traipsing through its world a joy. Marred slightly by repetition and a muddled story, Outland is still one of the freshest, most original platformers in years.
- Brilliant mash-up of genres
- Inspired art direction
- Co-op missions add variety
- Fantastic bosses
- Bland story
- Too repetitive
When Ikaruga was released in 2001, it reinvented the vertical scrolling shooter with its brilliant color-coded polarity switching system. It's a wonder that it took a decade before anyone realized this could be implemented into a side-scrolling platformer. While a novel concept alone isn't enough to carry a game if not well realized, developer Housemarque (Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation) hit the nail on the head with Outland, bringing us one of the finest platformers in recent memory.
The hook is our nameless, faceless hero can change color between red and blue, making him immune to like-colored projectiles flowing through the landscape. Enemies are also either blue or red and can only be damaged if you're the opposite color. So if you're being showered in blue orbs and fighting a blue enemy, you'll have to find a moment of respite, switch to red, then get a couple hits in before switching back to the protective safety of blue.
Adding an extra layer of complexity, certain platforms will only move or solidify if you're the same color and spikes will retract based on this as well. It's a clever idea and the game makes good on it. Having to constantly reacquaint yourself with the hypnotic array of blue and red dots swarming about while minding your relation to platforms and enemies adds a whole new dimension to traverse.
Despite occasionally having to stop and suss out the patterns of various deadly orbs, Outland's pacing is lightning fast. While it draws from the "Metroidvania" school of level design, backtracking is mercifully brief, warp points are unlocked early, and there's a shimmering bread crumb trail nudging you along. It may be too hand-holding for diehard Metroid fans, but it keeps things moving and there are plenty of hidden collectibles strewn about for more obsessive explorers.
The world is worth exploring too, with a mesmerizing aesthetic. Drawing from such diverse influences as Wayne Barlowe, Dave McKean, Shadow of the Colossus, and Tron, Outland looks unlike anything else out there. Foregrounds are shrouded in silhouettes punctuating the vibrant, detailed backgrounds. Oversaturated and hyper-stylized, its simultaneously rustic and ethereal visuals keep with the game's lucid tone.
As the story of a man seeking meaning to his dreams, it doesn't fair so well. It's a heady premise, but the narrative is a hazy mess, resembling scattered notes of mythology that never quite come together into a cohesive whole.
Elsewhere, Outland peaks too early. The first time you get a glimpse of color swapping in a flashback, it's truly awe-inspiring. Losing these powers only to have to reclaim them over the course of a lengthy tutorial is a slap in the face, and the game never achieves that "wow" factor again. This is accentuated by repeated backgrounds and an over reliance on flipping switches to unlock doors. Some impressive boss fights help spruce things up, but the overall flow of the game is disappointingly predictable.
There's a bit more variation in its two-player online co-op, however. There are five exclusive co-op challenges with their own unique rule sets encouraging cooperation and teamwork. In one stage players change their partner's color when they switch polarities. In another, players lose their light and dark attributes (rendering them vulnerable to both colored projectiles and unable to hurt enemies) if they don't stay in close proximity to one another. These levels are fun, albeit all too brief glimpses at Outland's co-op potential.
Out of This World
Ultimately, Outland is a splendid idea that's well executed. Its story is obtuse, and aside from bosses it lacks memorable setpieces once the honeymoon phase wears off, but these are nitpicks in an otherwise superbly crafted adventure. By merging notable elements of such disparate genres together it's created something unique. In an age where so many games resemble "me too" clones, it's refreshing to see one that stands apart both in its mechanics and art style. Outland looks great and plays better.
Editor's Note: Outland is a downloadable title available now on Xbox LIVE for 800 MSP. The PlayStation Network version will be available at a later date.