Review: Outland

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The summer doldrums are in full effect.  According to the release calendar, there are no significant boxed retail games coming for the next two weeks (Ed Note: Except for El Shaddai!), so now is a great time to look back on some games that are worth playing and probably missed.  Outland is such a game.

Outland tells the story of a man who begins to experience unexplained dreams and visions of an ancient battle between the forces of light and darkness.  The man visits a shaman who tells him that he is of two souls, and the visions are the experiences of a warrior who sealed the Sisters of Chaos, controllers of the Moon and Sun, who tried to unmake the world 30,000 years ago.  Set in a dreamy South American setting, the Mayan Empire or the Land of the Aztecs, Outland is the story of a nameless Hero struggling to fulfill his destiny, to again prevent the Sisters from un-creating the world.

The preceding sets up the background story for this XBLA game, and it gives a context for what is to come, but really you could have skipped over it and not lost anything.  Rarely does the story of the game matter as references to the setting, motivations of the Hero and the cosmic conflict are only made at the start of the game, after every boss is defeated, and then at the end.  Even when the story is told, it is through a well done voice over narration who tells how things have gone wrong.  Ancient guardians who were once good, for some reason unique to each one, have become a perversion of what they once were.  Maybe this is done to make players feel better about their recent murder of a colossal, glowing blue spider, a mother to thousands of other arachnids also recently killed, or maybe they thought games are supposed to have stories, and there is no manual in a purely digital release to cram in the narrative.  Justifications aside, this is the worst part of the game and it feels like an afterthought.  If you only play games for a rich story and deep characters with complex relationships, then you can give this one a pass.

Everyone else who doesn’t try to understand why Pac-Man is so ravenous for souls, eternally damned to wander a maze of dots and fruit, will find a game with a nice look and a unique twist on solid platforming gameplay.  The Hero can leap great distances, jump off of walls to bound up vertical passageways with the greatest of ease, climb ladders, and change his direction mid-air.  All of the controls are solid, responsive, and comprise a generic platformer move set of running, jumping, and sliding.

The twist has to do with the forces of Order and Chaos referenced in the story.  Once the ability is acquired, the Hero can quickly shift his body to align with a different power to avoid the ill effects of an identically aligned effect.  What this means in practice is that by pressing the right button, you will be able to switch the color of the Hero from red to blue, or visa versa.  Doing this enables the Hero to damage enemies that glow with the opposite color (i.e. red Hero damages blue enemy), as well as avoid damage from similarly colored traps.

To complete his quest, the Hero will wall jump his way through each level, switching between red and blue constantly, primarily to avoid damage from traps.  Traps will shoot out blue and red lights, so what would have been a complicated jumping sequence is made even more complicated with the need to constantly shift.  In the later levels, the camera will pan out to reveal a room filled with so many pulses of blue and red light that you’d think you were playing a bullet hell shoot em’ up.  Rather than making the game frustrating, it spices up the action and makes one wonder why we had to wait until 2011 for someone to make a platformer with this shifting mechanic.

Some platforms can only be stepped on when the Hero is a like color.  This leads to many sequences that go something like: jump from ground, shift to red in the air, land on red platform, jump, shift in the air to blue, land on blue platform, jump, stay blue for as long as possible to avoid taking damage from a field of blue bullets a trap just spewed out, shift and grab onto edge of red platform, slide under blue beam but actually staying in a red beam, jump off of platform, wall-jump, shift to be able to use blue platform, wall-jump off it and land on solid ground again.

The five worlds you will explore are gorgeous.  This is a 2D game and most of the detail comes in from the background.  From lush, green jungles, to cloud-filled mountain tops, the backgrounds serve to distinguish each world.  Mayan murals inlaid in gold, the neutral color in the otherwise red/blue and black world, are scattered throughout the actual parts of the game that are reachable.  These kinds of details really give the sense that Housemarque wanted to do more than simply create difficult levels to jump through; they wanted to create a place you would remember.  The music gives a sense of exploring ancient forgotten places that man has not seen in centuries.

Outland is not all jumping and more jumping and shifting, then even more jumping. The Hero also has a sword.  The combat is serviceable, in that the Hero can do a basic three hit combo which is enough to defeat most enemies.  It breaks up the platforming, but as there are only a handful of different enemies with basic designs, it is not the part of the game that will be remembered.  The Bosses are challenging, impressively large, and filled with more detail than a red and black creature ought to be.  They are a stark contrast to the unimpressive enemies scattered throughout the world.  Defeating each boss is a satisfying conclusion to the end of each level.

As he progresses on his quest, Mr. Red/Blue will happen upon various shrines that will grant additional powers.  The ability to do a sliding kick to hurt enemies and get under low ceilings and a charge attack to hit spiders harder and destroy some walls are just examples of the abilities that are just waiting to be found.  Newfound abilities do give some incentive to replay earlier levels to see the areas you could not access before, but unless you are covetous of Achievements, there is really no need.  Scattered throughout each level are Marks of the Gods, the acquisition of which will unlock mostly cool concept art (you know it’s cool because the game tells you it is) and a few special abilities.  Pressing the Back button will reveal a general map of each level and will show how many remaining Marks there are.  It does not tell you where they are, just that there is one left in the level and you already found one.  If you’re a completionist, this is very handy, as otherwise you’d have to comb every inch of every level, wondering where the last one was.

The only downside to Outland is there is not much reason to replay the game after balance is restored to the cosmos.  Particularly if you gathered all of the collectibles beforehand.  There are two additional modes, in one players try to finish levels as quickly as possible for leader board rank, and the other is an online only cooperative mode.  The Co-op is largely the same as the single player, but with two heroes, and there are a few maps that can only be played cooperatively.  These have a distinct look to them, so they are worth checking out.  Word of advice, as Outland is nearly four months old on Xbox Live Arcade (although it’s newer for PSN folks), if you want to play co-op, bring a friend because the pick-up online for this game is D E A D.  Thankfully, this game is primarily a single player game, so you will not be missing much if you do not have any friends into ancient South American themed platformers.

Outland is a great game while it lasts.  It would have been a fun enough game without the shift mechanic, but with the ability to shift and ignore certain types of damages makes it truly memorable.  This is some of the best platforming to be had on modern systems, the fact that it is only ten dollars makes it very easy to recommend to anyone that likes a challenge.  And jumping.

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Pros:
+ Fun platforming with unique mechanic
+ Reason to explore old areas
+ Impressive and distinctive visuals

Cons:
– Only lasts 6-8 hours
– Repeats the same few enemy types a lot
– Nigh-impossible to talk about this game without using the word “Ikaruga”

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on XBLA for Xbox 360, also available for PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Housemarque
Release Date: XBLA – 4/27/2011, PSN – 6/14/2011
Genre: Action/Platform
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.