Outland is a difficult game to describe. Developed by Housemarque, the makers of such PSN classics as twin-stick shooter, Super Stardust HD and zombie survival game, Dead Nation, Outland is the love child of several different genres. It’s part hack-‘n-slash action, part precision platformer, part Metroid and part Ikaruga. Do these different parts come together to form a coherent whole, or is Outland just a beautiful mess with no identity of its own? Head past the break to find out.
Outland tells the story of a lone hero, imbued with the power of the ancients, who must defeat the Sisters – the dark and light twin deities who created the world and now seek to destroy it after 30,000 years of imprisonment. Aside from the occasional bit of narration after defeating bosses, Outland’s story isn’t terribly compelling or particularly well told. There are no supporting characters, the hero character has no real personality of his own and he never speaks. In most other games, the lack of a good story might be considered a major flaw. Fortunately, Outland does so much else right that you won’t even find yourself missing a solid narrative structure.
At its core, Outland is designed along the same principles as a Metroid or Castlevania game. You’re given an expansive world to explore, but you’ll find certain sections barred to you until you gain the necessary abilities to access them. So while the structure of the game is a linear one, you are free to explore previously unlocked levels as you see fit, accessing areas that were once unreachable and finding hidden treasures. Of course, modeling itself after a “Metroidvania” style game means Outland also sees its fair share of mandatory backtracking and respawning enemies, usually after hitting a switch to open a previously locked door or gaining a new ability. Whether you consider that a flaw or not depends on your perspective – it’s just a characteristic that is part and parcel with this particular genre. However, Outland does offer a handy tool to make sure you don’t backtrack unnecessarily – a “Guiding Light” that points you in the right direction, as well as a trail you can see when you open your map that shows you where you’ve just been. Though some will inevitably frown upon such assistance, those two smartly designed features really help prevent the tedium that can set in when you don’t know where to go or where you’ve been already.
Along with its very deliberate design, Outland is also a game that is very deliberately paced. Though you start off the game with literally no abilities aside from being able to jump and wall jump, your new abilities are introduced slowly but surely. You’ll gain a sword, dash attack, ground slam, power slide and even a giant laser beam that explodes from your chest, among others. While none of the abilities feel like throwaways that you’ll never use, some of them will drain portions of your energy meter while others do not. But they all have their particular uses and you’ll have a good long time to become acquainted with each of them before you gain another ability. It’s a good thing, too, because by the end of the game, you’ll need to be proficient with all of them in order to survive, particularly against the game’s handful of ridiculously intense boss fights. So while you’ll need all of your abilities to survive, there is one ability in particular you’ll need more than all others, and it’s the one that sets Outland far apart from the other games in this genre – the ability to change your character’s color.
Outland’s defining feature is one that was borrowed from a little Dreamcast game called Ikaruga. It was a top down “bullet hell” shooter where you had the ability to change color from black to white. Being white would allow you to absorb white bullets, and being black would allow you the same privilege for black bullets. Switching back and forth and the appropriate times was the only way to survive and made Ikaruga a very challenging game. Outland, however, has taken this particular mechanic even further than Ikaruga ever dared. Yes, you will face dizzying, disorienting, beautifully dangerous arrays of bullets, but the shifting of colors also governs elements of the environment as well as your ability to dispatch enemies. Changing colors will do things like raise or lower spikes, phase different colored platforms in and out, open doors, etc. You can also only damage enemies that are of the opposite alignment, so things can get pretty hairy when you’re trying to coordinate platforms, navigate a hail of deadly colored bullets and kill a large soldier with a shield and sword at the same time.
There’s a delicate dance you’ll have to do to survive in Outland, but it’s a dance that the game eases you into and never becomes completely overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – you’re going to die in Outland, probably more than once. It’s not an easy game, but it is a completely manageable challenge. It’s hard to get mad at Outland when you fail repeatedly – since it’s a game of pure skill, you can really only be mad at yourself. If there’s a section you’re having trouble passing, it means you just aren’t quite good enough yet. There isn’t a single spot in Outland that can be considered cheap or unfair – there are no bottomless pits or super annoying enemies – there are only spots that will require more practice to complete. There is a definite sense of accomplishment when you successfully traverse Outland’s many obstacles, and it’s a feeling that stays with you the entire way through. It’s entirely possible to make it through Outland without ever feeling the need to quit out of frustration, though you may want to give yourself the occasional break from the game’s sometimes dizzying patterns of color.
When you’ve finished the game’s single player campaign – a task that should take around 6-8 hours – Outland has also got a timed, score-based Arcade mode to get into. It plays out like a fast-paced version of the game’s story campaign, stripping away the cutscenes and other fluff like upgrading your health or energy meters. You’re playing for points, collecting point multipliers and doing your best to not take damage for fear of losing said multipliers, but you’re also playing for time which is ultimately more important. You won’t have the luxury of fighting every enemy you come across or treading as carefully as you might otherwise – you’re on a timer and when it runs out, you lose.
If you find yourself wishing you could play Outland with a friend, you’re in luck – Outland’s story mode and arcade mode can both be played cooperatively. In addition, you can unlock levels for a separate co-op challenge mode as you progress through the story, and this is where the real tricky stuff begins. There are 5 co-op challenge levels, each with a timer and its own set of special rules to contend with. In one challenge, a single player controls the color shifting for both. In another, one player will be within a bubble and in order for either player to change colors, they must both remain within its confines. You really do need to work together very closely and communication is key. As fun as Outland’s co-op play can be, it is restricted to online play only, without the option of local play. It’s a bit disheartening, especially since online play falls victim to lag sometimes which can really screw up the precision timing you need to survive in Outland. Still, if you can find a good connection, it’s well worth your time to try out the cooperative play.
Outland is a beautiful game in many ways, and I’m not just talking about its incredibly vivid visuals or suitably epic soundtrack. It’s clear that the people at Housemarque are gamers themselves and knew exactly what they were doing here. When this generation began, smaller downloadable titles were still a new thing and no one really knew their true potential. Outland is a stunning realization of that potential and is perhaps the first downloadable game I’ve played on a console that I actually feel the developers charged too little for. With a lengthy campaign and a low price point (only $10/800 MS Points), what Outland lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with value, challenge, tight gameplay and excellent overall design. It’s the best Metroidvania style game to emerge in years and to pass it up would be – dare I say it – outlandish.
Outland was released on April 28th, 2011 for Xbox 360 and PS3. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.