XBLA Review: *It would be ideal for PSN, too, but the ongoing outage means PS3 gamers have to wait.
I hadn't heard much about Outland before seeing that it was available on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The title looked interesting, so I gave the demo a shot. I was immediately hooked by its style, and knew that this was a game I wanted to continue playing. Fortunately for me, there's just as much substance as there is style. Combined with its challenging level design, Outland's visuals and story create a downloadable title that's not only fun and addictive, but also incredibly smart.
In Outland, you play as a generic hero from a tribe of people that isn't really ever pinned down to one particular lineage. I've played games where you play as the nameless, faceless hero Joseph Campbell describes so affluently in his writings, but developer Housemarque does an amazing job turning the monomyth into a playable experience. There isn't much narrative to the game, but what is there is a mythology that could be ascribed to any person or place in the history of civilization. The story of a man fighting to save his people from vengeful gods isn't anything terribly new, but it is familiar, and that's what drives you to keep playing. You need to succeed. You need to save civilization. It's not because the game is dictating that you do so. It's because that's a feeling and purpose that is so ingrained in your mind and soul that you are compelled to ?win.? I typically can't stand when the character you play as in a video game is a non-descript and under-developed protagonist, but that's the entire point of the lead character in this game. Here Housemarque has tapped into some hidden potential I didn't even know I had. I care about finishing this game because now I am one of the thousands of faces of the hero. I'm not the new recruit. I'm not stepping into the shoes of a character that's done this dozens of times before without my help. It's a subtle touch, and though many other games have tried to imbue that archetype onto players, this is the first time I've ever felt a company has succeeded.
It's easy for many people to draw comparisons of Outland to Metroid or Castlevania, as the three games share much in common. Each level in Outland is a maze, and the farther you progress, the more complex the path to the exit becomes. It's easy to forget where you're going, as many of the corridors and paths look so familiar thanks to the world consisting largely of nothing but black. So you don't get lost backtracking, there is a map to track locations, and a magical guide of sorts that lights the way at certain points. Outland's universe consists of five worlds, and you'll learn at least one new ability in each of these locations before heading off to tackle the boss. Combat is simple, though there are some nice touches to give the game a bit more depth. There are both light and dark powers at work in Outland's world. Eventually your character will come to be able to control both light (blue) and dark (red) when combating the soldiers and monsters in his way. You see, only the opposite power can damage the light or dark, and you'll find yourself switching between the two rapidly to stay alive.
In addition to the enemies blocking your passage, there are also numerous projectile traps that are keyed into the light and dark powers. When you're utilizing the light power, you'll be immune to any blue emissions, and the likewise works for dark and red. The initial levels don't require you to keep your finger on the button too much, but by the time you reach the fourth and fifth worlds, you'll be swapping color palettes so rapidly it's almost like you're sending out morse code. Your pattern recognition skills will be put to the test more than once, and you will fail. Outland has a pretty decent checkpoint system in place to keep you from having to repeat too much of a given area, save for boss fights. This is one of the few issues I have with the game. With no mid-fight checkpoints, boss fights can quickly become as arduous and annoying as they are challenging and beautiful. Since many of the boss fights are multi-tiered there's really no reason to have to repeat each fight from the beginning every time you die. Perhaps that's not an old school way of thinking, but we've progressed beyond difficult for the sake of difficult in the modern era of gaming. Outland could still have been a throwback to side-scrolling platformers without bending the knee to die-hard Metroidvania aficionados.
It's hard to believe I've waited this long to talk about the presentation in Outland, but I've been saving the best for last. Though the game uses a minimal color palette to create its universe, Outland has some really impressive visuals. Like Limbo, everything in the game is rendered in shadow. The only real luminescence in the world comes from the blue and red hues that spawn from the light and dark magics. While it's easy for a huge Tron fan like myself to draw stylistic parallels to the cult Disney film franchise, there's a bit more going on here. From the silhouettes of dead people in cages in the Underworld, to the grand scope of the City, whose walls never fade into the horizon, Housemarque's designers really took the time to add flourishes to each and every stage. Even the sparks that your character emits when running or when he's changing alignments pop off the screen. Though you hardly ever stop moving to take in all the detail surrounding you, there are moments where you can't help but do just that.
Outland does have a decent amount of replayability as well. The entire game can be played co-operatively with a friend online. To spice things up a bit from the single-player, there are five co-op challenges hidden across the game to complete with a buddy. Completing each world, alone or with a friend, unlocks an Arcade version, which you play very much like a time trial. If you manage to complete the entire world before the timer runs out, you'll vie for a top spot on the competitive leaderboards. Each plane you visit also has a handful of hidden masks (more than 40 in total) that unlock concept art. You'll eventually learn the ability to teleport between worlds, which gives you an excuse to travel around the various locales once more in hopes of finding all the hidden goodies.