In an industry commonly derided for repeating the same tired old genres (and, even worse, rehashing sequels on an annual basis) it’s refreshing that the likes of Housemarque, previously known for PS3 exclusives Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation, are still willing to push the boundaries and try new things. Outland, released yesterday on Xbox 360 (and due for release on PS3 whenever Sony get their act together) is a visually breathtaking 2D platformer mixed with some decisive combat and – brilliantly – the dual colour system used so effectively in Treasure’s Ikaruga.[drop]Ikaruga, you’ll remember, was an arcade, Dreamcast and GameCube vertical shooter that played off a singular device – that of polarity, black and white. Only bullets of the opposing colour can harm the player’s ship, like-coloured orbs simply absorbed for points and charge for the main laser. Likewise, switching the colour of your ship also changes the colour of your own bullets, and whilst any colour bullets damage enemies, the opposite colour causes twice as much damage. It was a really clever mechanic, and, whilst there’s no space ships in Outland, the idea is carried over brilliantly.
It doesn’t make sense at first, mind – the player doesn’t start with the ability to switch between red and blue and instead Outland feels more like Castlevania or Metroid, hopping around the ever increasingly massive game dodging the aforementioned bullets; but like all games of this ilk, the player starts to gain weapons and abilities and become more powerful, whilst the level design recalls Zelda’s locked barriers and inaccessible areas, just begging for you to return once you’ve equipped the necessary power-up. Thankfully, there’s a map, so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue.
But whilst the combat is swift and frequently exciting, the enemies repetitive but dangerous in number, it’s the notion of the colour switching that provides much of the spark in Outland. If you’re in light form (hued blue) then blue bullets won’t harm you, and you’ll be able to jump onto blue platforms – switch to dark (red) and the reverse is true. Once the game starts to ramp up the difficulty, spouting bullet-hell levels of projectiles, your ability to switch rapidly becomes crucial and integral to the game. And then there’s the bosses, which push this concept to the fullest…[drop2]Outland is also, and this isn’t something you can see from the screenshots, utterly gorgeous. It’s well animated, sure, but it’s the sheer scale and scope of the backgrounds that impress the most, the beautiful layered environments outstripping the collectable concept art by some way. It’s crisp, colourful and alive, easily one of the finest looking downloadable games this generation and whilst that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for fans of Housemarques earlier games, it does show that they can turn their hand to almost any game.
There’s niggles, though. There’s a few instances of blind jumps rearing their ugly head, the UI isn’t nearly as attractive as the rest of the game and the cut-scenes that trigger whenever you press a button take you away from the action for too long before dumping you back where you were, usually as an enemy’s about to strike. Nothing that should put you off too much, mind, but they’re minor issues that stick out more than they should given the exemplary presentation and execution elsewhere.
That said, it’s a smart, intelligent game that demands concentration and investment – it’s never too tough (and checkpoints are generously placed) but there’s a lot to master: you’ll frequently need to be fighting, jumping and colour switching simultaneously, and whilst the puzzles aren’t particularly taxing Outland isn’t a game you can just brute force your way through. A comprehensive co-op mode (online only) rounds off the package in fine style – and that mode alone comes with its own set of challenges and fresh ideas, but we won’t spoil any of those here.