Within five minutes of starting Outland it’s clear that the game is something special. Looking at a simple blurb, one might not understand fully why the game is so special, after all we are hardly running short on 2D platformers these days, but Outland is different. Outland is on a whole other level to what has come before it.[boxout] The story tells a rather downbeat tale of ancient heroes; however don’t expect any flash cutscenes lasting twenty minutes or so. In fact, the story seems to be in place merely to provide context for what you are doing, as it happily takes a backseat to the gameplay mechanics. Dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, brought out during story progressing sequences, and although some may not agree with this direction, the ominous character silence coupled with atmospheric music works wonders.
For a platformer such as this, responsive controls are a must, and this is where Outland shines brightest. The controls are a joy to use, with a sense of fluidity not seen in any game from this genre. Within seconds any person who has played a platform game before will be stringing moves together without even having to think about it; it’s instinctive and balanced to perfection. The game’s protagonist is a flighty fellow, as he runs, slides and wall-jumps through the environments in an almost feline manner. Despite all this agility the character also has a sense of weight behind him, meaning mistimed jumps are a rare occurrence.
It’s a good job the controls are so masterfully done too, as Outland has a rather neat trick up its sleeve that will put you to the test. When you first start the game it’s all about dodging projectiles and defeating enemies. Your main weapon is a sword, which on the face of it seems boring, but with a bit of experimentation you quickly learn how to juggle and daze enemies, rather than just hack away at them.
Then the big hook is revealed, and your character gains the ability to switch polarity. Hopefully this next bit of the review won’t come across as the confused warbling of a madman. There are two main types of enemy and projectile in Outland; red and blue. In a convenient twist of fate, your character can also switch between red and blue. When you are red, red projectiles can’t hurt you but in turn you can’t hurt red enemies, only blue can. When you are blue, blue projectiles can’t hurt you but alas you can’t hurt blue enemies, only red can.
It’s here where deft fingers are required as you are constantly required to switch polarity as you run through wave after wave of different coloured projectiles, with the odd enemy thrown in for good measure. To start with you are eased into this gameplay mechanic, but after a brief period of hand-holding the gloves come off and Outland shows itself to be a true ‘bullet-hell’ platformer.
It’s utterly fantastic and I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of sheer joy you get from skirting along the bottom of a level, wall jumping to the top whilst being forced to switch polarity and then plunging your sword into an enemy who never even knew you were there. Marvellous.
Speaking of enemies, they are a rather generic bunch. Through the course of the game you’ll get used to spiders, soldiers and the like, and they feel more like dim-witted obstacles rather than intelligent AI hell-bent on stopping you from reaching the next checkpoint. The same can’t be said for the bosses though, as they are always a sight to behold.
As with most bullet-hell games, defeating a boss is all about figuring out a pattern and learning when to strike. Unfortunately, whilst the patterns are fairly easy to spot, actually acting on them is a whole different kettle of fish. It gets difficult. Really difficult; not helped by the fact the bosses always bring something new to the table (platforms that turn into fanged animals, anyone?).
Whilst the game is fairly linear, it does offer the player the chance to go off the beaten track and hunt down collectibles which unlock artwork. There are also hidden areas which contain large amounts of gold coins, which is the game’s currency.
These coins go towards upgrading the abilities you gain throughout the game. Ground pounds, powerful sword strikes, and a giant laser beam – these are but a few. The abilities are well balanced; never powerful enough to make enemies a pushover, but strong enough to be handy. They are also dished out at a sensible rate, driving you forwards as you come across areas in the game that can only be accessed once you gain certain abilities.
Are you surprised the review made it this far without lavishing praise upon the graphical style? Well, here it comes. The game looks stunning. The environments are rich and detailed, with an impressive sense of depth; the characters look superb with top-notch animation, and let’s not forget the red/blue hue that stays with the game throughout.
Through all the (not literal) gushing there are a couple of sticking points that mar the game somewhat. Whilst checkpoints are well spaced in the main game, they are severely lacking in boss fights. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if these fights didn’t consist of several tiers, and dying at the final tier only to be sent all the way back to the beginning is a crushing experience. Not wanting to sound overly dramatic, but this lack of checkpoints can really spoil some well designed battles.
As with most games of this genre repetition also creeps in after a while. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t become boring, but a sense of “I’ve seen this already” starts to niggle away at the back of your mind.
- Looks stunning
- Incredibly responsive controls
- Creative boss battles
- Quite simply a joy to play
- Generic main enemies
- Dude, where’s my boss battle checkpoints?!
- Eventual feeling of repetition
Metroid, Castlevania, Ikaruga, Prince of Persia – Outland has been compared to them all. Truth be told the comparisons are unnecessary, as the game stands tall on its own merits. This isn’t just an amazing game; it’s an 800 MSP warning shot across the bow of all £40 retail games currently in production. The downloadable titles are here, and getting better with each release.