This generation of consoles has allowed a good amount of improvements in terms of game experience, but it also witnessed the emergence of downloadable games sold at more competitive prices than AAA titles. From mediocre remakes to more original and more appealing creations, we have come a long way. Outland is clearly part of the second group, but to know what makes it so interesting, you will first have to read our full review. Verdict and videos inside. Update: Launch trailer added
Outland involves a would be hero haunted by strange dreams, visions whose meaning he can’t figure out by himself. The origin of his world, two sisters, a mystic shaman to guide him, there is definite poetry and mystery in the story. It’s a bit like one of those legends you’ve been told without exactly knowing where it comes from or what it implies. All this atmosphere is also to be found in the artistic direction and the graphics, reminding a lot of Chinese shadows with colorful backgrounds. It creates quite a unique look which will either be loved or hated.
But no matter what your opinion is, you can’t deny that there is definitely something sublime about the different environments. In the jungle, the swaying branches are gently pushed by the breeze. Later, high up in the mountains, the snowflakes whirl in the wind, contrasting with the suffocating atmosphere of the Underworld. A true achievement visually speaking, no less, all sublimed by the excellent 60 fps animation that will remind you of 2D classics like Prince of Persia, Another World, or of course Flashback.
A high-spirited game
As you can imagine, if such references come to mind, it is because Outland is above all a platform game and that it follows in their footsteps when it comes to the old school feel of the game. Your skills will clearly be put to the test as timing and precision will be of paramount importance here. But platform games are not the only source of inspiration, far from it. It might sound surprising but the famous Ikaruga, a shoot’em up released on Dreamcast back in 2002, has also left its mark on Outland. Considering that Housemarque also released Super Stardust HD, which also happens to be a shoot'em up, it makes sense. Ikaruga’s gameplay was based on the fact that you could switch between colors to avoid being hit by your enemies’ attacks and take them down. When being shot at with red projectiles, you simply had to switch to red to be safe.
Outland uses the same gimmick, as the hero can use two types of spirits (light and dark) to deal with his enemies and all the traps he encounters. When using the light spirit, you become immune to light spirit shots, but not to enemies themselves, so remember to stay away from them. The same goes with red spirit, obviously. When encountering a light spirit enemy, you must switch to red spirit in order to take him down, or else you won’t be able to do him any harm. The two powers also allow the player to activate certain mechanisms, like moving platforms for instance. You think that switching from one spirit to another between leaps is as easy as on the videos illustrating the article, but believe me, it gets a lot tougher than that very quickly.
Another family tie you can find in Outland is clearly the Metroid series. Indeed, just like in Nintendo’s franchise, the main character gains access to new abilities as he progresses, which allows him to reach new areas, but also to have more ways to defeat his foes. You will first learn how to slide, which can either serve as an attack or as a way to crawl into tiny passageways. Then you will learn some kind of vertical attack that can be used to destroy fragile soils. A beam of light will also be given to you later, among other things. As backtracking is also possible, you may be tempted to come back to former areas where you left some bonuses (health or power upgrades, collectibles such as the marks of the Gods – 42 of them are to be found), just for the fun of it.
Those of you who are old enough to remember Rick Dangerous know how terribly difficult and unforgiving platformers were back in the days. Though challenge does not reach such heights in Outland, it is nonetheless far from being a walk in the park. To overcome the numerous traps that will stand in your way, precision and calm will be required. Even so, there will be times when you will die and retry more than once, making you wish the last checkpoint was closer. Checkpoints are reasonably frequent though, so again, frustration is rarely around the corner when playing Outland.
Quite logically, the most difficult situations will be some of the boss fights, which require good reflexes and a bit of patience not to rush things out. And it is not always an easy thing to do when a giant spider starts firing hundreds of red and blue projectiles at you and you don’t know what to do. Another example is the confrontation against the winged serpent, which starts with a chase sequence in which you are the prey for a few minutes, and continues on his back until you manage to kill it. No checkpoints during these sequences, so failing means you have to start over. Again, just like in the old days. When you have to switch spirits while jumping from one platform to another, avoiding the boss’s attacks in the process and trying to hit him/her when possible, you’re happy to have a few skills on your own. If you do have any that is.
The more, the mightier
Outland also allows two friends to play the game online, which really is like the icing on a delicious cake. You can of course decide to share the experience of the main story and help each other to complete the game. Moreover, Co-op challenges can be found throughout the different levels and you will obviously need someone in order to complete them. Once discovered, you can even select them when hosting a game instead of having to play the story mode. Co-op challenges are obviously based on cooperation between players and need to be completed in a certain amount of time. An arcade mode is also available but it is merely a race against the clock in sections taken from the story mode. Time related game modes are of course more or less difficult depending on who you choose to play with.
By the way, choosing your partner wisely is more important than it looks. Indeed, contrary to most co-op games where reviving your teammate does not require any kind of sacrifice, Outland forces you to give up one of your health squares (well, actually hearts), provided you have more than one left that is. Team play comes with a price then so the question is, are you the type to share? In arcade mode and in the co-op challenges, playing with an awkward friend will also make you lose some precious time, especially if you’ve left him far behind. All in all, the two player mode is a welcome addition to the single player content as it’s always nice to be able to choose whether you want to play solo or not.
Once again, Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network are about to welcome an excellent title that could easily compete with some of the games that are sold at full price in the shops, no less. For only 800 Microsoft points or $9.99, Outland combines enchanting visuals with very polished gameplay. Alone or with a friend, it should take you between 8 to 10 hours of fun to complete the game. If you like a good challenge but hate it when it gets too frustrating, then Outland is definitely for you. Whether you buy it out of nostalgia or for the pleasure of discovering what good old platformers were like, there certainly is a good reason for you to yield to its call. Among all the other games on the market, Outland is really worth its price, and more importantly, it is worth your while. You won’t regret it.