Outland presents all the fundamentals of a great platformer and so much more at an excellent value not to be missed.
+ tight, fluid controls, making platforming a breeze
+ brilliant level design that makes excellent use of the game's unique mechanics
+ top-notch pacing and spot-on difficulty
+ compelling boss battles
+ immersive presentation
+ a wealth of challenges and collectibles offer plenty of replay value
- frequent and grueling lag hampers online co-op
- no local co-op
Within the past year, there has been an inexplicable surge of remarkable 2D platformers, including Super Meat Boy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and others. Continuing the 2D trend is Outland, a game that continues to show that there's still much fun and creativity to discover and behold in the realm of planes. Outland boasts all the essentials of an exemplary platformer: precise controls, creative level design, and a superb difficulty, but it goes well beyond these genre staples to deliver something truly special. While some of its features are callbacks to previous games, its various twists, original qualities, and gorgeous world give the game an identity all its own. A generous amount of extra content and replay value accompany an excellent campaign, sealing Outland as one of the best downloadable games of the year at a value not to be missed.
The game tells a mythical tale relating the ancient past to the anonymous protagonist's present mission to prevent the destruction of the earth. At several points during the game, a dramatic narrator will chime in about the tribal lore or the hero's progress of his journey. Other than this simple context, there are no story distractions that keep you away from the brilliance of Outland's gameplay. Even at its most basic core, the game is exceptional; the faceless hero runs and jumps with such ease, style, and precision that every action performed feels so surreal. It's also very easy to alternate in a fluid process between the speedy traversal and impacting combat, both of which exuberate with finesse. It's rare for a game to receive such praise simply for its movement, but it's a significant part of what makes playing through Outland so rewarding.
Because you're so in control, every mistake is your own fault, and you'll be making plenty of mistakes along the way thanks to an excellent difficulty curve that offers consistent challenge. This steady ramp is paralleled with the fantastic pace at which your repertoire is expanded. You start off the game with no more than your basic platforming techniques and quickly acquire a sword for melee combat. You'll obtain many more upgrades throughout the entire adventure, many of which both allow access to new areas and enhance combat. For example, the slide ability lets you pass under crevices and also pops enemies up in the air, and a powerful dash attack crumbles stone walls and stuns enemies. There are also a few last-resort powers that require energy to be used in life-threatening situations; a beam of pure energy and a strong smite with your sword are effective ways to quickly dispatch some tough foes with little health. You can string together combos using your different abilities, and since every blow against an enemy feels effective, combat is satisfying. Outland rewards you with new skills at such a rate that constantly piles up more and more depth while not being overwhelming.
Within one power, though, lies the pinnacle of Outland's brilliance, making it shine bright among its peers. The simple ability to alternate your spirit energy between light and dark is the highlighted element of this superb platformer, immensely deepening this experience while relying on a press of just one button that changes the skin of your character between blue and red. The same idea appeared in the classic shoot-'em-up Ikaruga with similar success, but the mechanic is still a great innovation for this genre because of the clever and challenging ways it is used. Your color affects defeating enemies, certain platforms, and the effects of some environmental hazards. To deal damage to your opponents, you must be the color opposite them, platforms fade in and out according to your spirit energy, and energy beams and bullets don't cause harm when your color corresponds with them. These basic functions of the spirit energies are put to use in many and often tough ways through some very tricky level design, forcing you to alternate between colors at quick paces, some rhythmic and some sporadic. For example, you may have to watch out for both blue and red bullets spewing from fountains in a fireworks-like fashion while traversing on moving platforms that are also color-based. Concentration, timing, and patience are required when pitted against these chaotic scenarios.
These extreme setups are dispersed in a world laid out like a Metroid game; an overworld connects several distinct areas, each containing their own set of stages. Unlike Metroid, however, you'll only need to visit each area once to complete the game, and a group of lights guide you on your journey so that you never have to figure out how to get to your next destination. Despite this hand-holding, there are plenty of separate paths, hidden items, and health and energy upgrades to discover, many of which require powers you'll obtain in other areas. Of course this means backtracking is necessary if you want to find everything, and it is rewarding in and of itself because of the dreamlike traversal. Because revisiting areas is nonessential in completing Outland, though, it wouldn't be inaccurate to describe it as "Metroidvania light," with its little emphasis on exploration. Considering the level design of the game, this is a good thing. Perilous obstacles plague every stage, which would make heavy backtracking an extremely punishing task. Even the linear adventure itself poses many formidable challenges where you will die. Thankfully, checkpoints are forgiving and don't have you replaying large chunks of stages to return to where you last fell.
Some of the greatest trials in Outland are its amazing boss battles. Five massive evils provide varied and fantastic pattern-based fights you must overcome. Each of these magical and mythical creatures has a different weakness you must exploit while avoiding barrages of their attacks. These hectic battles are exhilarating and keep you on edge as you search for a way to deal out damage while both light and dark projectiles and traps constantly endanger your health. The boss fights are the most exciting portions of Outland, and like the rest of the game, can be difficult but never frustrating.
The world of Outland is a beautiful place to explore thanks to the bold contrast of violently radiant blues and reds and stunning backgrounds with dim silhouetted foregrounds. The game's areas all have their own visual themes and include different artistic details, such as the gnarled, lush vegetation of the Jungle and the various ancient structures of the City. The protagonist animates with as much fluidity and grace as he travels, and the smooth animations of the enemies and ornamental objects bring life to the land. An ambient soundtrack does a great job of matching the tone of the visuals and further characterizing each area. The somber tribal tunes add to the overall atmosphere, making Outland's environments wholly sublime and very engrossing.
After you've completed Outland's excellent campaign, you can tackle Arcade mode, which slaps a time limit on each of the game's main areas and awards points for killing enemies. This encourages you to work through stages quickly and proficiently, so you can rack up high scores that can be compared with other players on leaderboards. Both the campaign and Arcade mode are playable online with a friend as well as five special co-op challenges. Unfortunately, extreme cases of lag completely erase the magic and polish found when playing alone. Your character takes time to respond to the simplest of actions in co-op, completely throwing off your required precision and timing. Not to mention that it's very rare to even get into a game using matchmaking, so you'll likely need a friend who has the game to even attempt co-op since there sadly is no option for local multiplayer. These problems make the co-op challenges such terrible letdowns, especially when you find how magnificently designed they all are. Each of them puts a different spin on the spirit energy mechanic that requires constant teamwork, such as giving one player the power to alter both players' colors, and the levels will punish you if you're greedy for a second. If the online would function correctly, co-op challenges would be a truly special part of Outland.
While the nearly unplayable co-op is ultimately a huge disappointment, Outland's superb single player experience alone makes it worth a purchase. Wonderful controls lay a solid foundation that is continuingly built upon with amazing mechanics and increasingly complex level design. The great pace in which layers of depth are added and a smooth difficulty curve keeps this 6-7 hour adventure fresh and exciting the whole way through, and collectibles and Arcade mode give plenty of reason to return to Outland's immersive world. The game is both so polished and so innovative in gameplay that no platformer fan should think twice to miss out on this ethereal journey, and at a $10 price, there's absolutely no reason to.