Gorgeous, epic, and challenging, Outland is a must-have.
Cons: Some backgrounds interfere with gameplay; Occasional moments of extreme frustration
Note: As I don't have any friends who have this game, I have been unable to try the co-op challenge mode. As it stands, however, Outland is still worth picking up for the single player alone.
Pablo Picasso once said "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." Never has there been a more appropriate game for this description than Outland: Ikaruga polarity shifting meets Metroid progression and Shadow of the Colossus scale bosses (or at least large scale bosses). Outland does a superb job of combining stolen elements from different games into an awesome and well-presented experience that feels extremely different when all is said and done.
Central to Outland is its use of Ikaruga's polarity mechanic: by hitting a button, you switch from light blue to dark red. When you're blue, you can't be harmed by blue energy, and you can harm red enemies. When you're red, you can't be harmed by red energy, and can harm blue enemies. It's a simple mechanic, but one that gets put to great use in the game's well-crafted levels. Things start out simple-the game even starts with only one color-but by the end of the game you might be changing colors to dodge a beam, then to attack an enemy, and then land on a color-coded platform-in one jump. This added complexity makes for a challenging late-game experience, but one that smooth progression prepares you for effectively.
The progression also provides you more equipment, borrowing from Metroid's structure loosely. Levels are designed in such a way that you have to often obtain an item and return later to progress. You might find a small gap that you can't slide under yet, or a boost pad that you can't use yet. The game doesn't go as far as making you return to old worlds with new items unless you want to shoot for 100%, but nonetheless, Outland does a good job of using its space, making strong challenges that work forwards and back.
At the end of each world is a boss. Whereas many games might use this as an excuse for weak or irritating fights, Outland steps up admirably here. Each boss is unique, and feels incredibly satisfying to fight. You aren't likely to mix up the stationary giant golem with the large spider you chase through tunnels or the priestess who you fight as the ground falls from beneath you. You also aren't likely to get bored, although frustration might occur. While the bosses are more than fair, large health bars ensure a bit of trial and error until you know all of the tells. This becomes an issue at the final boss in particular.
Even in points of frustration, however, the game never ceases to be stunning. The art style is simple yet complex, straightforward yet beautiful. Most things in Outland are silhouettes, but the shapes have a certain natural quality that also contains a lot of detail. The lovely backgrounds and brightly colored energy help spruce things up as well, ensuring that the style is always eye-catching. The one downside is that occasionally the two interfere with one another, making tough challenges even harder. The musical score, while easy to overlook, complements everything nicely, rounding out the package with a dynamic soundtrack that ranges from quiet and pleasant to bombastic and epic.
Outland is a complete package: nothing here has been compromised and everything meshes together well. From the strong gameplay and level design to the stunning soundtrack, Outland has it all. Housemarque has made a masterpiece and one whose derivations are easy to ignore in the face of its sheer quality.