Outland is an expertly crafted platformer. The delicate weave of artistic delights and remarkable craftsmanship on display is staggering, and the fine pace at which its many secrets are revealed give this intoxicating adventure impressive depth. The lure of Outland begins with its stunning artistic design, but beauty goes much deeper than the surface. Silky smooth controls provide a rock-solid foundation, and the satisfying impact of blade on beast gives even the smallest battles serious weight. Within the first hour, it's abundantly clear that Outland has fantastic mechanics and style to spare, but then, the true brilliance slowly bubbles to the surface. A clever duality system in which you must transform from light to dark coloring is much richer than its gimmicky nature would lead you to believe. Incredible level design forces you to use this trick in a variety of death-defying ways, and the smart difficulty curve continually layers new abilities and tougher challenges until it reaches a powerful climax. Outland is the rare game that makes you put down the controller, take a deep breath, and marvel at what just happened.
The story is a somber one of ancient heroes, mystical powers, and the decaying world in which these kinds of myths take place. It provides context for your actions but little else, resting in the background while you make your way through this eerie land. Words on a screen and a booming voice-over set the stage, but it's the ethereal artistic design that draws you in. Outland makes excellent use of contrasts to bring this woebegone world to life. Your character, along with the traps and enemies positioned all around you, is realized in striking neon colors. Reds and blues burn with the ferocity of a falling star, and the resplendent blend of colors is as dazzling as it is hypnotizing. This radiant mix is offset by the grim foreground you run across. The suffocating blue of an underground cave or the tenebrous yellow of a deserted jungle clash wonderfully with the vibrancy bursting forth across the screen, and this dissonant blend never fails to enthrall. In the backgrounds, far off in the distance, are towns smothered in fog or cities long since abandoned to their own fate. Outland is beautiful, but it also calls forth feelings of melancholy. There is a story here, untold and devastating, at which the finely spun visual design deftly hints.
There are many games that have responsive controls. You tap a button or tilt the stick in a direction, and your character responds in kind. This immediacy is expected, but Outland goes far beyond that simple idea; movement is a pleasure in its own right. Running and jumping is handled with the grace of a world-class ballerina, letting you glide through the environments as if in a dream. Sprint across a platform and leap to the other side; you won't have to think twice about it. Your running and leaping abilities feel primal in their quickness and precision, forming an instinctual connection that further immerses you in your quest. Wall jumps are handled with just as much care, and when you slide under a low-slung rock, you can almost feel the wind in your hair. Movement such as this is seldom seen in any genre, and the inherent felicity continues to unfold in the combat. When you slash and stab with your chosen weapon, the impact reverberates outward. There is a weight to your actions that makes each blow ring forth, and that's just with your most basic attack. Slide under a foe to pop him in the air and leap to catch him midflight, hacking and slashing until he lives no more. The combination of deft precision and uninhibited joy make the controls in Outland particularly noteworthy.
Outland is an action-focused 2D platformer that intertwines jumping with combat in such a seamless manner that it never feels as if one takes priority over the other. Although you start out with little more than the power to run and jump, you quickly unlock new abilities that add layers of depth. A handy ground-pound tears through both enemies and weathered pieces of earth with ease; the dual-purpose slide is just as effective in navigation as it is in battle; and special pods slingshot you to new areas. These powers are doled out at a tantalizing rate, giving you plenty of time to hone your talents before the next gift brushes away another tuft of cobwebs. The aforementioned abilities empower the unnamed protagonist by letting him reach areas that were previously off limits. Other powers aren't quite as versatile, and therefore, they don't have nearly the same impact. Combat tools, such as an energy blast and mighty sword strike, are largely unnecessary additions to your repertoire. They can be lifesavers against a few of the more-challenging bosses, but for most of the game, they can be safely ignored.
One ability is so instrumental to your progress that it ultimately defines the entire experience. Early on in your adventure, you earn the power to shift to an exterior that is either coated with the glowing radiance of day or the sour thrall of night. Your skin becomes blue or red, depending on which form you're currently in, and you can instantaneously switch with the push of a button. It's a concept that was made famous in the Dreamcast shoot-'em-up Ikaruga, and its realization in Outland feels just as fresh. On a basic level, you have to change your color in relation to that of your enemy. If the spider attacking you is red, you have to be blue to deal out damage. When the flying dragon fires red bullets your way, you too must be red so you can safely absorb the bullets. Color-coded platforms and spikes materialize in thin air and vanish just as quickly, depending on your current shade, and these ideas manifest themselves in inventive sequences that are a sight to behold. You may have to leap from one colored platform to the next while bullets fly toward your head, continually shifting your alignment to avoid imminent death. Or a giant red snake might sprout from the ground, spitting at you in alternate streams of red and blue.
The ideas sound simple enough, but in practice, it's far from easy. As you get deeper in the adventure, the difficulty ramps up, and you'll be mighty glad the controls are so responsive because you need every advantage to stay alive. There are times when swirling clouds of bullets fill the screen, making Outland look more like a shoot-'em-up than a platformer, and you have to deftly change between your two colors to stay alive. During one insidious stretch, red bullets rain down from above, and when you change to red to avoid their acidic touch, a bed of blue spikes erupts from the ground. You must choose your fate, and choose quickly, because every second you ponder brings you one step closer to death. A generous checkpoint system ensures that when you die, you won't have to trek far over well-worn ground, but the game doesn't give you a helping hand to make it past these dangers. Scurrying up a wall is easy enough early on, but try to perform that delicate maneuver when bullets are whizzing by your head and platforms are fading in and out of existence. It's hectic in all the right ways, making you put your focus into surviving deadly traps without ever making death feel cheap.
Progression is made in a linear manner, though you have more freedom than in the average 2D platformer. You're free to hunt for hidden secrets and alternate paths if you desire, or you can rush to your next objective without worrying about ancillary activities. The world comprises an interconnected web of stages that are only loosely tied together. Exits are dispersed along the edges of the map, and you immediately warp from one stage to the next in a way that clearly separates each section. On the surface, Outland looks as though it mirrors the structure of many Metroid and Castlevania games, though it becomes apparent early on that this isn't true. Clear objectives ensure you're never lost, and backtracking is purely optional, so the focus is placed on the action instead of exploration. This idea is cemented by the ingenious level design. In games cut from the Metroid cloth, backtracking is a core part of the experience and areas are structured to make repeatedly walking across the same ground as painless as possible. In Outland, the platforms, enemies, and traps are laid out as if it were a linear adventure. Obstacles are not easy to overcome. Even lower-tier enemies stand boldly in your way, ensuring you spend time thinking about your actions instead of running full-speed ahead.
That's not to say that exploration is poorly developed. There are a couple hundred hidden objects to uncover in Outland, and trying to gather up every one of these pieces provides another enticing layer in this multidimensional adventure. However, exploration is much easier than in similar games. Each area of the map tells you how many objects are located in that section, and you even unlock the ability to see them marked on the map once you collect enough items. It does defeat some of the thrill of discovery, but the fun movement overcomes this misstep to make exploration exciting. If you wait until you're fully powered up to hunt for these items, you feel like the superwarrior that you've become. Enemies that tormented you in the beginning of the game fall feebly at your knees now, and hurdling previously impassable obstacles gives you a taste of what Superman must dine on every day. Furthermore, you earn tangible rewards for your efforts. Collect enough goodies and your sword becomes stronger and you can latch on to walls for longer periods of time. These don't significantly impact the game, but they at least give you a worthwhile reason to scour every nook.
Those gifts can be quite helpful against Outland's devious bosses. There are five different boss fights in Outland, and all of them are incredible. The first is modeled after Shadow of the Colossus. A monstrous beast stands before you, nearly ten times your height when it slouches, and it carries a staff that was designed to squash tiny bugs, such as yourself. It's a shame that such a large being was cursed with an embarrassingly small brain because it doesn't quite know how to take advantage of its girth. If you can avoid its terrible attacks, the beast will quickly tire itself out, leaving it vulnerable for you to climb its prodigious hulk and whale away at its weak point. The bosses are all different from one another, though they share one similarity. They're pattern based, so once you understand how they attack and when they're open for retaliation, they aren't very difficult. But defeating them is much easier said than done. They're large, intimidating, and designed to kill. Every boss elicits an exasperated growl when it bursts on the screen, and they have no qualms squashing your meager attempts the first few times you face them.
If you fear facing these monstrosities alone, you can play through the entire adventure cooperatively with an online friend. Things become much easier with a buddy by your side, and you need a separate save slot to take part in this option, but it is nice for those who'd rather travel in a pair. There are also five specially designed co-op challenges that are phenomenal. These are unique stages separated from the main game that force players to work together in ways that demand communication, speed, and teamwork. The best of these is one in which your color-changing ability is pushed to the forefront. Here, one person is given the power to change the color of both players at the same time. This tests the very limits of your friendship because a hint of selfishness can derail any progress. Trying to coordinate battling different-colored enemies or leaping across platforms is silly, satisfying, and just plain fun. And when you finish with those, you can take on Arcade challenges. These take place in remodeled sections of the main game and issue a time limit on getting past the obstacles and taking down the boss. The co-op modes are a great addition to an already-packed game, which gives this game legs long after you strike down the final boss.
Outland is a meticulously crafted game in which every element is used to further the overall experience. It's one thing to get huge ideas right--such as boss fights and visual design--but the brilliance of Outland goes much deeper than that. This is a game that truly understands what makes a platformer great, and it adds enough unique elements to separate it from its peers. From the pacing and difficulty curve to the controls and combat, everything comes together to form an amazing, unified adventure. And the music fits right in with every other aspect of this game, skillfully shifting between ominous ambient tracks and pounding tribal beats to perfectly fit the mood of your actions. This uncommonly refined game starts out brilliantly and builds on that foundation, slowly easing you into this world before unleashing the steely difficulty and incredible level design that make it such an exemplary platformer. At $10, Outland is a superb value that shows the result of art and craftsmanship coming together.