Outcast is an action-adventure from Infogrames that doesn't seem particularly original. Like many games that lay claim to that hybrid categorization, it presents you with a series of standard puzzles intermingled with some straightforward combat. But just as it seems to owe a big debt to the Tomb Raider series and other games in that vein, Outcast also comes across as unique. Perhaps it's that the story helps make even its silliest puzzle seem relevant or that the game comprises an enormous world populated with interesting characters. Whatever the case, although Outcast may not do anything new, it does what it does extremely well.
You play as stereotypical wisecracking action hero Cutter Slade, who has been commanded to lead a group of scientists on a rescue mission to a parallel world. Slade's mission goes awry, and he ends up alone and practically defenseless. The natives offer to help him, but only if he agrees to save their world from the tyranny of Fae Rhan. Apparently the natives think Slade is the savior prophesied by their previous leader.
The story actually gets more interesting than that, which is good considering that "native people think average guy is a God" seems like some '50s B-movie cliche. To accomplish his task, Slade must collect five sacred objects from the various regions of the world. It's no easy task: The world is huge, as is Fae Rhan's army that guards every important area. To succeed, Slade has to gain the trust of the Talan natives, solve any number of their problems, and find ways to weaken Fae Rhan's army.
There's a great deal of exploration to be done. Luckily, it's an enjoyable endeavor. The six regions of Adelpha are all diverse, and better yet, the inhabitants are quite an interesting group. The majority have distinct personalities, which is impressive considering the huge number of Talan you'll encounter during your journeys. Nevertheless, it's hard to acclimate yourself to the environment at first: From the moment you awake on Adelpha, you'll be hit with a barrage of alien terminology, and trying to keep up can be intimidating. Fortunately, the game keeps extensive notes for you, which are helpful when you can't remember whether it's Zele or Zade that has the Booyat for Oru.
Your travels would be slightly more enjoyable were the terrain a bit better looking. Outcast uses a voxel-based engine, and voxel apologists will often cite that technology's strength as the ability to render at a greater distance than a polygon-based engine. Although this strength is occasionally expressed in Outcast's expansive environments, you'll also find that there are plenty of times when mountains and large buildings will pop up out of nowhere. There is one noticeable advantage to the engine, though: It allows for huge areas and their accompanying populations to be loaded very quickly. And any minor annoyances that arise from the game's graphic quality will be assuaged by Outcast's distinctive visual design.
Outcast sounds better than it looks. Every character speaks, most of the voice acting is good, and some of the voice acting is great. The voice of Slade himself is especially notable, even if much of his dialogue is silly. The game's dynamic soundtrack is excellent, and the triumphant battle music adds a great deal of tension to hostile situations.
And there are many such situations. While Outcast is an almost even split of action and adventure, it's the action portions that distinguish the game. You control Slade with the arrow keys, and you control the camera view with the mouse (you can play from a first- or third-person view). This atypical control scheme takes some getting used to, but it works well in firefights, letting you move freely without losing sight of your targets. Fights are made more fun by the fact that the artificial intelligence of your opponents is quite good. They'll run for cover, and they'll try to sneak up behind you. Sometimes it's easy to see the AI routines at work, and occasionally the enemies will just stand there while you take potshots, but your foes behave realistically overall, demanding a cautious approach to combat.
While the action sequences may be special, the adventure game elements aren't. The puzzles are pretty typical, involving pattern recognition, carting objects around to various characters, and so on. Luckily, the developers did such a great job creating the world that even the most mundane puzzles seem to make some sense in the larger scheme of things, and acting as the Talan's errand boy feels plausible. The nonlinear nature of the game is excellent - you can pretty much go anywhere at any point, provided you can get past the guards - and there are plenty of optional subquests you may not even encounter unless you talk to everyone several times.
Then again, at times this effort to create a whole new world is a bit much. The designers attempt to explain everything, from your unlimited carrying capacity (your backpack employs nanotechnology) to the ability to save your game (you are given a sacred crystal, called the "gaamsaav," that "imprints your state"). The latter example is particularly bad, as "readying" the gaamsaav takes a few moments, during which you can be surrounded or shot. It's easy enough to stop the process, but it would be nice to just save from a menu in tough situations, especially because you restore the game in the traditional sense anyway.
Outcast's problems don't end there. Characters will occasionally enter an endless animation loop while you're speaking to them, forcing you to restart from an earlier point. And saving is such an ordeal that you'll more than likely find your saved games few and far between. In combat, the third-person camera often zooms in and out drastically and without warning, which can be extremely disorienting. And one of the game's greatest strengths, its nonlinearity, can also be problematic, if not because you'll find it extremely difficult to track down your missing equipment, then because you can sometimes trigger linear plot points out of chronological order.
But while it can be frustrating at times, Outcast is mostly just fun. It belongs to that older breed of action-adventure hybrids; while it plays more like Tomb Raider, its spirit is more in line with Adeline's Twinsen games. Ultimately it presents you with a huge world to explore and an interesting history to learn, and doing so is an incredibly enjoyable experience.