11th June 2011 - Outland is a downloadable game brought to us by Housemarque and published by Ubisoft, and is a 2D platformer seemingly in the vein of past atmospheric games such as Braid and Limbo. But does Outland miss its mark because of its AAA industry roots or can it be as evocative as its independently developed predecessors?
You play as a faceless warrior re-experiencing the struggle of an ancient hero attempting to prevent Armageddon by two warring entities of light and dark, a bit cliché but roll with it. It sounds confusing even with that brief of an explanation but how the game progresses almost makes the fine details irrelevant. Some might be turned off by how there isn't a focus on ambiguity or any real message, but the broad strokes of the presentation give a pure version of the Hero's Journey.
And what a journey it is. In addition to the basic trappings of a 2D platformer, running jumping, wall kicking, slashing at the occasional baddie, obtaining new movement and combat powers etc., Outland mixes into its gameplay a bit of bullet hell shooter, namely Ikaruga. Eventually, you will be able to change your character's color between blue and red, a callback to the light and dark dichotomy from before, and while in one color, you are able to fight creatures of the opposite color, and be unharmed by bullets of the same color. And there will be bullets of different colors, there will be a lot, at least half the screen will be covered in them even on a basic level. Confusing on paper, perhaps, but the difficulty curve manages to introduce these elements logically and properly, leading to a great mix of two genres to create a unique experience.
Speaking of the difficulty curve, Outland takes its cues from old school platformers going as far back as the original Super Mario games in terms of its difficulty. The difficulty on the game as a whole can be described as hard, but manageable. You will never be overwhelmed by what challenges you face in Outland, but that doesn't mean it will be a walk in the park. The Boss fights warrant a particular mention, because they also emulate this degree of difficulty. They are old school in the sense of discovering the methods of beating them come from simple trial and error, as opposed to Quick-Time Events or being told the method right away. The result is a real sense of accomplishment whenever the boss is defeated that, personally, rivals racking up a killstreak on any FPS out there.
In terms of expressing a story, however, Outland tries to do a balancing act of leaving things ambiguous and broad to emulate a concentrated hero's journey, which when one is playing works, but whenever a boss is defeated, a section of text and exposition is presented in a way that attempts to bring some degree of detail to the game. Unfortunately, these text dumps break immersion simply because it brings up questions that didn't need to be answered when everything could have been left to the environments to be told. It is analogous to the midi-chlorian explanation given in the prequel trilogy of Star Wars, and it works just as well as you would think. Thankfully these text dumps don't continuously pop up, are only intermittent, and don't effect gameplay in anyway, but it still wasn't helpful.
Graphically, Outland is what is to be expected from a polished Platforming game. The movements are fluent and the framerate is absolutely solid. The aesthetic of the game is reminiscent of Limbo, in that every level oozes atmosphere. The art style does a great job making your adventure feel epic in scale, and it gives the impression of you living out an ancient heroic myth. From the tribal attire if your character and enemies to the symbols and pictures looking like they belong on ancient Native American and Roman pottery.
The voice acting of Outland is minimal but whatever is there works. The music style reinforces the tribal feel of the game as a whole. Drums pounding, wind flutes blowing, and an orchestral undertone during boss fights help the game really come to life. The sword slashes, cannon shots and enemy attacks are unique, and the sound quality is to be applauded.
Compared to downloadable games I've experienced, Outland is the rare exception that seems to happen once a year, a game that I've really enjoyed that wasn't blatant pandering to memes and tropes and offering nothing in originality like Comic Jumper, a functional but mostly forgettable experiment like Torchlight, or a port or HD remake of an old classic. It can be said that, unless something else comes up this year, that Outland might be our atmospheric platforming game of 2011. True it might not be trying to make a statement or convey an ambiguous message like Braid, nor does it simply sell on atmosphere alone like Limbo, but at least its a game where you are able to blast the head off of a giant spider and feel like the king of the world. Priced at 800 Microsoft Points and with a playtime lasting around seven hours, I'd say it's worth your time.
Outland is fun for the old-school crowd wishing for a challenge, generous in its learning curve enough to invite new players, and is genuinely unique. True it might get a bit inconsistent with how it presents its story, but with gameplay so good and an art style so fetching, that will be the last thing on your mind. Get it if you are up for it, and if all else fails you can watch a friend play it and laugh every time he dies.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
- Fun and challenging Gameplay
- Epic Boss Fights
- Great music and Art Style
- Solid Level Design
- Story may be hard to follow
- Difficulty curve might be a turn off
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey