There’s a lot to like about Outland. A 2-D side-scrolling platformer of the Metroid/Castlevania: Symphony of the Night subset, the game has a massive scope and lots to do and explore. It has a great look, marrying the silhouette style that works so well in Limbo with a Tron-esque set of neons and lines. And it makes use of a color-based shield switching system like that of the shooter Ikaruga, requiring you to think carefully about protecting yourself, dealing with puzzles and fighting off enemies.
On the whole, Outland is a solid purchase and a lot of fun for platformer fans, and while it does frustrate and the cooperative mode seems tough to get going, it’s a great way to spend $10 and an afternoon.
Outland (PS3 [Reviewed], XBox360)
Release Date: June 14, 2011
There’s some kind of story going on in Outland, although it’s fairly sparse. Destiny calls the hero to a strange land, where he quickly gains the ability to switch between souls — one light (blue), and one dark (red). They’re meant to be the two halves of creation, represented by two demigod sister who have been imprisoned for thousands of years after they decided to try to wipe out everything they’d made. Since you fall squarely into the category of “Everything,” your job is to stop them.
The next five or six hours are spent gathering abilities and working through lots of platforming difficulties. Wall-jumping is an ability you have at the outset, as is some ridiculous jumping prowess in general, but just about everything else — from sliding to soul-switching to fast-teleporting between levels you’ve already visited — has to be unlocked through the course of the game. The more abilities you gain, the further you can go, although Outland is a little bit lacking in the exploration department.
It’s not that there’s not a lot to explore in Outland, because there is. As you gain new abilities, you’ll find a few areas you couldn’t reach before, and you can backtrack through other levels to access sections that were off-limits to you in the past. But unless you’re an Achievement hunter or a Trophy hound, there’s not a lot of incentive to spend the time Outland requires to visit every inch of it. Unlike Castlevania or Metroid, there’s no percentage ticker tracking your progress, and the most you’ll ever find in secret areas are unlockable concept art (whoopie) or health upgrades.
But the platforming puzzles and the level design themselves are great, and challenging without being impossible. Once you gain access to the soul-switching mechanic, most of the game’s puzzles will revolve around not getting killed while climbing or jumping. Everywhere are emitters that shoot energy balls of either one color or the other — flip to blue and blue energy can’t hurt you, with the reverse being true as well. When fighting enemies, blue ones are immune to your blue attacks, so you’ll have to go opposite; enemies can still hurt you regardless of their color.
The vast majority of your brainpower when playing Outland will be spent on dealing with these color issues. Some platforms, walls or switches can only be used when you’re using a certain color, and others will become transparent and let you fall through them when you switch to the opposite. Outland uses this mechanic liberally and to great effect, keeping it simple but creating a lot of challenge in requiring players to mentally juggle a lot of elements — like dealing with an energy emitter that keeps switching colors while fighting various colored enemies, and trying to navigate platforms over spikes at the same time.
From a physics standpoint, Outland handles all of that stuff beautifully. Jumps are high and far and the character moves with some pretty fair speed, giving the impression that players are more than capable of besting most of the challenges before them. The parkour-like Prince of Persia style of getting around is fluid and feels great, encouraging you to bounce off things and go fast, but leaving you with the precision to make the moves you envision. Outland’s platforming is spot-on.
Combat, on the other hand, is kept somewhat out of the way. Despite your various abilities, you can handle just about everything with your long-reaching sword, but often enemies are best just avoided — especially among the tougher ones. What’s nice is that there are a lot of tougher ones, and in fact a range of enemy types that come in various sizes and require tactical thinking to best. But it’s nice to almost always have the option of jumping or sliding clear and vaulting to safety.
While the other elements are great, Outland’s five boss fights might be its shining feature. The game expertly mixes the requirements of soul-switching with lots of platforming, and the bosses are sufficiently huge to make those fights big and a lot of fun. Each requires a good deal of tactical thinking, and all five are dealt with in different ways. They’re challenging but not impossible, and give a good sense of accomplishment when they’re bested.
With all the good to be found in Outland, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the game isn’t just a little more engaging. While checkpoints are scattered throughout each level, the game suffers from an lack of health restoratives and a frustrating amount of do-over. Running around near death for 10 minutes straight was the norm, before a minor slip-up or an enemy that was just out of view would show up to take my hero out. And then it was back to five minutes ago, when I’d have to redo everything I’d just done — including track down secrets. This leads to a painful amount of rehashing that takes a lot away from Outland.
Backtracking to go find newly opened areas, in addition to being unrewarding, isn’t very easy. Teleporters can bring you back to previous levels, but the areas around them are huge and there’s no good way of knowing just where you’re heading once you’ve left one of the different sections of the game. That not only makes exploration prohibitive, it makes it annoying.
And finally, there’s the cooperative mode. Outland’s mechanics give it a great opportunity for bringing a friend to play as well, but I could only get it to work once — other than that one time, the servers for Outland were a Martian desert, empty of life. The one match I was able to play lagged so painfully that it wasn’t any fun, even though I could tell I’d probably enjoy co-op quite a bit if I could just get it working. To add to the frustration, multiplayer is only accessible online, so if you’re serious about playing, you need to convince a friend to download the game as well; there’s no local multiplayer at all, which is just a missed opportunity.
Even without multiplayer, though, Outland is a great time for its asking price. It hits all the right strides as a platformer and is great the first time through, despite lacking the tools to pull players back through for a second time.
- Solid, challenging level design
- Inventive puzzles
- Fun combat with lots of enemy types
- Great boss fights with impressive scale
- Lots of big levels with lots to explore
- Little or no incentive to backtrack and explore further, or replay
- Scattered checkpoints mean a lot of replaying the same thing over and over after getting killed
- Co-op servers devoid of people to play with
- No split-screen capabilities
Final Score: 80/100