If I could only use one word to describe Ubisoft and developer Housemarque's side-scrolling action game, Outland, that word would be "style." The moment you begin playing Outland, you get the feeling that you're in for something surreal, atmospheric, and ethereal. That's exactly what this downloadable experience is. Thanks to its impressive style, Outland manages to pack a ton of emotion, compelling gameplay, and visual beauty into one small package. Even though the story does fall a bit flat, you don't need a complex narrative to enjoy playing Outland.
You take on the role of an unnamed hero. After suffering from haunting visions and nightmares, a seemingly normal man sees a shaman to see if he can be cured. As it turns out, the man is actually a legendary hero who was reincarnated to defeat the Sisters of Chaos, who escaped imprisonment after the original hero had passed. This tale is a good setup for something major, but it never really takes off. It's interesting on paper, but as the game's narrator reads you paragraphs of text, you can't help but feel that this story could have either been delivered better or completely left out.
Had the mechanics in Outland been as lackluster as the story, this would have been a fairly average game. Thankfully, that's not the case. Unlike its story, Outland manages to branch out and deliver quality gameplay that relies primarily on platforming, but spans several genres. To call the game a simple platformer would be incredibly misleading. Outland offers fun beat 'em up-like combat, sprinkles some puzzle-solving into the mix, and tops it off with a ton of bullet hell goodness.
Of course, as previously mentioned, this is a platformer at its core, and the platforming is impressive and satisfying. A game like this could have easily suffered from wonky mechanics and slippery physics, but the controls in Outland are flawless. As I played through the game's initial stages, I was reminded of Super Meat Boy's tight precision and control. Granted, this is a completely different game that uses a completely different engine, but the on-screen animations and character movements were fluid and precise. This is especially awesome because you do a lot of wall-jumping in Outland. So, suffice it to say that sub-par controls would have been a major detriment to this game. I'm so glad that wasn't the case, because Outland's control is just the first rewarding aspect of its gameplay.
Another facet that I truly enjoyed about the game was its difficulty. Outland does a good job of teaching new players the ropes, and then it quickly thrusts them into a challenging, side-scrolling experience. The game isn't as brutally difficult as other modern platformers, but given the expansive nature of the levels, that's a good thing. There are a variety of enemies, each with their own strengths, and it is up to you to outmaneuver them in order to slash away and defeat them.
Of course, it's not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, outmaneuvering an enemy means switching between light and dark forms—two abilities you obtain as you progress through the game. With the press of a button, your character can yield light power (blue), or you can yield dark power (red). While in your light form, you can destroy dark enemies, and you can even resist their projectile attacks. Taking on your dark form allows you to do the opposite. While this may seem very straightforward—and it is in the beginning—Outland eventually forces you to constantly switch between powers. This is especially true when the game throws its bullet hell mechanics straight at you. Early on, the game requires you to switch between forms so that you can avoid dark and light projectiles at a moderate pace. Later on, however, you are tasked with switching at ridiculous rates. The game makes it a point to bunch together dark and light projectiles, forcing you to think on the fly and switch forms at a dizzying rate. It's challenging and it takes some getting used, but it's incredibly rewarding.
It can also be a bit frustrating at times, especially when you have a hard time navigating the game's steady fire. That said, a much bigger issue occurs during boss battles. The beasts in Outland are magnificent wonders that are massive in size and completely imposing. They're also pretty damn tough, and if you die, it's back to the beginning for you. Now, I don't have a problem with the game forcing me to fight bosses all over again if I die midway through the bout. However, since a few of these battles have lengthy platforming sequences that lead up to the boss, it can get pretty tiresome having to repeat these pre-boss areas multiple times. A checkpoint right before the boss fight would have been greatly welcome, and it would have eliminated the fatigue that comes with dying and having to run through a lengthy corridor or cave.
Another hitch that slightly affects Outland is that it's over fairly soon. If you're not trying to find any of the game's collectibles, you can easily get through the entire story in about five or six hours. While that's not too bad for a downloadable purchase, an extra handful of levels could have added more depth to the game, especially considering how awesome every stage in the game already is. Even despite its short length, there is a decent amount of content to get you to return to Outland. Aside from the game's many collectibles, you can take on the game in a timed mode and clear stages as fast possible. If you'd rather experience the adventure with a friend, you can do so in a fully functional and engaging co-op mode.
Not only does the game play well, but it looks and sounds wonderful, too. The game's visual design is fascinating and artsy. It seems to borrow a bit from Limbo while throwing in splashes of color and dazzling lighting effects. I genuinely feel that calling this game visually pleasing would be an understatement. Outland is more than just pleasing—it's a freaking visual masterpiece full of wonder, mystique, and luster. Admittedly, the game's camera can be problematic at times. When progressing through a stage, the camera sometimes takes about a second to pan out and show you what lies ahead. I don't think I need to stress how troublesome this can be, especially if there are incoming enemies or pitfalls. That little quirk aside, Outland is still one hell of a stylized trip through a surreal world.
To compliment the amazing graphics is an impressive audio design that decorates Outland with both a great soundtrack and crisp sound effects.The music has a melodically ancient sound to it, and the atmospheric themes range from serene to exhilarating. The game's music has the ability to evoke such intense emotion. Though you'll hear a lot of the game's themes multiple times throughout your journey, you won't grow tired of them. This really helps round out the presentation in Outland nicely. Coupled with the art style, the sound in the game is a sheer joy to listen to.
It may not be very long, and camera issues may cause hiccups in the experience a bit too often, but Outland is still a satisfying download. Should you shell out the cash and download this title? Absolutely. If you enjoy compelling gameplay, solid difficulty, and glorious art in your video games, Outland is an easy recommendation. It may not take you more than a couple of play sessions to get through, but it's a beautiful ride while it lasts. Outland is a great example of artistry and emotion in video games, and it should not be missed by anyone with a penchant for engrossing side-scrolling experiences.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]