2D gaming is not dead, nor does it require a handheld platform on which to thrive. Housemarqe’s gorgeous side-scrolling action platformer, Outland, is proof to both of the above statements. Upon starting the game, it is impossible not to be immediately engaged by its lush, gorgeous art style. However, Outland quickly proves that it has depth and polish to match its beauty. Simply put, it is one of the most well-made side-scrollers to come out in years, and one of the best games yet released in 2011.
Outland has a story behind it, but it is largely inconsequential to the game as a whole. Something about wars of a distant age, sisters who created the world, and an ancient hero now reincarnated. The story is minimally related through very short narrated sequences. In truth, they are not terribly interesting, but the plot accomplishes its task of providing a backdrop for the world, gameplay, and atmosphere – and these are what sell the show.
At its core, Outland is a side-scrolling action platformer that draws similarities to classic franchises such as Metroid and Castlevania. There are plenty of jumps to make, enemies to slash, traps to avoid, and puzzles to solve. Everything controls incredibly well; the Hero (as he will henceforth be named, since he is in fact nameless) is very responsive both in combat and platforming sequences. Jumping and fighting are given almost equal attention; enemies are scattered liberally throughout the game’s stages, but they rarely feel intrusive or slow down the gameplay. Most foes the Hero encounters are dispatched fairly quickly, and they can often be avoided – though the player may find that it is less troublesome to simply kill them off, to allow for less bothersome platforming.
Similar to Metroid, Outland frequently gifts the player with new abilities that grant access to new areas. Finding the way around the world is quite a bit easier than it was in, say, Super Metroid thanks to frequent markers that indicate where the player should be going – but, regardless of this, it is still a rewarding and well-balanced system. The pace at which the Hero finds these new abilities is perfectly paced, and keeps the gameplay fresh and engaging. The game takes place in closed stages which must be completed in a certain order, but it is possible to re-visit cleared stages with new abilities and collect hidden goodies, such as health upgrades, energy upgrades, and tokens that unlock concept art.
As engaging as the running, jumping, and fighting is, the true genius of Outland is realized in its Polarity mechanic, which essentially defines the gameplay on the whole. Early in the game, the Hero is given the ability to switch between a Red and Blue energy. The switch is indicated by the body of the Hero himself; that is to say, his skin is either Red or Blue for the majority of the game. On the surface, this mechanic is quite simple. To defeat red-colored enemies, the Hero must be blue, and to defeat blue-colored enemies, he must be red. While red, the Hero can absorb red-colored energy orbs (as opposed to being damaged by them) and while blue… well, surely the picture is clear by now. Again, seemingly very simple.
However, it does not take long for Outland to deliver some clever, challenging, and occasionally downright devious puzzles based around this mechanic. In certain areas, energy orbs of both colors shoot, fan, and intersect in massive blanket areas – and these areas are often populated by several enemies of differing colors as well. To attempt explaining exactly how the puzzles of Outland play out would only do it a disservice, but suffice to say, they require extensive thought in addition to fast reflexes. It is worth saying that Outland absolutely does not shy away from challenging players; but while some of the more devious puzzles will likely result in multiple deaths, but it will never feel unfair.
The boss battles of Outland might be its most brilliant feature. They are simultaneously challenging, epic, beautiful, and decidedly cerebral in nature. There is no mindless hack-and-slash to be found here – in fact, several boss battles do not even require the swipe of a sword. And the ones that do cleverly combine the slashing with ample platforming, as well as the ever-present Polarity system. One battle in particular has the Hero falling down a massive chasm nearly the entire time, forcing the player to quickly platform on falling blocks while attempting to get close enough to his foe to strike. It is absolutely thrilling, delightfully challenging, and when the killing blow is finally landed it is very, very rewarding.
There is a small complaint to be voiced, however, concerning said boss battles. Challenging and puzzle-like as they are, it is more or less a definite that players will die several times while attempting to figure out what makes these multi-stage bosses “tick” as it were; and that in itself is perfectly fine. What is not fine, though, is the ridiculous amount of time players end up wasting simply reaching the bloody bosses. Upon death the Hero respawns at the beginning of the boss stage, yes, but for some odd reason a few bosses require extensive platforming or walking just to reach them. The final boss, for example, requires the Hero to climb up an absurdly long ladder every single time. It may sound like a minor annoyance, but when scaling that ladder for the fifteenth time, it is anything but.
The graphics of Outland need no reviewing. Just take a look at any of the screenshots provided in this review. Beautiful as they are, though, the game is even more breathtaking in motion. What is most impressive is the way the game’s environments are distinctly varied, yet maintain an overarching and unique sense of style that really works to create an immersive world. The gorgeous and somber musical score also deserves some credit for that, though. It might not be Limbo, but Outland is assuredly an atmospheric experience – sometimes almost surprisingly so.
Outland is an easy recommendation for anyone who can appreciate 2D platformers. It looks great, it controls fantastically, and it is very fun to play. It is hard to find any problems with it, honestly, aside from the aforementioned annoying treks to reach bosses. Do not miss this game, available through XBLA and PSN – it truly is a beautiful experience, with substance to match.