May 13, 2011

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Review: Outland

Review: Outland

Outland is unique in that it feels very familiar while also feeling beautifully original at the same time.  Blending elements of games new and old, it’s not hard to tell which titles influenced HouseMarque’s 2D platformer.  Rather then blatantly stealing the formula of hit titles (see Shadow Complex), HouseMarque chose to borrow from games such as Ikaruga, Prince Of Persia, and Limbo. Did HouseMarque hit their mark (apologies for the terrible pun), or is Outland doomed to be another half-hearted, been-there-done-that?

Outland’s plot is forgettable and ultimately simply a means to get from point A to point B, although I commend the developers for trying.  Players traverse across a 2D plane earning new abilities used to open formerly inaccessible areas a la Metroid.  Chapters are divided into sub-levels that provide a bevy of enemies to slay and coins to collect, which are used to purchase helpful (though not mandatory) upgrades.  Each chapter ends with a screen-filling boss fight, tasking players with using their platforming skills along with minor puzzle elements.  Upon slaying each boss, a lock is opened on a gate, bringing us one step closer to the final encounter with two sisters of opposite affinities (one dark, one light).

While the summation sounds terribly bland, the execution is phenomenal and much more then the sum of its parts.  The screenshots are gorgeous, but the game is a beauty in motion, and I feel that its silhouettes are pulled off even better then last year’s Limbo. Each enemy shines brightly, with a hue of orange or blue, and players must use the opposite colors to execute said enemies.  Our hero gains the ability to alternate from the light alignment (blue) and the orange alignment (dark).  Alignment changing is the key element to succeeding, because while you can’t hurt enemies of the same color, their bullets in turn cannot hurt you.  This provides some fevered platforming, forcing players to rapidly switch between blue and orange while simultaneously dispatching enemies.

The platforming can be brutal in some areas, but thankfully the controls are precise and simple enough for anyone to pick up.  While easy at first, be prepared to master the art of alignment switching on the fly because some segments near bullet-hell proportions with shots firing frantically from every direction.  The amount of bullets sometimes camouflage the enemies, causing players to accidentally get hurt because you couldn’t see them.  Aside from avoiding the typical pit of spikes and enemies, changing alignment manipulates the environment, providing platforms to proceed, walls to jump off of, and cover from the rain of enemies.  As stated before, the health upgrades aren’t necessary, but they are definitely welcomed because even fully upgraded, you’ll still find yourself dying over and over.  Thankfully, there’s a decent amount of checkpoints peppered through each stage and you’re also provided infinite lives.

The campaign will take players approximately 4-6 hours to beat.  For completionists, however, there are 42 “marks of the gods” to find that unlock special abilities and a better weapon.  Backtracking through each level after gaining new abilities is key to finding all the marks, as well as all the hidden treasure chests.  If you’re not a fan of single-player adventures, bring a buddy along through the campaign or play through the special co-op challenges that require careful teamwork.  These timed affairs force players to not only collect as many coins as they can, but also synchronize jumps and strikes so as not to leave each other behind.  While not as fun as the single-player campaign, they’re nonetheless a fun distraction and provide a challenge more dependent on your teamwork then actual level design.

Regardless of the similarities to other great games, there’s no denying that Outland is fun.  The graphics are gorgeous, the controls are tight, and the boss fights are some of the most epic I’ve seen in recent downloadable titles.  While the bosses are great, some of the regular enemies become stale, however, and after completing the single-player, there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to replay through (aside from co-op).  Outland isn’t the most original title, but it’s not trying to be, and by refining the mechanics borrowed from other games, it succeeds at providing a rewarding and overall enjoyable experience.  Throw in the fact that it’s priced cheaper then some map pack add-ons, and there’s no excuse to not play this game.

Platform: XBLA (reviewed), PSN
Genre: Action Platformer
Release Date: 04/27/11
Developer: HouseMarque
Publisher: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
MSRP: 800 MSP/$9.99