Outland is a thrilling, successful blend of bullet-hell and platforming gameplay.
Platform(s): PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Genre: 2D platformer
Outland is more than a simple homage to Treasure's classic shoot-'em-up Ikaruga. A game that marries the fluidity of platforming with the madness of a bullet-hell shooter in spectacular fashion, Outland crafts a stylish, nail-bitingly challenging two-dimensional action side-scrolling game. A game where the simplest of jumping puzzles become extraneous death courses, bullets of red and blue hues flooding the screen in a dazzling, horrifying display. An exercise in skill and patience, as it were — and a beautiful one at that.
A shadowy foreground paints a scene of silhouettes against an intense saturation of primary colors in the background. Small, intricate designs, tribal in nature, decorate both the scenery and its inhabitants, their glow making each character and object pop. Tribal artistry pervades Outland, its ancient setting — filled with remnants of a once thriving civilization, massive stone structures looming in the background — complimenting the artwork. You never approach those looming structures, only seeing them from a distance, wondering what secrets lie within them and amongst the streets of the city they inhabit. You never learn anything about your environment, a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game being all the set-up you get.
Moreover, the game performs brilliantly, it's animation silky smooth. The nameless protagonist moves with the utmost grace, climbing and jumping with absolute fluidity. Snappy controls help achieve the feeling of fluid motion, allowing you to jump, slide, and launch around with ease.
Scrambling up walls and platforms make up the majority of Outland's action. A platformer at heart, jumping puzzles are the bread and butter of Outland. Usual conventions such as moving and non-moving slabs of ground suspended in mid-air rear their heads, issuing a fair mix of quickened movements and patient navigation. The protagonist leaps across distances, but not without aide of momentum. Luckily, building up a good run isn't necessary as in other games in the genre, which is crucial, because most of Outland's challenges involve leaping to and fro between small pieces of land, great distances lying between. Attempting to gain strong momentum on such precarious placements, snappy, responsive controls or not, would only frustrate; missing a ledge because you're just a hair short of reaching it being especially infuriating. Outland isn't clear of frustrations like that, but they are also not infatuations as they are light vexations. The difference is that mistakes in Outland feel like something caused by yourself rather than the game mechanics working against you.
That's where the bullet-hell component comes in. Feelings of that sort commonly reside in shooters of the bullet-hell variety despite the constant trudge of trial-and-error — a usually negative mark against games. To describe it as tough but fair would be accurate, as while the game often presents extreme challenge, it never crosses into the realm of impossibility. A hard line to walk, but Outland does so splendidly.
Bullet-hell manifests itself through the torrents of red and blue hued projectiles. Small box-like objects laced throughout the game's geometry fire off the harmful energies of light and dark. You can only dodge those energies at first. Soon enough, however, you harness the power of these energies, allowing our hero safe passage through the once deadly colored bullets through alignment. Align yourself with light (blue) and that energy no longer harms you; same with aligning with dark (red). Pressing R1 swaps between the two, something you'll be doing a lot of as you move deeper into Outland as the energy streams become more complex.
So complex they become that, at times, not a single ounce of respite can be found, the assault only increasing in intensity; streams of both energies intermixed converging on you constantly, small breaks in their movement pattern serving the only solace available. That level of extremity seldom surface, but when it does, the game doesn't hold back. Boss fights in particular love to deliver such punishment, launching flurries of bullets right when they're most vulnerable. These mammoths pull no punches, relentless in their attacks. Alignment swaps only grant solace for so long, the enemy taking swipes at you soon after firing their artillery of energy. Besting these monstrous foes is thrilling, for each battle feels grand in scale. Environments breaking apart as the battle continues, making the landscape more treacherous, the enemy colossal in size — it all works to create an extravagant, enthralling climax to each level.
Outland is split into five distinct locations, taking you from the lush scenery of the jungle to frigid mountain peaks. The aesthetics for each are similar, the background imagery and color being the prime differentiator. Slight alterations in the silhouetted architecture — the plant-life prevalent throughout the jungle, for instance, or the torch-lit, stone-heavy rooms of the Underworld — add an extra touch of individuality.
Though linear in progression, the levels are open for revisiting whenever you please. Backtracking through previously trotted ground is essential. New skills earned from later sections open up new paths; paths that unveil precious upgrades, coin deposits, and more. Upgrades for the heath and special attack gauges (the latter appearing right under the health bar, which is represented by green hearts) cost coins to buy, each costing progressively more. Coins are always a plentiful resource throughout, but also a precious one. Gaining enough to buy an upgrade doesn't take much effort in the early stages. Once you're deeper in, however, meeting the money quota becomes a grind. The alternative being to more carefully consider what you buy. Extending life doesn't make a huge dent in the difficulty level, but it does provide an extra fighting chance. And in Outland, that's good enough; you need every advantage you can get.
Basic combat contradicts the otherwise complex nature of Outland. You have a standard three-hit combo and can perform upper- and lower-cuts, as well as a charged attack, among others. Encounters boil down to just mashing the square button, occasionally hitting X to jump away from and over enemy attacks, your adversaries barely putting up a fight. They advance slowly, taking time to wind up their attacks before unleashing their wrath, granting just enough time to land a combo or two, maybe even vanquish them, before retaliation strikes. Only through hasty, impatient actions do encounters truly endanger you. Simple combat may be, but cockiness can still be your undoing.
Restoring lost hearts (your health gauge) isn't always as easy as smashing that pot in the corner or vanquishing nearby foes — the usual means of summoning hearts to heal yourself with. They appear frequently, but never enough to make them feel like a common find. Health is precious, but not obscure. When you need replenishment, hearts start dropping with increased frequency. If not in dire need, the drop rate scales back. A subtle means of keeping the preciousness of health intact while providing a fair chance.
Outland's story is paper thin. The nameless protagonist (referred to as "the hero") is haunted by troubling dreams and seeks out a shaman hoping to better understand the meaning behind these nightmares. The narrator, another faceless character, then tells a tale of two sisters — goddesses, actually — of light and dark, who created the world many moons ago. Over time, they changed, and suddenly sought to destroy the world they created. It's around this time that another hero rose to seal these calamitous gods away, and succeeded. The sisters have broken away from their seal, however, and are again trying to raze their creation, our protagonist being forced to step up to the challenge.
That's all explained in the intro. No progression or development is made on the story front from then on. Back-stories for each of the boss enemies grant a touch of insight to their characters, but they have no immediate bearing on the greater narrative. The motivations of the sisters is never once alluded to (they apparently just woke up one day and said, "Hey! Let's destroy the world, sis!" "Okay!"), painting them as your average shallow villains. It never advances past that baseline set-up. WIth so much work poured into the art, that the same care couldn't have been put into fleshing out the world and story is truly a shame.
Outland's campaign can be taken on either alone or with a partner via online play (no local play, disappointingly). Cooperative play online, however, is plagued by lag, and punctuated by a barren community. Seldom can you find someone through regular matchmaking. And when you do, every session moves at a snail's pace, the latency exorbitant, the game bordering on unplayable. These setbacks become especially apparent during the co-op challenges — special levels that test players' cooperative skills.
These challenge rooms are exceptionally designed. Cooperation with your partner is essential and easy to do without any means of communication (might be headset support, I don't know; don't have to test it with). Your actions speak clearly enough to understand. That helps, because often these challenges pit you two against puzzles requiring ultra-precise timing. One of the earliest rooms sees you and your partner tossing bombs to blast open the forward, some requiring careful juggling acts to get the explosive to its target. In another, one player controls the alignment of both characters, the level filled with platforms that require a specific alignment to be active before they can be walked on or used as lifts. They're quite clever. In both cases, lag hinders players' abilities greatly. Button presses suddenly take a life time to be received by the game, your timing being thrown off considerably. Most cases of failure are a direct result of this. With this in mind, and with no local play option available, your only choice if you want to see these rooms' excellence first-hand is to suffer through the nigh unplayable nature of it. Excruciating.
Painful as that is, the single-player portion makes up for that one sticking point. Outland's blend of bullet-hell and platforming works beautifully and plays just as well. The art lends a distinctive look and feel, contrasting against the red and blue fixtures perfectly. A shallow narrative dampens the intriguing, though weakly established world, but the many thrills gameplay provides enthrall just as well. An incredible game at incredible value ($10), Outland is truly something special.