|REVIEWS - VIDEOGAME REVIEWS|
Outland - a surreal 2D platformer that's sure to please...
Recently released for the XBOXLA and forthcoming for the PSN, Outland is a beautifully surreal 2D platformer that manages to both subvert and fulfil expectations. At its core, Outland is a side-scroller that harks back to the old days of gaming where the simple pleasures of running, jumping and sliding across the screen was all the entertainment a gamer needed. In today’s crowded, story-driven triple A market of games, Outland is decidedly refreshing. On the surface, it’s immediately comparable to the old Prince of Persia games, but it's closer to Super Metroid and Castlevania than either of these; there are numerous occasions throughout the gameplay when you’ll be required to go back to a level you’ve already visited, opening up doors that were previously unavailable to you. Unlike Metroid and Castlevania, though, navigating your way back to these points is straightforward thanks to a nifty teleportation ability, cutting out potentially hours of backtracking and saves you testing your memory to its limits.
There is a storyline in Outland, though it is somewhat surface deep – told in broad mythic tones by a narrator, the story follows a nameless hero destined to restore balance between the world created by two competing sisters (those of the light and dark) and, while almost unnecessary, there’s a certain sweeping charm to the story that helps give shape to the world of Outland.
The single-player campaign will take the majority of gamers between five and six hours to complete, while online co-op mode only feels worthwhile once the challenge modes have been unlocked, allowing you to compete competitively with a partner. This can be quite entertaining as you race to see who can complete a given level fastest, with the most fluidity and grace, but developer Housemarque have missed a treat by neglecting to add local co-op.
Boss fights are paradoxically the most rewarding and infuriating aspects of the game, as you will in all likelihood have to restart them several times. The checkpointing in Outland is - generally speaking - quite generous, but when it comes to boss fights they can be maddeningly sparse. The result of this is that you’re forced to carefully consider and analyse each and every action before making it for fear of dying and being forced to start over from the beginning. To some, this old school style of wiping the slate clean may prove tedious, but others will find the challenge refreshing.
A key aspect of the game is its light and dark alignments. Hardly a new concept, it still manages to feel unique and new thanks to the need to constantly switch between alignments. When you are using the light ability, you can only harm enemies that are dark and vice versa. When hopping between platforms, your character has to be the same colour as the platform you want to land on.
On paper, this sounds rather simple, but when you’re jumping between alternating coloured platforms while simultaneously switching colour and trying to avoid taking damage from the flower-bullets (you’ll understand if you play the game) - liberally placed throughout the game - things become surprisingly complex. This makes the game particularly challenging in parts and they will certainly test your reflex and timing skills, as players are forced to switch between light and dark constantly; often frantically.
Aesthetically, the game is just plain beautiful. Set in a world defined by colour and contrast, there are clear influences of a ritualistic Southern American society; shamans, Gods and multiple realms, though Outland never bogs itself down by fully committing to one entirely recognisable culture. Indeed, there are numerous connections that the mind begins to make with Outland – there are elements of Avatar, TRON and at times it’s even vaguely reminiscent of Tim Burton.
Almost inextricably connected with the visuals are the controls. Consider, for a moment, the number of times you’ve wanted to throw your controller at your TV while playing one of the Assassin’s Creed games because Altair or Ezio has jumped in the completely wrong direction to where you intended him to go. In Outland, you’ll never have to worry about this level of blood-boiling frustration (at least not because of controls).Each jump feels deft and precise; your character moves exactly as you wanted him to, erasing the need for panicky last-minute correction that platformers all too regularly require today.
The controls, though simple, are some of the most responsive in recent memory. If you continue to make mistakes in Outland, it’s not because of the controls or gameplay functions, it’s because of you. Rushing headlong into a level of ever-shifting light, dark platforms and enemies can - and almost certainly will - result in you dying numerous times, and on these occasions its necessary to take a deep breath, assess the colour patterns then execute your moves.
The combat is responsive and tight, though soon begins to feel somewhat repetitive due to the barrage of enemies continuously thrown at you. There’s also little room for variation, and once you’ve coined how best to tackle a certain enemy, there’s small chance of you experimenting beyond that acquired method again. As a result this can make the combat tedious and even laborious at times, but thankfully the increasing roster of abiltiies throughout the game manage to keep things interesting enough to ignore some of the shortcomings.
For all its beauty, however, there is a sense that Outland is a game that comes from, and responds to, the mind rather than the soul. It’s a clear, focused game with a strong sense of itself, but at times feels almost calculated by designers whose craft is governed by the cogs in their head and not the beating of their hearts. Atmospheric but not enthralling; beautiful but not lovely, Outland lacks charm but thrives on grace.
That said, this should in no way deter you from playing the game; simply be aware that Outland will challenge you, make you smile and even yearn for a return to the times when all videogames were as elemental in concept and sharp in execution – but it won’t capture your heart.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.