The 2d platformer has been going through a bit of a revival lately, as games like Braid and Limbo remind us that the genre still has plenty to offer. You can now add Outland to that esteemed list. It's a wicked little platformer with a dash of Ikaruga in its DNA, and it will break your fingers in ways that you will love.
Outland drops you into a tale of gods and heroes and the never-ending battle between light and dark. You're not all that heroic when you start, just a dark silhouette of a man jumping his way through the landscape. Once you acquire the ability to swing a sword, you can start taking out the enemies that block your path: warriors, floating jellyfish, cyclopean spiders, and worse. You gain new abilities as you hit certain points of the story, including a sliding move that helps you squeeze through narrow tunnels and a powerful beam of light that wipes out just about anything in its path. They all give you a leg up on defeating the increasingly imposing enemies you'll face or make it easier for you to navigate through the levels, but the most important powers you'll acquire are over light and dark.
Once you've gotten the feel for Outland's particular rhythms, the game will introduce light and darkness, represented by the colors blue and red. Enemies will be attuned to a specific color and cannons will shoot waves of colored bullets at you in vexing patterns. Tapping the right shoulder button lets you quickly switch your alignment between light and dark; if you're using the power of light, you can be hurt by the dark, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the enemies get a bit of an advantage; they can hurt you no matter what color they are, but you can only do damage to them if you're sporting the opposite alignment.
None of Outland's components are all that outlandish or original, but combined they create a wonderful challenge that nails the part of the Venn diagram where brains and fingers overlap. If it was just a platformer, you could rely on your hands to do all the work, but the addition of the Ikaruga-esque bullet hell forces you to take a step back and plan your every move. You must at times be patient, at other times bold, but at no point can you become complacent. As soon as you think you've got Outland nailed, it throws some new wrinkle at you, by mixing colors together, throwing in a nice bunch of spikes, or putting an enemy right where you need to land. It's evil. It's brilliant. It's hard not to love, especially when you encounter one of the game's bosses. The boss encounters are the kind of old-school, multi-stage ass-whuppers that must be learned in increments. They're hard but they're fair, once you learn the patterns and techniques you'll need for each one. They'll certainly frustrate you, but when you finally make it the end, you feel like a gaming god.
Outland's visuals are the perfect complement to its gratifying gameplay and its story of legends. Mimicking the starkness of cave drawings, the dark silhouettes form suggestions of shapes and characters set against a glowing backdrop of bright, glowing light. It's magnificent to see, but it can also prove a bit problematic. The play of light and shadow certainly adds to the drama of the scenery, but it can also make smaller aspects of the landscape harder to see. You'll probably stumble into more than one set of spikes or tiny creature because you just plain didn't see it coming. You'd probably be best off playing Outland with the lights off.
Bottom Line: Outland will put your skills to the test, but strikes a pleasant balance between frustration and triumph. It's not the easiest game in the world, but the effort it takes to master is well worth it.
Recommendation: Fans of platformers and shmups will both probably love it. Everyone else should at least try the demo to appreciate the gorgeous aesthetics.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game.
Susan Arendt was so busy admiring the look of the High Priestess fight that she died a few times.
Available from: Xbox.com