Published on May 17th, 2011 | by Ken Yarbrough, Editor
Community Review: Outland
Developer: Housemarque (published by UbiSoft)
Platform: XBL Arcade
Release: April 27, 2011
MSRP: $9.99, 800 MSP
When it comes to a game like Outland, I can’t really pick one word to describe it best. Really, I can think of a short phrase: it’s a “diamond in the rough.” I picked it up first and foremost because someone told me it was like “Limbo meets Ikaruga,” and since I loved both, I had to give Outland a shot. Truthfully, I was skeptical at first. Ikaruga was such a gem itself–innovative, and frustratingly challenging enough to keep pulling me back for more; and Limbo–a combination of beautiful depiction and basic puzzle-solving. How could someone take the two of these uniquely different games and blend them together in perfect harmony?
Well, developer Housemarque managed to do just that. The game has the best of both its predecessors. The nameless main character and the background are designed in the silhouette fashion that Limbo used, while combat has a similar mechanic to Ikaruga. The story is simple–evil is threatening to take over, and your hero must journey along his path to become powerful enough to stop the Sisters of Dark and Light. What’s not so simple is your journey from there. You start as a basic yellow, mostly-powerless character. As you go onwards, you gain the ability to control both Light and Dark. When Light, indicated by the color blue, you are immune to any Light-based attacks, and can kill Dark creatures. As Dark, indicated by the color red, it is the opposite.
The immunity comes in handy because the levels are littered with spots of natural Dark and Light emitters. These are perhaps more deadly than the creatures you face, and the beads of Light and Dark come at you in strange shapes, waves and pulses. To progress through the levels, you need to perfectly time your ability to change color to pass unharmed through the emitters. After receiving the ability to change between Light and Dark, you continue to receive upgrades, such as a slide ability, a beam, a charge attack, and a large burst like the “bomb” from Ikaruga.
Honestly, I almost forgot about all the additional upgrades. Sure, they would come in handy in certain areas, but the game can be completed with only your basic abilities and the color change mechanic. Mostly, these upgrades are used to reach secret areas, and to progress forward, but rarely are they practically used in combat. Not to mention, there’s not much time to stop and think about using your extra abilities.
The difficulty definitely rises at a pretty good pace as you proceed through the game. Even the bosses get gradually more difficult, with the first requiring only a bit of jumping and hack and slash, while the Sisters themselves demand near perfection at using your color change and multitasking. Trust me, this game is challenging. The first level has you admiring the scenery and the sheer beauty of the Natural emitters against the silhouette background, but then you’re being asked to attack a Dark spider with your Light while standing under a Dark Natural emitter. This game is king of multitask and hyperfocus.
Despite the beauty of the game as well as the challenges, the game does have some control flaws. Being a platformer, jumping from level to level can be a bit tricky. In order to properly display the shapes and patterns, the levels have a greater amount of space to them, and thus gaps between jumps both vertically and horizontally are larger.
The game compensates for this by allowing your character to jump higher. However, it’s a staggering jump, causing your character to feel floaty at times, and the distances often leave you wondering if you’re even able to cross certain gaps. Most times, your character makes the jump barely, having to make a desperate grab for the very edge of a platform before pulling himself up. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that often, enemies of a particular color will linger at the edge of a platform, while you’re already trying to outrun Natural emitters that are trying to catch you and knock you from the edge. It makes it very difficult to have flawless runs.
The combat, though tricky in its use of the color mechanic, leaves you wanting more. Aside from the color mechanic, you’re left with only your melee to attack with. I found that the best way to attack was to slide, uppercut, and then swing twice at most enemies. If your enemies aren’t stunned, either with an uppercut or a charged attack, they will continue to attack you through your normal swing. And after a while, the same repetitive pattern of uppercut, jump, swing swing swing gets a little stale. Eventually, I found myself trying to avoid combat and instead dodge enemies, focusing on speeding through the levels instead of stopping and attacking every two minutes or so.
Much like any of the “Metroid-vania” games, you’ll have to backtrack to earlier levels to access previously inaccessible areas if you want full completion of the game. For an downloadable title, 8 hours of gameplay was a great chunk of time; I just wish 2-3 hours of it wasn’t spent backtracking.
Pacing through the game was worth it, however, when I finally reached the Sisters. As aforementioned, they are not an easy boss fight; but the level of difficulty made me feel like a sadist as I kept dying and trying again and again, much as I had with Ikaruga, until I finally took them down. Admittedly, the ending left me with a somewhat unfinished feeling, but as the story wasn’t the game’s driving force, I could overlook the simplistic ending.
Overall the game had given me an experience I won’t quickly forget. The stunning use of the colors on the silhouette backdrop, along with the challenging, unique combat mechanic left me wanting more. I could easily overlook the few control and design flaws; I found myself adjusting to them rather quickly anyway. For an arcade title, this game was, as I said earlier, a “diamond in the rough”.
I would love to see Housemarque push further with the concepts in the hopefully, eventual, sequel. Though borrowing concepts from both Limbo and Ikaruga, this game did feel unique. Keep the fresh ideas coming.
While the majority of this review was written by our Guest Editor, Adriana Garcia, the following review, related to the co-op feature of Outland, was written by myself, Ken Yarbrough.
Outland also features the now-standard co-op. While the main portion of the game doesn’t change all that drastically, there are a few things worth mentioning. While playing co-op, none of the collectibles in the game (money, Marks of the Gods, etc) are shared. Unfortunately, this means that the upgrades to health and magic in the game (which cost money) become far harder to pay for. That said, the co-op does feature an extra incentive for playing: Co-op challenges. There are 5 major worlds within the game, all with individual stages. Within each major world, there is a single co-op challenge, which cannot be completed while playing solo. While the first co-op challenge is simply you and your buddy running through a quick level gathering coins, the later missions throw some nifty tricks at you. One of the co-op challenges actually allows one player to control the Light/Dark alignment for both players. It makes for a very raucous, and very fun time. All-in-all, I do find that the co-op feature in this game is merely a tacked on feature. While fun, it’s completely not necessary, and does not add much to the overall experience.
[xrr label=”Rating: 9.0/10″ rating=9.0/10]