Coming from the Finnish developer responsible for Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation (both of which are currently available to PlayStation 3 owners as part of Sony's Welcome Back package), Outland is simultaneously fresh and familiar, all at the same time.
Implementing many of the classic platformer tropes, Outland casts the player as a lone hero attempting to save the world from two powerful priestess sisters. One embodies the dark, while the other embodies the light. Since you can master both dark and light powers, you are the only one who can hope to defeat them both.
The game starts off simple enough, with limited enemies and limited abilities for the player to explore. As you get familiar with the basics, more powerful and complex moves are granted to you. These are necessary to take on some of the stronger foes in the game, and they also serve as a natural gating mechanism to the later parts of the world. For example, you may run across a wall that cannot be destroyed by your sword, but you know something lies beyond. Come back later after you've learned the charge attack, and you'll make short work of the stubborn wall.
Challenges in the game are a combination of environmental as well as strategically placed enemies. Some of the enemies you face are tough in their own right, but many of the smaller creatures are there simply to prevent you from rushing through an area. They may only take a single hit to dispatch; however, if you don't take the time to eliminate up front, there's a good chance one of them will end up in your way at an inopportune moment — such as when you're trying to make a precision jump.
When it comes to facing off against the harder enemies and the boss creatures, pattern recognition is the name of the game. Just like the classic platformers of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, every major opponent follows a specific pattern. It might not be obvious at first glance, but once you realize what's going on, winning is simply a matter of working around the pattern. After all, if you know what move the boss creature is going to make next, you can anticipate and be ready with a counterattack.
Housemarque should be given extra kudos for Outland's creative boss encounters. The standard enemies may get a tad repetitive once you're halfway through the adventure, but all of Outland's boss fights are memorable, both visually and from a gameplay perspective.
What sets Outland apart from other platformers is its approach toward the light and dark powers. Borrowing inspiration from Treasure's Ikaruga, Outland uses the dualistic nature of the light and dark powers to add an extra layer of challenge to the game. When in dark mode, you cannot be hurt by dark energy nor can you injure enemies that are also aligned dark. The same is true of when you are in light mode. All enemies can always hurt you via physical contact, though, so swapping alignment isn't some sort of cheap god mode.
Most enemies in the game consist of a single alignment, but miniboss and boss creatures have the ability to harness both powers, making those encounters doubly challenging.
The light and dark alignments within the game aren't limited to just creatures. They also impact the level geometry, as there are platforms and blocks that are also aligned with light or dark. When your alignment matches these platforms, the blocks are solid. When you differ, they are transparent, and you can pass right through them. This leads to some creative jumping maneuvers throughout. For example, in more than one area, you must jump and change alignment multiple times while in mid-air as you traverse a series of elevated platforms.
As you complete the single-player adventure, each of Outland's five main worlds becomes available for play in arcade mode. Designed to add some replay value to the game, arcade mode is all about speed and scoring. You have a fixed time limit to make your way through a level, so time is of the essence; however, defeating enemies here also awards point multipliers, so there is an incentive to fight.
Visually, Outland is a treat to look at, with a style that almost looks as if it is a watercolor painting. The palette is heavy on black outlines, which can be a bit of a downer given the striking beauty of some of the areas, but aside from that, this is one very pretty game. If Ubisoft were smart, it would be selling framed prints of the concept art at its company store.
Audio is similarly distinct, utilizing an ambient theme that doesn't overpower yet sounds vaguely tribal throughout. It complements the visuals well and never grates, even though there are only a few basic tracks that loop on a regular basis.
If there is one complaint to be had about Outland, it's the fact that co-op play is online only. You have the option of playing through story mode, arcade mode or one of five co-op-only challenges with a friend. It's a nifty addition to an otherwise single-player-focused adventure, but there isn't really a huge online community for the game, so if you want to play co-op, plan on scheduling a time with someone in advance. Being able to pick up and play with a couch buddy would've been a huge plus.
Outland doesn't quite live up to legendary platformers like Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it's still near the top of the platformer pack. It also provides plenty of gaming value for a mere 800 MSP ($10 USD). Completing the story mode will take roughly five to seven hours for most players, with arcade and co-op adding on additional time.
Regardless of whether you're an old-school platform fanatic or someone who has never picked up a platformer in your life, Outland is a game worth checking out. An impulse buy with retail production values, it's hard to go wrong with this one.
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