Housemarque's exquisitely beautiful platform adventure delivers a curious blend of ideas.
Format: 360, PS3 Release: Out Now Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: Housemarque
A heavily stylised blend of twitch platforming, exploration and combat, Outland stars an unnamed dreamer, the reincarnation of an ancient warrior responsible for restoring balance to creation by the time-honoured means of jumping, smacking things, and changing colour.
The game’s setting is capitalisation-heavy mysticism to the core, with frequent references to Heroes, Chaos and Light that manage to be both hollow and overwrought. Housemarque's realisation of this setting is, however, striking – this is an immediately and arrestingly beautiful game, in which crisp shadow-puppet characters vault and skid through vibrant, painterly worlds. There's a wonderful attention to colour throughout – despite the fact that each of the game's five environments vary little within themselves, ever-changing background hues provide unexpected variety.
The controls are well-pitched, with the hero able to snap into a sprint or leap halfway across the screen quickly and responsively. A hint of after-touch on the jump and a generous window for error with the game's ledge-grabs mean that the core platforming remains enjoyable as the danger rises. There's also basic sword combat, though a limited range of enemy behaviours mean that best strategies are quickly learned and rarely developed further. Latter-game unlocks include heavy and dash attacks and screen-clearing bomb and beam weapons, but these serve as a means of bypassing combat rather than evolving it.
At the heart of the game is its colour-switching mechanic: the hero is able to switch blue and red forms at will, each absorbing projectiles of the same colour and damaging enemies of the opposite. In and of itself this is hardly an original device, but comparisons with Ikaruga go beyond the high concept, for Outland's stages offer a bullet-hell's worth of sweeping, twirling, beaming projectiles of both red and blue varieties. Successfully traversing these lattices of light is a matter of making split-second judgements alongside the regular demands of platforming and combat, and this added challenge provides many of the game’s standout moments.
Story mode lasts around five hours and, despite the Metroidvania trappings, is a largely linear affair: a flashing minimap icon and glowing trail conspire to prevent you from wandering off, and though there are collectibles to be found, grabbing them is more about navigating environmental challenges than exploring off the main path. There's nonetheless a fair amount of backtracking, however, which combined with some unforgiving checkpointing leads to some rather retro-feeling frustration.
Arcade mode allows individual worlds from singleplayer to be replayed with timer, score and multiplier mechanics, providing a motivation for masterful play that the base game – particularly in the early stages – lacks. Both modes can be played with a partner online, though multiplayer only really comes into its own in the unlockable co-op challenges. These offer variants on the basic mechanics – requiring players to volley bombs between each other to clear walls, or giving one player control of colour-switching for both characters – and in doing so provide the most concentrated and entertaining realisation of the core concept on offer. It's a real shame, however, that local co-op isn't available.
There will be players for whom Outland's panoply of cherry-picked inspirations sets off as many warning lights as fireworks. Castlevania, Ikaruga, Prince of Persia, Limbo: these aren't titles to bat around idly, but Housemarque's adventure wears its ambitions so openly that the comparison is inevitable. By no means a classic on those terms, Outland is nonetheless a well-executed game that – hopefully – lays the groundwork for future iteration upon its central ideas.