Jeremy Jastrzab
28 Apr, 2011

Outland Review

360 Review | Out of this world.
Until we got a chance to check it out in our preview last month, we knew nothing about Outland. But that’s the beauty about working with games; sometimes you’ll have a title that comes completely out of left field and gives you a great change of pace to the Halos and CoDs. Outland definitely fall into that category. After the success of puzzle platformers such as Braid and Limbo and twitchers such as Super Meat Boy and Splosion Man on your local download service, it’s fantastic to see a platformer take it back to basics; as Outland promises action aplenty and the ingenious use of a mechanic originally devised in shmups.

An action platformer with a twist, Outland invokes the best of the best: Metroid, Castlevania and (not surprising, given Ubisoft published it) Prince of Persia, along with numerous other classic platformers and the duality mechanic made famous in the hair-threatening shmup, Ikaruga. Anyone worried how this mechanic would work in a platformer can rest assured, it fits like a glove. And when everything is put together, you have probably the best original (so outside of established franchises) action platformer of at least this generation. As a genre that is ideally suited for the downloadable format, it’s a wonder there haven’t been more of such titles.

But it’s not just as an innovative action platformer that Outland stands out. No, it’s a wonderfully unique and alluring spectacle with a subtle and understated soundtrack. At first, the style using shadows and silhouettes is reminiscent of Limbo. But very quickly, the colour, the vibrance and unique art style set Outland apart from anything else, but it remains a distinctly ancient South American vibe, like something Incan/Aztec. Travelling through a fantastically diverse and distinctive set of locations, the scale and the action increase as you play, without sacrificing performance for a second. Content to sit in the background, the soundtrack doesn’t play a false note; always sombre and reflective, yet adaptable the environment. It’s well worth a listen and to get some appreciation.

If only all power-ups were this awe-inspiring.

If only all power-ups were this awe-inspiring.
The story too, seems to be steeped in some sort of ancient South American creationism. The anonymous protagonist seeks a Shaman in the jungle to try and make sense of the visions that haunt him; of the sisters of light and dark that are stuck in a vicious cycle of creation and destruction, and every time the cycle hits the destruction phase, the immortal soul of a hero awakens in an unsuspecting individual. Lucky him? The story is interesting, but not particularly well told. Thankfully, it’s stuck into the background, and kept minimalist for the most part, which works out fine. And though it ends on a slightly ambiguous not, it’s satisfying enough.

It’s just as well that the story is quite minimalist, as it allows Outland to excel through gameplay excellence. As stated in the preview, Outland is pretty much spot-on mechanically. Most of the errors that occur during your platforming are your own fault – though PS3 owners will probably find it a fraction more comfortable. Given the pace, agility and acrobatic ability of the protagonist, the title invokes a faster, better controlling Prince of Persia. Spread across five ‘worlds’, the abilities that you gain that allow you to progress through each of the levels invoke the classic Metroid design. And the levels themselves and the combat invoke a comparison with classic Castlevania. Given the mix of these three, players may be reminded of the underappreciated Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.

The platforming is fast paced and but it also demands skill and patience, as it’s very much about avoiding obstacles too. Combat is rather basic, but it’s more about survival and resourcefulness rather than flash combos. The major twist, is the addition of the duality mechanic. Through out the game, you’ll be under fire from the forces of light (blue) and dark (red) and early on, you’ll gain the powers of both. Basically, when activating the power of light, you can only be damaged by the powers of dark, and vice versa. Switching between the two is comfortably placed on the R1/RB button, making it great for fast paced and reflex-based sequences.

And this is only the first level!

And this is only the first level!
As mentioned at the outset, this happens to work extremely well for a platformer. Players are beset by constant streams of light and dark energy, requiring you to learn the patterns, as you would in a shmup, but giving you leeway to execute some patience. However, platforms and traps will be affected by which power is in activated too. Steadily, these patterns get harder, the enemies peskier and the margin for error smaller. Steadily, the game throws you new and harder challenges in each world. However, it’s remarkable at how satisfying the game becomes when you get it ‘right’, and while you’re rewarded with satisfaction for completing a hard sequence, the game is forgiving enough that multiple restarts are unlikely to bother too many.

Outland really epitomises the ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ mantra, without requiring ninja-like skills, but the boss battles aren’t so forgiving. Failing them sends you back to the beginning, but when you’ve got such tense, huge and well-thought out encounters, it’s almost a joy to keep going at them. Again, it’s not because they’re cheap, it’s because you weren’t good enough to handle them. It demands skill to be proficient but it’s never impossible. Figuring out the bosses and some of the tougher enemies is half the fun.

There are some criticisms that ought to be brought up though, as niggling as they might be. While the design of some of the ‘bullet streams’ are remarkably imaginative if demanding, there are times where the level design itself feels flat and lacking, particularly when you have a constant butterfly trail. It can get confusing when damaged, as you flash red and it’s hard to know which power you have active. Oops. And for all your powers and abilities, a lot of the game doesn’t really demand it. So it can come off as a waste sometimes. While a fantastic and distinctive platformer in its own right, the weak delivery of story and interface aspects (it’s never explained until you get to the teleport ability what a key menu does) sometimes make it feel like Outland rides off it’s pedigree; it makes you remember other platformers more than itself.

Probably better to avoid that.

Probably better to avoid that.
Still, if you’re looking for value, Outland has more of it than a lot of retail titles. It’s remarkably long for a downloadable title – with around ten to twelve hours for a single player through (remember, the clock doesn’t count retries). But to top that off, you’ve got collectibles that actually add to the game, secrets to explore once you upgrade your abilities (though not as many as you’d like), an arcade mode that challenges you both to collect the points and finish the world as quickly as possible, online co-op that allows you to play through the whole story and arcade challenges specifically designed for co-op and of course, leaderboards. The co-op challenges even manage to open up a new way of playing and are quite creative.

If it isn’t obvious by now, Outland is one of the best arcade titles for the year so far, and probably the best original action platformer of the generation. It successfully blends the best elements of classic platformers with modern sensibilities and innovative designs, creating an experience that is challenging but alluring, demanding in skill but not impossible and remarkably well-constructed. Not to mention, the art style and soundtrack make the game an absolute aesthetic stunner and audio treat. Oh, and it’s probably a more complete package than most current retail titles. While it doesn’t quite reach the masterpiece stage, for anyone in the market for a fast and awesome platformer, you’re unlikely to play much better this year.
The Score
Fast, fluid, challenging, alluring, a visual and audio treat, Outland utilises classic inspiration, modern sensitivities and innovation to create the best original platformer in a generation. 9
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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2 years ago
Looks fantastic. Great review, Jeremy!
2 years ago
Cheers icon_y1.gif

Oh, and to everyone out there... it's only 800 points icon_eek.gif
2 years ago
If it isn’t obvious by now, Outland is one of the best arcade titles for the year so far, and probably the best original action platformer of the generation
Oh wow huge call when Hardcorps: Uprising came out two months back.

Still looks great though, can't wait to get home and DL it.
2 years ago
Nice review. Game looks great. I don't have the time to play it though. :/
2 years ago
I need to get a 360.
2 years ago
Benza wrote
Oh wow huge call when Hardcorps: Uprising came out two months back.
Hmm... I'd consider Hard Corps more a side-scrolling shooter rather than an action platformer. Two different genres, really.
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