My experience with Xbox Live Arcade has been varied to say the least. At its best it has supplied me with some of the best games I have ever played, regardless of platform, size, price or genre and at its worst has shovelled a ton of poorly designed and badly executed crapware onto my hard disk which oddly all seem to be of similar price to the aforementioned gems.
I suspect I’m not alone in this finding and I also suspect that I’m not alone in noticing that a large number of the games in the ‘good’ category seem to be 2D platformers, which brings me nicely onto the game at hand. Outland is brought to us by Housemarque, a studio under the Ubisoft umbrella, so while you couldn’t call it an indie game by definition, it certainly feels like its hanging with the same crowd. Calling it a 2D platformer alone might be a little unfair, there is after all a bit more to it than that. It’s packed with adventuring elements, a fairly well fleshed out combat system, plenty of exploration and the game’s defining mechanic which will seem familiar to people who played a certain shoot-em-up in the days of the N64. In fact there are 2 games that Outland is so similar to that it immediately begs to be compared to them, namely Metroid and Ikaruga so let’s get this bit out of the way.
Gameplay and level design are the aspects it borrows most heavily from Metroid. In fact Outland will seem almost immediately familiar to anyone who has played any of the classic Metroid games. You take control of a nameless warrior who must navigate a series of inter-connected corridor-like levels in order to restore balance to his homeland. If that seems a little vague that’s probably because I wasn’t paying that much attention to the story. See one of my main gripes with the game is that the story is very difficult to relate to. Everything you do is given adequate context and is explained in fittingly mystical language but it feels somewhat clichéd and it doesn’t help that the story is told entirely through narrated text. Now unlike a lot of game critics (yeah I know I just compared myself to proper games critics, I do like to punch above my weight!) I actually don’t consider story telling via text a bad thing, even if it does somewhat contradict the interactive nature of video games. When it’s done well I think it works just fine. Braid for example had an excellent narrative despite being told entirely through on-screen text. To my mind this is due to the fact that the story is incredibly compelling and thoroughly interesting and is also told to you in very small, tantalising bites which keep you wanting more of the story explained. In Outland it is unfortunately standard stuff through and through; a tale about some mystical force and various gods or demons who act as the games bosses and blah blah blah. Anyway let’s move onto the good stuff…
Gameplay is where Outland shines. As I mentioned earlier, it does borrow heavily from the Metroid series and it’s light world/dark world mechanic is at best a loving homage to, and at worst a blatant rip off from Ikaruga. However, it doesn’t matter one iota. The platforming controls are spot on with well implemented parcour-style moves that allow you to wall jump, cling to ledges etc… in a lot of other platformers these moves would feel like an obvious crowbarring-in of parcour to give the game some ‘edginess’ but in Outland it feels completely natural. The pace is superb, I found it to be something of a gradual but never the less, speedy learning curve. You start out platforming slightly cautiously a la Super Mario (well if you play Mario Bros. like me anyway) but before long you get a feel for the controls, the game’s physics, the warrior’s weight and how he handles in the air for example and then you’re flying through the environments at break-neck speed. The warrior controls very fluidly, with an almost race car-like feel to him as you get up to speed when you start running and nicely slow to a quick but smooth and eased halt when you stop moving.
There are however, times when the action comes to a halt. Usually this happens when you reach a large expansive area in a level with a myriad of platforms and cannons that fire red or blue energy in sometimes bewilderingly difficult-to-navigate patterns (very reminiscent of old-school shooters like Gradius or R-type) which require you to stop and think for a moment. The light world/dark world mechanic boils down to you being able to change colour from red to blue. This affects everything from what platforms you can and can’t jump on to/interact with, what switches you can and can’t hit. It affects what can and can’t damage you; for instance those energy cannons I mentioned a few sentences ago: they fire red or blue energy and if you are the same colour as said energy then you are ale to walk through unharmed. It even affects combat; if you want to attack an enemy you have to make sure you’re the opposite colour to it, and this mechanic becomes spectacularly complex in some of the boss fights.
Combat for me was also a high point. You rarely seem to get games these days that aren’t specifically about combat but that have combat elements in them that manage to nail it. This seems to be more prevalent in platformers than in many other genres. Thankfully in Outland it is satisfying as all hell! Strokes with your sword feel nice and visceral with a nice meaty feel on contact. They have excellent sound effects to accompany them too and a nice little touch in the form of a very slight but none the less satisfying pause as you slice an enemy. It’s nothing overly flashy, it just feels nice.
The last of the game’s highlights are its aesthetics. It’s a truly beautiful game to behold both in terms of visuals and in sound design. The environments are well structured, each level usually consists of a gorgeous hand painted background which evokes a very ancient, Aztec/Mayan feel which is set behind pitch dark platforms in the foreground, many of which are contrasted with inlaid patterns of shimmering light. It gives the game a very ethereal quality. The sound track is suitably evocative too, ancient melodies accompanied by a smattering of tenor choir parts here and there, the pace of which flows between tranquil and eerie to thundering and fast-paced when the tempo of the gameplay picks up.
The game’s difficulty is what I think some may find a little jarring. As you probably will have come to expect from 2D platformers on XBLA and PSN, the difficulty is steep, ranging from challenging to downright murderous at times with many a moment (particularly in boss fights but sometimes just in run-of-the-mill platforming sections) where you’ll find yourself screaming and tearing your hair out. Of course this could just be because I happened to be shit at this particular game but I’m not ready to concede that yet. Besides many gamers like a challenge like this and even I dare say it’s preferable to the inane hand-holding of many AAA titles of today, many of which seem to have their first 2 hours explain to the player exactly what to do…god forbid they should figure something out for themselves!
Despite a few gripes here and there I thoroughly recommend Outland. It’s fun, challenging, beautiful to look at, satisfying, sometimes infuriating, but at least in my time with it…never boring.
Edit: I know the ‘Avoid it, Rent it, Buy it’ system doesn’t exactly apply to downloadable games, not exactly like you have a choice but hey, the picture looks nice right?