Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Outland for XBLA and PSN

Outland is a game which flew entirely under my radar. I generally have a fairly good idea of most major gaming releases, but I somehow missed this one entirely. I only gave it a try when it popped up on an XBLA sale, and I’m very glad that I did.

The protagonist of Outland is an unnamed and unspeaking man who, receiving dreams of a mythical and magical past, visits a shaman to get an explanation. The man is the heir to a great hero of the past, who had battled the two ‘Sisters of Chaos’, imprisoning them and dying in the process. The Sisters have escaped their imprisonment, so the shaman sends the hero on a journey to gain the powers needed to stop the Sisters.

Much of the plot is told through a gravelly voice narrator. There’s actually possibly a bit too much plot here, with a bad case of telling rather than showing. We’re informed after defeating each boss that they weren’t always bad, that they were once pillars of goodness, but this isn’t really relevant and doesn’t at all come across in the design or behaviour of the creatures themselves. There’s a potentially interesting world here, but it’s story isn’t told particularly well, and the game wouldn’t have suffered at all for paring the plot back even further.

Outland is, superficially at least, a platformer. The player is a silhouette who leaps and kills his way through the environment, gaining abilities which can be useful to access secrets in previous levels, giving this game something of a ‘Metroidvania’ feel to it. Outland’s twist comes from a mechanic stolen shamelessly from Ikaruga; the player can change between being red or blue, with lasers of that colour not effecting them. This starts out simple enough, but by the end you’ll be switching back and forth constantly, dodging between lasers and trying to take out enemies that can only be destroyed whilst the player is the opposite colour. Outland gets very difficult, and at times it strongly reminded me of the ‘bullet hell’ genre of shmup. The boss battles are fun and inventive too, usually involving taking out some giant horrible monster, and these can also get incredibly hard.

Probably one of this game’s biggest flaws lies in its weak opening. The player doesn’t actually gain the colour swapping ability until the second world, with the first world acting as a stylish, and not unentertaining, platformer. It doesn’t help that your given one of those moments where it shows you at full power before the game gets going, as in Metroid Prime, before yanking them away from you. This makes the wait until you get these abilities rather dull; it’s not good game design to withhold your main mechanic for a fifth of the game!

Outland takes place in five worlds, which do a good job of not being simply driven by the standard ‘grass world fire world ice world’ archetype. That said, there’s not that much of a distinction between these worlds. It’s visually very stylish, and this minimalist style is actually for the best; with the red and blue lasers flying everywhere as the player soars between them, dynamic backdrops would only serve as a distraction.

This is an incredibly stylish game, with the substance to back it up. The animation for our hero really contributes to the experience. There’s a sense of exhilaration as the player soars through the levels which simply wouldn’t have been possible with lesser animation, so a lot of credit is due there. The visual design of this game is subtle, not as obviously stylised as Limbo or as beautiful as Braid, but all the better for being understated.

Outland is a really cool, fun game. It takes plenty of elements from other games, and combines them to create something completely new. I’ve never played a ‘bullet-hell’ platformer before, and I’m grateful to Outland for giving me the opportunity to do so.

outland

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