Review: Outland (PC)

Housemarque’s Outland debuted on Xbox Live Arcade all the way back in 2011, with its PSN release appearing a few months later. As a game with such a striking visual style, it bears the question of why it took so long for it to reach PC. Three years later, PC gamers are finally able to see what all the fuss is about, as Outland has launched on Steam. With new features in tow and a pristine art style fit for your new monitor, Outland is a game that makes a strong first impression. A unique light-dark mechanic and a good amount of action make up for the game’s lack of creative level design and its boring new abilities.

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To kick things off, yes, Outland is gorgeous. Indie developers have been leading the charge in creating fresh, artistic aesthetics for their games and Housemarque have really given it their all when designing the world of Outland. The game’s backgrounds are lush, portraying dreamy lighting in all four major stages. The early jungles are green and vibrant, while the later mountain stages are chilled and eerie. Outland’s emphasis on the contrast between light and dark energies (more on that later) is one of its most defining accomplishments, with brilliant blue and fiery red richly scattered across the screen. The animations of the hero are acrobatic on the same level as the original Prince of Persia. Nimble leaps and vaults keep the momentum of the game moving well. The soundtrack is just as powerful. The tribal chants harken to the indigenous tribes of South America, as thin woodwinds and sparkling sound effects give the game a dynamic mood. Outland is by far one of the most stylish-looking indie games released in years.

The main gameplay mechanic of Outland is the use of dark and light polarities. Echoing the same mechanic from the vertical shooter Ikaruga, you can switch between the reddish dark and bluish light energies. Each polarity has offensive and defensive purposes, as you’re immune to projectiles of the same polarity you wield, while also dealing extra damage to enemies of the opposite. So if you’re in the dark mode, dark projectiles won’t do damage to you and you can do extra damage to light-aligned enemies yourself (same with vice versa). As with Ikaruga, Outland’s challenges focus on switching between the two alignments on the fly to avoid damage and make quick attacks. It can definitely be tricky (especially near the end, where enemies can change their own polarities too), but once you get the hang of it, the gameplay feels organic and natural. It’s a clever use of a classic mechanic.

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Outland is dubbed a Metroidvania game, where you explore, learn new abilities, and then use those abilities to progress further. A simple concept, but Outland makes a number of missteps in delivering the same exploration-focused fun as other games in its class. Firstly, the abilities themselves are uninventive. You can get skills like a ground stomp to destroy barriers beneath you, a shove attack to break barriers in front of you, along with some combat tricks like an energy blast or heavy slashing maneuver. Aside from the combat moves, these abilities are extremely situational and you won’t find yourself using many of them except when they’re required to open a new passage. Aside from the launch pad ability (which pleasantly reminded me of the barrel cannons in Donkey Kong Country), the abilities lack any creativity. They’re simply means to an end, keys to open doors instead of something more integrated into the bigger world.

In fact, Outland’s design in general lacks creativity. As the hero, you can wall-jump, smash pots for health and currency (which can be used to buy health or energy upgrades), or leap across giant chasms. The stages themselves don’t have any structural spark. The only major changes are the art designs, not the architecture or layouts. Some new enemies or traps appear down the line, but compared to other recent Metroidvania games like Guacamelee! or Shadow Complex, Outland’s gameplay feels bleak. Very rarely do any of the four environments show any unique elements from each other, which make Outland’s Metroidvania elements seem limited and underdeveloped in practice. The backtracking doesn’t help much, nor does the fact that you always have a waypoint telling you which way to go. For a game so majestic in its artistic vision, Outland is too stripped down to rival its influences on a gameplay level.

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There are some moments of fun, however, especially with the boss fights. The five major boss fights might not be all that difficult, but the creative uses of the bullet-hell projectile dodging are joyous in motion. The challenge is right where it should be and the adrenaline rush from narrowly dodging hundreds of sparkling energy orbs is exhilarating every time. It’s in these moments where Outland is at its finest. When the game channels the tenuous precipice walk of bullet-hell shooters, you see a creative gem. It’s too bad the levels themselves are so lifeless in comparison.

The Steam release doesn’t pack on too many new features for those who played the game on PSN or XBLA. The two major additions are campaign co-op and improved checkpoints. The campaign co-op offers cooperative missions, which can be discovered by finding special portals in each level. They’re fun for a distraction, but don’t build upon the core gameplay too much. The improved checkpoints are much more welcome, as the game can get dicey in later areas, and the distances seem much more manageable, while still offering some edge. The graphical fidelity has been stepped up as well, with the game looking glorious on a nice HD monitor. However, Outland’s Steam version offers no rebinding preferences for keys, so the default controls are your only option if you plan on using a keyboard. A controller is highly recommended when playing Outland.

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Closing Comments:

For a game in a subgenre synonymous with deep exploration and multi-layered worlds, Outland is a shockingly grounded experience. The abilities are devoid of creativity and the puzzles they’re used with feel unnatural and dull. Beneath a beautiful aesthetic (one that could drop the jaws of many AAA developers) lies a game that takes a low number of risks. But the risks it does take are worth experiencing. Outland is still a fun time, especially if you’re a fan of 2D shooters like Ikaruga or challenging retro games like Castlevania. When the screen is flooded with colored orbs and you’re tenuously leaping from platform to platform, Outland shows its best colors (no pun intended). Overall, it’s a gorgeous game that doesn’t fully cultivate its Metroidvania roots, and while that’s a disappointment, there’s still enough fun to be had here to be worth a look.

3outof5Version Reviewed: PC