How many times do you think the average video game enthusiast says “this is the game I dreamt of playing when I was a kid”. I’d hazard a guess it is a hell of a lot. But regardless of how many times I’ve thought it or written it (I did a search of the blog and I think I’m clean), Outland is actually the game I dreamt of playing as a kid. The game design is straight from the nineties and is a beautiful rendition and revision of the types of games I lapped up in my younger years. There is no way I could’ve known how prevelant 3D would become across the industry and looking at Outland it is almost the perfect evolution of old-school game design. But it also adds a few new twists to the formula that makes it feel like a thoroughly modern title, successfully combining the best aspects of Mega Man or Castlevania with the more interesting aspects of shoot ’em ups like ‘polarity’ and ‘bullet-hell’ Ikaruga or DoDonPachi make Outland more puzzle oriented and complicated than your average run and jump platformer. Basically Outland isn’t just a great throwback to simpler times, it is a crazy combination of two disparate genres that makes for one of the most compelling platformers of the last few years. And I loved it.
Platformers are great for two reasons. One, they often beg of the player a level of precision and skills that many modern games just don’t. Two, they usually don’t require complicated control schemes to navigate in what is obstensibly an eight-way plane. Outland takes these two great traits of the genre and runs with them, creating a game that is easily accessible by all but the most uncoordinated of players, and injecting with devious bouts of difficulty that make an otherwise pretty straightforward game design incredibly rewarding. The game’s structure is vaguely similar to genre stalwarts like Metroid and Symphony of the Night, locking off areas and dolling out powers liberally to give you new ways to fight and traverse the world. It’s an oldie-but-a-goodie and developer Housemarque has arguably implemented the system better than most, with powers being required to traverse upcoming levels, but only optionally for backtracking in pursuit of collectibles. In this way, although on the surface Outland is comparable to Super Metroid-esque open worlds, its modular strucutre of its levels which rarely ever rely on backtracking makes it progress more like your standard level-based platform fare than its more openly designed brethren. And it’s to the credit of the design team that Outland’s connected but modular world feels as epic as it does. The levels themselves are simple in their construction but because of clever and well-thought out placement of enemies and obstacles, always feel larger than they actually are. The worlds are littered with enemies that are interesting, but not deadly, and traps that are devious but not impossible. If not for the polarity system, whereby you can shift your ‘polarity’ from light to dark to avoid damage from projectiles and obstacles of the same colour, Outland’s levels would be dull and boring. But the way that mechanic is incorporated into its level design is genius and gives it that cerebral edge over your standard platformer. Its not solely about measuring your jumps perfectly and avoiding enemies when you’re having to navigate your way through intrinsic bullet patterns.
Of course none of this would matter if the game wasn’t as smooth as it is. Its precise controls make playing it feel natural, and while there are devilishly difficult parts of the game (many of them boss fights) you’ll never be in want of a better control scheme. Expletives will be tossed around the room at times as the game demands almost superhuman dexterity and hand-eye coordination, but they will never be levelled at the game, and every time I fell foul to the game’s at times devious design, it was always pretty clear that I had made the mistake. Practice makes perfect though and Outland’s smooth pacing and well-balanced difficulty, spikes and all, make getting through difficult passages always seem within reach. For a game that lives and dies by how it controls that is high praise indeed.
But like Limbo before it the first thing that will strike most people is how strikingly attractive Outland is. A far cry from the detailed and painterly qualities of Rayman Legends, Outland employs a silhouette style that keeps things stylistically simple, but infuses it with intricate detail in places to give the game a real sense of place. The trible images of otherworldly beings and powers that are strewn across the pitch black architecture, all contrasted against simple yet beautifully animated coloured backgrounds is nothing short of striking, and give Outland a unique identity amongst the swag of pixel-laden indie games populating download services across all platforms. Whether it was intentional or not Outland’s story, as bare bones as it is, is told almost all through the world itself. So while you don’t have more than a couple of pages of story, the story of the world is constantly unfolding in front of you, almost like wandering through a foreign city and imagining the place’s history. If you go into Outland looking for an epic story you’ll be disappointed, but come for the atmosphere and you’ll leave well and truly satiated.
The greatest testament to Outland’s quality though is that I just could not put it down, ostensibly finishing it up in two sittings. The game’s bite-sized design would make it equally easy to play in small chunks but its rhythm just felt so good that it became hard to put down. The game never really surprises you with new things to do, but its how it mixes its core polarity and platforming mechanic to offer challenge that will keep you on your toes. There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with what basically boils down to multi-tasking, as your fingers almost instinctively move from button to button in an almost impossible manner, changing polarity, jumping, dodging and weaving, sometimes all at the same time. But its testament to developer Housemarque that, like in its other titles Resogun and Super Stardust, the difficult that can make playing the game infuriating at times, is the very same thing that will keep you coming back for more.