|System: Xbox 360|
|Release: April 27, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Fantasy Violence|
by Angelo M. D’Argenio
Who would have thought that the spiritual successor to Ikaruga, the Dreamcast's cult-classic shoot 'em up, would end up being a Metroid-style open world action platformer? Well, that's exactly what Outland is, and it's a few steps shy of pure genius. The fusion of bullet hell projectile-avoidance and gradual character upgrading works better than you would imagine, and the two-color immunity system allows for enemies and obstacles that seem near impossible to overcome until you finally figure out the trick to it all. It's unlike anything I have played before, and that's a rare feeling in our current market of remakes and reboots.
Outland spins a tale of two godly sisters that control the powers of light and dark. An ancient hero fought against these sisters in an attempt to end their age-old struggle and save the world. Now, many years later, you take up that hero's cause again, imbuing yourself with the powers of light and dark in order to prevent the world from falling into destruction.
Outland's story is told through expert narration and in-game cutscenes. Every boss you beat or new power you acquire causes the narrator to divulge a little more about the plot or explain a bit more of the history of the world you are in. Though the graphics are no more than a simple interplay of shadows and color, the in-game cutscenes are still very effective. It's like a well-constructed puppet play, with character actions saying more than any narration or text could.
The graphics themselves help to evoke a strange feeling of loneliness coupled with wonder. Your main character and his surroundings are entirely composed of shadows, bringing back feelings of Limbo and Lost in Shadow. Meanwhile, strange archaic tribal markings glow yellow, red, and blue, woven throughout the scenery. Behind you lie painted backdrops of forests, cities, and caves, standing out bright against the shadows that are your character and his environment. These backdrops, while beautiful, paint a picture of a ruined world, which becomes clearer as you realize the only other characters besides your own in this world are the ravenous monsters that want to kill you. The monsters themselves are only differentiated by the glowing patterns on their body, marking them as creatures of either light or darkness. Meanwhile, ancient devices rain down pellets of light and dark energy, spreading out in wonderfully spiraling patterns that are as beautiful as they are deadly. The only sounds are your own footsteps and the chirping of the birds and cicadas in the background as you explore, and the clank of steel against armor and flesh as you fight. Of course, this minimalist soundtrack is punctuated with appropriate scores of epic orchestral music when you encounter boss monsters many times your own size. Needless to say, this is a game that really knows its atmosphere.
The core gameplay of Outland is based around Ikaruga's classic color-shifting mechanic. Enemies come in either red or blue varieties, and your character can shift his own color to red or blue as well. You cannot be hurt by projectiles or stage hazards that match your color, but you also have to be the opposite color of an enemy in order to harm him (thus allowing him to harm you back). Enemies and stage hazards of both color types are generally mixed together and interwoven, causing you to switch back and forth between your two colors quickly. There are also yellow-colored enemies and stage hazards that can hurt you regardless of what color you are, but you can also always hurt them as a tradeoff.
There are also colored platforms that behave in different ways. Some will only support your weight when you are the right color, others move when their color matches your own, and still others will drop you into hazards if your colors match up. There are also colored switches that can only be pressed when your color matches theirs. Once again, all of these things come in a yellow variety that can be interacted with regardless of your current hue.
The amount of bullets and projectiles on the screen might make your head spin. Quite frequently, it will seem like there is nowhere safe on screen. However, once you realize that you are essentially immune to one bullet color, you simply choose to be immune to the more dangerous color and skillfully avoid the less dangerous one. Even then, the bullet patterns in Outland often rival even the hardest shoot 'em ups. You are going to die. A lot. Patience is absolutely required.
Movement and combat in Outland are smooth and satisfying. Your character can run fast, jump high, cling to the edges of platforms, and wall jump to reach higher platforms. Even when you take leaps of faith you generally end up landing where you thought you would, and you rarely find yourself plummeting to your doom. This is good, because you will be doing a lot of jumping.
In fact, when the game first starts, that's all you are able to do; you can't even attack or switch colors yet. However, as you continue your journey and defeat powerful bosses, you will gain a sword and skills such as a slide attack, a ground stomp, and even the ability to teleport. Eventually you will gain a magic bar that fuels your own powerful "yellow" abilities that can damage enemies regardless of your color. These yellow abilities include a powerful sword slash, a massive beam, and even a shield that absorbs all the bullets on screen. You also gain coins by defeating enemies and breaking objects. Coins can be spent to increase your maximum health or magic at upgrade stations, though you'll have to find them first. Luckily enough, coins are rather plentiful. You can even break apart health power-ups to get some more cash if your health is full and you are in a bind.