Borrow from enough different sources, and you end up with something entirely new. That’s the design mantra that fuels Outland, a visually arresting downloadable title with enough solid gameplay to back up its ample style. Mixing exploration, melee combat, platforming, and shooter mechanics into a singular concept seems like a tall order, but Housemarque manages the feat.
Outland draws on Mesoamerican mythology to craft an archetypal hero story. While the narrative is bare, its theme survives through the beautiful backdrops and dreamlike levels. As I wandered the environments, I continually paused to admire the intricate artwork and shifting colors. Each level has a character all its own, but the game maintains a breathtaking unified style throughout.
Wandering these gorgeous locales, one can’t help but draw comparisons to similar 2D exploration games. Much of the gameplay revolves around building a suite of powers that will let you reach previously inaccessible areas. While this exploration element isn’t incredibly deep, the ingeniously designed levels are filled with lots of secret passages and the occasional power-up. Along the way, a simple but enjoyable sword combat system pits you against the denizens of this mesmeric land. A generous checkpoint system saves a lot of heartache – death can be common, but you rarely start too far back.
The big feature that sets Outland apart from other exploration games is borrowed from the classic Japanese shooter, Ikaruga. Players gain the ability to shift back and forth between a light and dark (blue and red) state, and many of the game’s subsequent puzzles, platforming challenges, and combat encounters are built around that dual nature. Flip to blue, and you’ll absorb similarly colored projectiles, activate blue platforms, and be able to damage red enemies. Flip colors and the situation reverses. Once you’ve got the concept down, the game wastes little time in throwing devilish scenarios your way. Both colors are mixed in shifting patterns of swirling projectiles. Enemies of both colors attack at the same time. Ascending platforms of red and blue must be activated back and forth mid-jump. Outland builds its challenge off of your ability to keep it all straight in your head, and you end up having to concentrate much harder than you would if the objective were simply platforming and attacking.
The color-swapping craziness comes to a head in several multi-stage boss fights. These massive enemies are tough and the battles are lengthy. They build in difficulty right up to the last one, which ends up being one of the tougher final boss encounters of recent years. Like the levels between these fights, the bosses take careful attention and pattern recognition, but stop short of long memorized attack sequences. Instead, quick reflexes and a careful eye towards color matching will save the day.
Outland also has an excellent two-player online cooperative mode. While the lack of local co-op is disappointing, the online option is a lot of fun. Housemarque has even gone so far as to include several co-op designated challenge areas that can only be tackled with a friend. Meanwhile, the main campaign takes on a new dimension, as players are forced to time their jumps and attacks with each other as they flip between color states.
I would have loved a more meaningful or full-bodied story in Outland, but at least the mystical narrative maintains the unreal vibe that the rest of the game exudes. Beyond that, the action-packed platforming, hypnotic music, and striking aesthetic make Outland a must-play. I am always astounded that more developers don’t create 2D exploration games. With Outland, not only do we get a great new entry in the genre, but a unique variation on the theme unlike anything else on the market.