In a world threatened by destruction, take control of a fearless and agile warrior as he fights for the lives of his people as well as his own. The two powerful goddesses who created the world are keen on destroying it, as part of their cycle. It is your duty to put a stop to this impending doom by traversing through different parts of the world, finding guardian keys that unlock battles with fierce entities. This is the premise of Outland, a recent XBOX Live Arcade and PlayStation Network release from Ubisoft. A game that you will surely never forget about once you’ve laid your eyes on it. Step into this beautiful world as its savior and prevent utter destruction from taking its toll on innocent creation.
At its core, Outland is a mixture of different genre elements and styles rolled up into one beautiful mixture. It tasks you with traversing several unique areas around the game world, via advanced platforming mechanics, in the search for guardian keys that unlock battles with the guardians of the world, eventually leading to the ultimate battle against the twin goddess creators. Movement through each environment involves well-timed jumps, wall-jumps and the avoidance of elemental and mechanical hazards, all through a side-scrolling viewpoint.
Combat also plays a role as you battle for survival against the land’s deadliest foes including snakes, guards, dragons and gigantic ants. Though only a basic movement set is given to you, including basic sword attacks, a sliding attack and a vertical drop slam attack, that’s all you’ll need, as combat is a secondary feature, with agile movement and the ability to avoid hazards being the main mechanics. Boss battles take traditional form, though they feature creative mechanics and beautiful designs that are sure to remain in the psyche of those who battle against them.
The aforementioned description details most of the game’s elements, but the thing that sets it apart is not only its art style, but its use of light and dark magic. Along your journey, you will earn the ability to manipulate both magic types, which will aid you in the solution of puzzles as well as basic combat. If you have light magic equipped, you will receive protection from that type of magic in the environment, and vice-versa for the dark magic. This means that you will have to alternate between the two quickly (using RB) to get through tricky areas where each type of magic is shot out into the environment by plants.
Not only are they meant to be strategically used for the solving the many environmental puzzles, but the game also forces players to use them to get an advantage on the world’s foes. Enemies come in different types, each glowing with one of the two types of magic. Attacking while under the influence of the opposing type of magic will give you an advantage that will allow you to hurt them. Otherwise, they will be nearly impossible to defeat, posing a great threat to you. Especially the large ones. Watch out for them.
With these types of games, it all comes down to controls. If it’s difficult to move around the environment, then the game will fail. Most platformers require precise jumping mechanics because one wrong jump can spell the end of the player’s life. Worriers can rest at ease because Ubisoft nailed the game’s controls and movement mechanics. Though this isn’t the type of game where one fall can put an end to your campaign, it’s still annoying to fall down onto spikes or miss a jump, so the precise controls are welcome.
Instead of a one hit failure structure, Outland gives you a certain amount of hearts that will diminish one by one if you are hurt. There is a brief cool down period between heart loss, but it’s not very long, so you have to act fast. You begin the game with three hearts but can purchase more along the way by pledging a certain amount of money to the gods. You can also purchase more energy (used for extra-powerful attacks) using this type of monetary system.
There’s a lot of gameplay to be found in Outland, making it well-worth the initial ten dollar admission fee. The aforementioned campaign and its several hours of challenge and length are not alone in this downloadable package. Complementing it are an Arcade mode which times your attempts at completing each of the game’s several worlds, awarding you leaderboard scores based on completion under par time as well as the amount of doubloons you find and the plethora enemies you take out.
Rounding out the package is a set of co-operative challenges for online play, which you unlock by playing through the campaign. These challenges are of varying types and stress teamwork for tasks such as an attempt to pick up all of the doubloons in an area. Co-operative play is a natural fit for this game, but the servers were somewhat laggy during online play.
There would be the occasional hiccup where the game would stall for a second and then pick up again, taking previously input movement into account, which was frustrating. Though these hiccups weren’t very prevalent. Of course, it should also be mentioned that the campaign is available for co-operative play as well. Each mode is similar, which can feel a bit repetitive at times, but it’s easy to overlook due to the amazing amount of beauty and intelligence within its design.
Looking at this game is like watching an interactive storybook unfold. Its simple and subdued visual styling is creative and unique, with only hints of colour on each of its characters, representing the type of magic they’re instilled with. Watching it move and animate is just as fun as playing the game, because it’s amazing to watch the game’s backdrops move. Whereas most games use static backgrounds, Outland utilizes moving backgrounds with more than one tier of depth, which alter as you move by them.
Each backdrop looks different in dependence on the angle you’re viewing it from. This visual style is similar throughout the environments, which range from a forest to colourful tomb to a town market. The colours change and so do the backdrops, and it could be said that the environments look a bit too similar at times, but it’s a result of the stylization of the visuals. Vibrant yet subdued. Creative yet familiar. Outland’s visuals are sure to impress.
A true testament of a creative medium’s sound design is its ability to meld into the experience, becoming something that you become accustomed to because it fits. Outland’s audio is great in this way because it fits the experience like a glove. The development team did a great job of mixing silence and pulse-pounding orchestral music to set the mood and bring the game’s world to life. It’s both mysterious and familiar.
High-quality sound effects also complement the music and sound mixture, creating a believable and vibrant world. This is also done through the use of minimal voice acting – only showing its head on occasion, in order to set up the next story sequence or to discuss the hero’s motivations. The narrator who does the voice overs did a very good job and he fits in well with the game’s surreal storybook motif.
The main attraction for Outland is the fact that it’s not like a lot of other games. It’s so intelligent and elegant in its design and gameplay that you’ll never forget it. The game’s mechanics are simple but great and there were no control issues to be found. This is the type of game that is sure to impress gamers as well as the cynics who say that video games aren’t an art form, because it’s impossible to say that this one is not an artistic achievement.
However, it would have been nice if the story played more of a major role, instead of just being used as a reason and backdrop for the action. It wasn’t gripping like some incredible storylines are. Though, in terms of both gameplay and design, Outland is a knockout, despite a few issues that keep it from receiving a perfect score. If you’re up to the challenge of saving this surreal world and all of its beauty, give it a chance. Beautiful in many ways, Outland is a top-notch game that is certainly worth its admission price, especially when considering the fact that it’s debuting at the cheapest downloadable price point allowed by Microsoft’s XBOX Live Arcade. The world will thank you for being its savior.
Outland is an XBLA game that you will surely never forget about once you've laid your eyes on it.