I have a deep rooted suspicion of good-looking games. The examples of games that deliver visuals and atmosphere but fall short when it comes to gameplay is too long to even ponder; Mad World, Crackdown, the first Assassin’s Creed, even Alan Wake. They have their qualities, but most of them are on the surface. You can admire them for much more enthusiastically than you can play them.
That counts double for games on services like Xbox Live. Lower price points mean lower budgets, lower budgets mean a simplified approach to design, and that simplicity can scare developers into leaning on striking art direction to get their game noticed. I have no issue with the approach, but the aesthetics often hide derivative, staid design choices, which you won’t necessarily discover until after you’ve paid for the download.
I won’t pretend that I recall every detail of Outland’s waif of a storyline, or that it amounts to any more than an excuse to set the game in the jungle, but that’s because it has substance to back up the style. In a review of this size you have to concentrate on the important stuff, and in Outland the important stuff is almost entirely good.
Triple A games often place so much emphasis on story, world-building and visual quality that drum-tight mechanics are practically impossible. Like Limbo, like Super Meat Boy, when you play Outland everything about the movement feels precisely tailored to the obstacles in your path. You wouldn’t slow down the sprint, tweak the jump, or reign in the slide, or take away the launch or wall jump; there’s just enough pace to let gameplay flow, but not enough to make unexpected surprises seem unfair.
Early in the game you are given a sword, which you can swing up, down, or in the middle. Yes, it’s rudimentary, but you’re never asked to fight streams of enemies. Animals are infrequent, and many of them lie in wait rather than roam, so your sword is more often used for puzzle-solving and self-defence.
Outland is so refreshing because it pushes stabbing things as far into the background as it reasonably can. It wants to be more than a beautiful game that plays like all the others, and so swinging your sword plays second fiddle to a more original mechanic based around dark and light – which Outland depicts with red and blue, presumably for reasons of clarity.
You can switch the screen between these states at will, and it fundamentally alters the nature of the level. Ghostly floating platforms become solid, creatures of the opposite colour become vulnerable, and you become immune to beams and balls of energy of the same colour. As you progress further into the game these disparate elements are thrown at you with a precision that demands rapid combinations of movement, jumping, swordplay and colour changes. And for those that like that sort of thing, there are some killer bosses in the mix, too.
At this point, I’d like to address the Ikaruga question. Know-it-alls will already be clearing their throats, eager to highlight the debt Outland owes to Treasure’s classic shoot-em up. The lineage is clear, but Ubisoft has readily pointed to Ikaruga and even its own Prince Of Persia as key points of inspiration. Ultimately, though, where ideas come from isn’t nearly as important as how well they’re used, and that’s where Outland stands apart.
It feels like Ikaruga, Prince Of Persia and Super Metroid all at once, yet flourishes brilliantly as a singular experience in their shadow. In a great year for downloadable games, Outland is one of the very best.