Outland: A Polarizing Experience

A Polarizing Experience

Sticking with our theme of XBLA games with uninspiring names, we have Outland. This game shares its name with an unrelated sci-fi cult film from 1981, unrelated comic strip from the '90s, and unrelated region in World of Warcraft. Didn't exactly try hard to build name recognition. Other than that, Finnish developer Housemarque has created the best 2D platformer I've seen in years.

Super Mario Brothers mainstreamed video games and set the bar high for platformers. Throughout the '90s, platform games remained the flagship genre thanks to Mario, Mega Man, Sonic and countless other franchises. But they raised the bar so high that any new releases fail to compare, thus selling poorly. This lessens the chance that similar subsequent games will get the proper funds and love needed to succeed.

Outland is the exception. It cleared, possibly even rose the bar for two reasons: near-perfect execution and one awesome not-so-original idea.

It can be said that soldiers are playing a real-life shooter game, but few (if any) people spend their days real-life platforming. Jumping between platforms is dangerous and has few practical applications, but by creating satisfying controls and physics systems, video game developers can make this suicidal virtual activity as fun as anything else. Outland executes both of these aspects perfectly.

The controls have minimal lag and take advantage of the analog buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to allow players precise control over their jumps, slides, and other moves. The physics system registers every jump and every swing of the sword so well, that when I died (fairly often) it never felt like it was the game's fault. It was I who was not worthy.

So, what about the not-so-original idea?

2001's Ikaruga is arguably the finest bullet hell schmup of the last decade. Made by shmup-masters Treasure, it's a fairly standard shoot 'em up that introduced the game world to polarity systems. The player controls a small rapid-firing ship surrounded by bullets, but one controller button causes the ship to instantly switch between black and white modes (the two poles) at any time. All of the enemies and shots fired are also in either black or white. The player cannot be hurt by shots that are the same color as they are, but those shots do double-damage to enemies of the opposite color. This creates an interesting, strategic way to dodging the flood of shmup bullets in Ikaruga.

Outland copies that polarity mechanic almost exactly, but applies it to a platformer with blue and red instead of black and white. The game features many puzzles and platforming challenges that require creative use of polarity-switching, such as navigating between waves of alternating-color traps and enemies, while frequently switching polarities. The aforementioned physics and controls ensure that all of these puzzles and odd color-switching battles always feel hard, but totally doable—the perfect combination for a satisfying game.

The graphics are African-inspired; simple but stylish and effective. The musics and sound effects are sparse and add to the somber, almost Shadow of the Colossus vibe one feels playing the game. The level design is vintage Super Metroid, with players navigating a giant maze unlocking new powers that enable access to previously inaccessible earlier parts of the maze. If you are one of the millions of Xbox 360 owners who bought the excellent XBLA Metroid-style platformer Shadow Complex in 2008, you will adore this game. If you have ever liked a Mario, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Kirby or Castlevania game, you will probably also get a kick out of this game. It's a great product, and more than worth the $12 price of admission.

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