Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Alice: Madness Returns (PS3/360)

It's been eleven years since Alice Liddell began her descent into her deranged Wonderland, in American McGee's Alice, which had earned quite a cult following.  Now, haunted by the death of her family in a tragic fire, that only she escaped, Alice travels to Wonderland once again in Alice: Madness Returns (EA, Spicy Horse Games).  After her release from Rutledge Asylum, Alice still maintains quite a bit of guilt and confusion about the calamitous incident that has turned her life upside down.  Regular sessions with her psychiatrist using hypnosis, seem to be having adverse effects on her thoughts and dreams.  As in the past, Alice retreats to Wonderland to escape, but finds it has drastically changed since her last visit.  Will she be able to unearth the secrets and clues that have led to her "Madness?"  Do the vibrant atmospheres exceed the gameplay?

While technically labeled an action-adventure title, Alice: Madness Returns is basically a 3-D platformer with slight bits of combat thrown in.  Alice has a host of people concerned about her, but who are her friends and who are out to harm her?  Additionally, the familiar cast of characters return, but in limited roles.  It's Alice's Wonderland, it's demise is her doing and she must be the one to repair it.  The story will not be rehashed here, to remain free of spoilers, but it was intriguing and kept me going when some aspects of the game became monotonous.  I kept playing little by little to unravel more and see what was around the next bend.  Before we get to the important stuff, I liked this game, I possibly really like it.  Initially, I was enthralled when I first set foot in Wonderland and that feeling remained with me, almost, to the final screen.  The problem was that the game's repetition in level design, not ambiance, kept it from being Alice's Excellent Adventure.

What would Wonderland be without conflict?  Luckily, Alice has a bevy of weapons (by the end, a total of 4) in her arsenal, all of which have some thematic significance to Wonderland.  These are split into melee weapons, like her Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse, and ranged weapons like her Pepper Grinder and Teapot Cannon.  The Clockwork Bomb, finds itself somewhere in the middle.  Although I had seen the weapon types in games beforehand, this new twist make them seem fresh and engaging.  Unfortunately, once all of Alice's weapons had been upgraded to the max, I found myself really only using one of the weapons in combat, as it seemed to do the most damage.  

Alice is also quite nimble.  In fact, get ready to jump.  A lot.  Alice: Madness Returns utilizes jumping, double jumping, and floating more than quite a bit.  She also has a power, called Shrink Sense, at her disposal.  When activated, it allows Alice to find hidden doors, platforms, or receive clues on what was ahead, etc.  She cannot do anything but walk, while accessing it, so in the case of hidden platforms that involve jumping to, you kind of have to jump to the memorized spot (although it does leave a brief glowing residue).  As you can imagine, this leads to a multitude of unsuccessful leaps.  I didn't get too frustrated with missing a platform, as Alice's demise is so peaceful and lovely.  When expired, Alice's form morphs into a cluster of butterflies flying away.  Additionally, when she does die, the place that she restarts is quite close to where she met her downfall, so it wasn't too much of a penalty, and surprisingly no loss from her health meter.  I think that the developers might have put those touches in, as they may have noticed that the game was a bit flawed, and their inclusion would reduce frustration

If you've read my other reviews, I've mentioned my affinity for collectibles.  If done the proper way, I don't mind spending extra time on levels, in fact I enjoy it.  This game really does collectible hunting wondrously.  There are multitudes of collectibles, but in this case memories, to hunt for.  The majority are not right out in the open and involve using some crafty contemplation.  Each memory, when located, reveals a little bit about Alice's thought processes or past and delves into her mind, revealing the clues essential in resolving her inner conflict.

The level design starts to get a bit stale on the third (of 6 total) chapter.  While the vistas and locales change, it's essentially jump from and onto platforms, pull levers, fight a few enemies, slide, fight a few more enemies, and repeat 1-2 times more until the end of the level.  The levels, or chapters, are also quite long.  Initially, it threw me, but didn't bother me too much by the end.  While they are broken up into smaller bits, or sub-chapters, they are inaccessible if you need to restart an area (missed a collectible), until the whole chapter is completed.  While I was collectible hunting, chapters could take a couple of hours, or longer to complete.  Obviously less, maybe by half, if you just rushed through, but then again you would be missing key clues to the story, by not accessing memories.

Within each large level, are a few scattered mini-games.  I thought these were well done, as they typified the level they were in.  In fact, I think they should have figured more prominently throughout Alice: Madness Returns.  My favorites were where Alice turned 2-D and had retro side scrolling adventures.  In the underwater levels, she commandeered a ship and had to blast fish and mines, Defender-style.  Alice actually climbed into paintings in the Far East levels and navigated her way around (more jumping!).  Others had you guiding a macabre doll head Super Monkey Ball style, rearranging blocks, pressing musical notes, and even playing rudimentary chess.

American McGee certainly has a unique creative vision.  I marveled at the contrast in styles which were exemplified in each level.  Since the Chapters are so long, the same graphical design does not stay constant, thankfully.  The first introductory chapter begins in a lush, psychedelic tropical environment vibrant in color, yet ends in a semi-monochromatic, steampunk kind of metal-infused world.  The creatures and inhabitants, also have taken steps towards the grotesque, as Alice's damaged psyche portrays them.  It's quite evident that Wonderland is in decay.

The storytelling uses a mix of different types of cut scenes to convey what's happening.  Some are what you'd expect from a video game in 2011, but others are influenced by storybooks, with what looks like, 2-D paper cutouts.. The effects are this mix of nostalgia infused with today's technology.  Even in London, the other characters Alice meets have exaggerated features, and look like they could be creatures from Wonderland.

The voice acting in Alice: Madness Returns is excellent, which makes Alice's story so much more believable and helps you form an attachment to Alice's circumstances.  Music throughout the game is the appropriate mix of violin and/or piano to make the adventure seem a little more creepy.

Replay Value
While there is a New Game + feature available, I can't see much use in it.  Any collectibles missed can be accessed through the sub-chapter level selector.  I do recommend purchasing the DLC outfits and weapons pack for the game.  They make the game a tad easier through various bonuses you get while wearing, and it's only a couple of bucks.  Plus, they look pretty cool.  I played through using them and I think that added to my lack of frustration experienced.  For buyers of the retail copy, the original American McGee's Alice is available to download through a code included (Or available for $10 through PSN or XBL, if you purchased the game used)


I enjoyed my time in Wonderland much more than I thought I would.  I expected a run of the mill third-person action adventure and got much more.  A little more of the mini-games and a little less jumping should be in order for her next game.  While the game at times feels a bit rushed and incomplete, I am definitely up for Alice's next adventure.  Alice: Madness Returns is a pleasant change of pace, and some of the sequences and experiences have stayed with me, even after I've moved on to other games.  A good deal now that it available for $40, and definitely worth a look when it drops below $30.

At the time of this review, Alice: Madness Returns is available from Amazon for $39.99, for both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Bastion (XBLA)

Who wants to kill some scumbags? No, you read that right.  I'm not even talking about Nazis or terrorists either.  Scumbags, Squirts, and Windbags, to name a few.  They all can be battled in Xbox Summer Arcade's first offering, Bastion.  Bastion is a 2D action RPG with hand-painted artwork, that is the product of Supergiant Games (their first game, but have some former Infinity Ward and EA's Command and Conquer vets on the team) and published by Warner Bros. (who appropriately tailored their logo to fit the art style of the game---a good sign that they were supporting this game).  

The game begins with the game's protagonist, The Kid, rolling out of bed and finding that something called The Calamity, has thrown his and the whole world into disarray.  This is ascertained through the raspy utterances of The Stranger, whose narration follows The Kid's actions.  If you start destroying things looking for hidden items, he'll tell you if you're wasting your time or not.  You fall or lose a life, he'll have some sardonic comment about your plight.  I kept waiting for the comments to start becoming repetitive, but surprisingly, they didn't.  At least not through my first playthrough, which is understandable, as Supergiant claims to have recorded around 3,000 lines of narration for Bastion.

Every hero needs a quest, and The Kid's is to rebuild the destroyed Bastion and return it to it's glory days.  This is accomplished through visiting different places, defeating enemies and collecting bits of shards and cores, which are then placed on The Monument, which leads to the reconstruction of the Bastion.  When this occurs, buildings can be placed and later upgraded, to aid in the quest for total rebuilding and progressing more easily through the story.  The story is purposely vague at the outset, and each level or area, adds a bit more to the legend.  Is the art style complemented with solid gameplay or is it just style or substance?

If you've heard the phrase 'may the road rise up to meet you,' you'll get a sense of how navigating through the levels works in Bastion.  The majority of the gameplay takes place on floating pockets of land, but when The Kid starts walking the correct route, the terrain magically appears out of thin air.  If no ground appears, that's not the way to go to get to shard and to the end of the level.  I did find that it wasn't always perfectly clear where I could and couldn't go, as I would see an enemy and try to melee them, only to find out that it wasn't accessible because of my tumbling death.

Armed with his trusty shield and a two weapons, our white-haired hero sets off to right what has been wronged.  I liked that there were only two weapons available at a time, as it added some strategy.  Sometimes, I really didn't have the best weapons for that particular level, so I either had to head back to The Bastion or see if I could find an in-level Armory.  Additionally, one special skill could be equipped that would give a weapon some special potency.  Weapons also varied from swords and staffs, for a more close combat effect, or ranged weapons such as guns and bows.  Since The Kid cannot run, rolling needs to be used effectively, in order to survive many situations.

Initially, I thought I would just be fighting the same enemies over and over until  had collected all I needed to collect,  but there is quite a bit of variety of enemy types, as well as in the environments traveled, covering all of the archetypes: flying, poison-spewing, charging, etc..  Just heading in to a herd of enemies and button mashing, usually lead to a quick loss of health, or even death.  Your shield could also be used to deflect unwanted advances, but only did damage to your opponent if you timed it just right.  I also preferred that the enemy's health was not shown in the prototypical bar above their heads, but a more modern wheel, around the creatures that would lose pieces when damaged.  Weapons, of course, could be upgraded (up to five times) for maximum effect, when certain items were found or challenges met on the Proving Grounds.

There are a couple of specific areas that are added in, to give you more exposure with certain weapons, as well as practice with different weapon combinations.  The Proving Grounds are areas specific to one weapon.  You can only use that weapon noted, although you can use any upgrades you've purchased.  If certain conditions are met (time-specific or number of enemies conquered), you earn a special token, depending on whether you earned third, second, or first prize, that is useful later on.  Initially, I thought that just getting third place was sufficient, but finding out the specific tactic that earns you first prize, is usually beneficial in the game levels.  There is also a place called Who Knows Where, in which wave after wave of differing combinations of enemies you've met come after you.  Not only do you earn experience points to help you level up, and some of the game's currency, but you also get a good sense of which weapon loadout works best for your style, and the types of enemies you'll be facing.

Bastion is a graphically enriched game.  The colors are vibrant and lush, yet still manage to remain appropriate for this wasteland of a world.  Jen Zee deserves any accolades she earns by bringing the team's vision of Bastion to life.  There were many times I wished the characters were larger so I could see them better in more detail.  The variety of creatures and the details in areas are amazing.  I would see that it was time to stop playing, but would want to see what kind of creatures I would come across, if I experienced just 'one more level,'

As was previously mentioned, the narrator's Tom Waits/Clint Eastwood voice, coupled with his instinctive comments, really add to the game.  When he's not giving a play by play of your actions (I would still chuckle, even when I had played over 5 hours into the game), the snippets of the backstory he's divulging are a nice touch.  Typically I tend to block out a lot of the extraneous chatter from game announcers/narrators, but you really do have to pay attention to what he's saying while you're playing.  The narrator pushes Bastion over the edge from your basic RPG.

Replay Value
The main game most likely will take somewhere between 8-10 hours of your time, which seems reasonable for a game with this price.  I rarely had it feel tedious, but I didn't sit for long periods and play.  it was more like an hour here and an hour there.  Once the main game is finished, there is a new game + mode, if you're interested in continuing your adventure with The Kid.


I'm not a fan of the trend of more and more Xbox Arcade games breaking the 800 MSP barrier, but Bastion is treading that fine line.  While it's most likely worthy of my $15, I think my score would have been a bit higher, if it had stayed at that 800 MSP line.  Overall, though, a fun adventure with outstanding art direction, and an innovation narration system, which is certainly worthy of your time, kind of like if The Legend of Zelda games had stayed 2D

Bastion for Xbox 360 Arcade is priced at 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) and is available now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: BRINK (PS3/XBOX 360)

What do you get when you try to cross MAG or Team Fortress 2 gameplay with the look and feel of Borderlands and a futuristic Mad Max?  Bethesda Softworks (Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) and Splash Damage (Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars) hope its the next big franchise to hit consoles.  The impressive art direction in the advertising campaign originally drew me to this game, but does it translate to tengaging gameplay?  Now that it has dropped in price almost universally, is it something you should pick up now?  Is it even worthy of it's all CAPS moniker?

The premise in BRINK is not anything we really haven't seen before, but it centers around a man-made, eco-friendly, floating city, designated The Ark, that is on the brink (get it) of Civil War.  Since the oceans of the world have begun to rise to unsafe levels, The Ark has become a sort of haven for people affiliated with its original inhabitants, as well as other displaced people looking for a better life, who have to live on the outskirts.  It's basically a bunch of Haves versus Have Nots.  One group wants to break free of the overpopulation and desecrating conditions for the outcasts on The Ark (called The Resistance) and leave the floating city to see what the world is like beyond its walls, while the other group wants to keep the refugees in control and living in continued squalor, while they continue to benefit in The Ark (called The Security).

Upon starting the game, you have to first select and customize a character.  While the customization options are ample, they aren't exactly endless.  The character design is similar to Gears of War, with overexaggerated features and bulging muscles.  There are four different classes of characters: Soldier, Engineer, Medic, and Operative.  Obviously each has their own strengths and weaknesses and in this game you will be switching classes a lot during each level or mission, to complete objectives.

To move around, BRINK also uses whats been classified as SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain).  In this, a button can be assigned to to quickly traverse across different environmental obstacles.  Think of it as parkour influenced climbing, jumping, and sliding, reminiscent of Mirror's Edge.  The diagram below shows the various ways something like this could be accomplished.  Unfortunately, much of the time, I kind of forgot about SMART and did the regular old climbing and jumping, except for the occasional slide.

I've spent quite a bit of time with this game, beating both campaigns (a total of 16 missions, but they are long missions, which turns out to be a blessing and a curse), and utilizing both solo play, as well as completing levels online with human counterparts.  I get that the online component was designed to be a major selling point for BRINK, but the online community is pretty stagnant at the moment.  When starting a level online, I would say that only about 25% of the time did I have another human joining me.

This game is quite frenetic when you first jump in.  There is a lot of action going on around you and quite a bit of chatter from your teammates (which I liked initially, but then grew to hate).  Initially, only one or two classes will have an objective that are pretty basic (hack this, defend this, escort this person, etc.), but the objectives increase (both primary and secondary), as you progress through the game.  Just find a (or take over an opponent controlled one) command post, and you can switch classes.  There is an objective wheel that is easily accessed at any time, that highlights the objectives and classes needed, so it's not too confusing.  Select an objective and it'll point you in the right direction to complete it.

That's not to say that BRINK isn't fun because at times it really is.  Shooting people and is almost always fun... for a while.  Having the missions broken up by each side seemed like a really interesting idea, but they basically turn out to be the same levels, but just opposite objectives of each other.  If the Resistance was trying to destroy something, when you play the mission as the Security, you're trying to defend the same thing you were previously asked to destroy.  This doesn't flesh out the story as much as I would have hoped for, and really didn't make me pick a side I was rooting for, as if they had added totally different levels for each side.

There is a major problem with your teammates AI in the game.  They are basically worthless (but every now and then surprise you with a well-placed turret), and you constantly feel like you are the only one that is able to do anything.  For instance if you have to repair something and are playing solo, without human teammates, it seems like you are the only one of the class you selected that can get anything done.  You have usually around 10 minutes to complete the objective, but it usually takes all 10 minutes because your teammates don't help at all.  When they do decide to help, it's like a mad rush in the final minute or two.  The opponents know where to congregate to protect what's needed, but it seems as if your team gets bored rather easily and leaves their mark.

Which leads me to my next problem with the game.  If you die, or I should say when you die, because your opponent's ammo tends to be much more powerful than your own, you have to respawn

There are a few "what if" missions tacked on at the end, but they seem as more of an afterthought, than a critical part of the story, and are some of the shorter missions of the whole game.  I recommend playing through some of the Challenge levels early on, as by completing them, you earn some upgrades for your weapons.  There are 3 different types of challenges: fulfilling objectives, moving around with SMART to certain areas in a time limit, and defending, each with three levels of progressively harder levels.

There are two distinct setting for the missions in BRINK.  One is the futuristic Ark, which kind of reminded me of something out of Mass Effect.  Lot's of plexiglass, neon, etc.  Once the action moved away from The Ark, to Container City, I became re-interested in the game again.  It's a totally different kind of look that really made me push through to finish my first half of the Campaign.  There are lots of little crevices and creative shortcuts to find.

I didn't really experience any lag, when playing online, but only really connected with one other person at a time when playing the campaign.  The multiplayer was solid and much more fun than playing with bots, but by the time I tried multiplayer, I was kind of burned out by the game.  Sometimes when enemies died, parts of their body would be underground, or if they were standing on something and killed, seemed to be floating in mid-air.

Throughout the game you have a Commander basically talking in your ear the whole time.  He gets very frustrated when things aren't going the planned way.  Considering that you feel like you are a one man show on many of the levels, it get very annoying quickly.

I did find the chatter between teammates amusing.  When you give supplies to another teammate, they always respond with some form of thanks.  Additionally, when you have some supplies and they are needed by someone nearby, they will let you know.

Replay Value
There is a planned DLC coming soon (free for the first two weeks), which may increase the number of people playing online.  Currently, there are 8 maps available for multiplayer skirmishes.  I fear, however, that most players originally interested in the game have either moved on to something else or sold/traded in their copy.

Once the campaigns are completed, there is not much incentive to return to those missions.  Especially the ones where your teammates seem clueless.  There are some audio logs to collect, which supposedly add more to the story (or unlock a trophy/achievement when all are collected) but I didn't have an interest to find more.

There is a cap at level 20.  When I finished both campaigns, I was at level 16, so I played multiplayer and replayed missions to reach the cap.  There are bonuses for completing missions online (which I didn't know until about halfway through the game)

Honestly, I really wanted to like BRINK.  Blending solo, co-op, and multiplayer into one somewhat seamless experience seemed innovative and intriguing.  However, in the end, it wasn't done well enough to grab my interest for extended periods.  Each mission is quite long, and if you don't succeed, feels arduous instead of energizing at the challenge, that you have to relive 15-20 minutes all over again.


I spent over 15 hours with BRINK, completing both campaigns, including what-if  missions.  I also completed all three 1-star challenges, two 2-star challenges, and one 3-star challenge.  BRINK is currently available for $34.99 from Amazon and $39.99 from Gamestop.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

*Backlog Buster* Review: God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)

Kratos returns, but this time, in a prequel to his adventures which first were released on the PS2 and later re-released as part of the HD God of War Collection on the PS3, and the acclaimed God of War III.  Sony added Ready at Dawn Studios (Daxter) to help, which after playing for a while, seems like the right decision.  Originally released in 2008, this game still looks and plays great today.  Being that I have owned a PS2 and PS3 since launch, and never played a God of War title (shame, shame), and this was chronologically the first adventure, it seemed like the proper place to begin.  Does it live up to it's console predecessors?  Can a portable version of classic series make the grade?

The game opens on the shores of Attica, and Kratos is serving the Gods of Olympus, by defending the city from the attacking Persians.  Armed with his trusty Blades of Chaos attached to his arms, Kratos is thrust immediately into action, battling a combination of men, ships, and a huge basilisk.  While the battle is no easy feat, after the Persians are defeated, Kratos' adventure really begins.

Kratos happens to see the sun falling from the sky, and does what any self-respecting hero would do: investigates and signs on to retrieve it.  Following the bit of light he can see takes him to the city of Marathon, where it seems Morpheus (God of Dreams) has put the land under some dark spell.  Kratos must now, not only ward off dark beings, but must grab Helios' Sun Chariot to ride to the Underworld to end the madness and return the sun to it's proper place.

In the Underworld, the game really shines and the plot becomes more than just a fetch quest.  The subtle differences in the locales and enemies kept me plugging through when the game had gotten a bit repetitive above the surface.

The combat is action packed, with a variety of enemies, from small Harplings, to various medium sized Satyrs, to much bigger Death Knights.  That's not even including the bosses, who are quite cool, in their own right.  Kratos' Blades of Chaos really feel responsive and can do a couple of different attacks, based on the buttons pressed.  There is also a magical-type attack that Kratos uses, and all of his acquired weapons can be upgraded to more powerful versions.  The deaths of enemies are actually quite gratifying, whether with weapons or fists.

What would a God of War be without blood, and there is plenty to speak of here.  The game really earns its M rating (but probably more for a particular mini-game).  Some of the bigger enemies can be finished off with a Quick Time Event (QTE), which involves pressing the correct buttons within a certain time frame, while others can be grabbed and disposed of quickly.  I enjoyed the close-up fatality views (who doesn't love stabbing a cyclops in the eye) and thought they were well done,  but any that involved moving the analog nub in a certain direction, usually took a few tries to master correctly.  That was a big drawback for me.  I dreaded seeing the arrow, instead of a button to press, as I knew that it would most likely take me some time to do correctly, and the loss of precious health.

I also at first enjoyed the vagueness of some of the puzzles, as I tried to decipher them, but on a couple of occasions was completely stumped on what to do or where to go next.  Luckily, save points were strategically placed and if I did die exploring or mis-jumping, I didn't have to repeat much.  The prevalent use of "invisible walls" around cliff and in areas, usually led me to the right spot (but I still wish I could have thrown enemies off of cliffs).  Though, I sometimes tended to forget that Kratos could destroy pillars or walls to open up new areas.

The Underworld was my favorite section of the game, and especially thought that the representation of the Titans and Charon's boat was magnificent.  Additionally, the enemies not only become more difficult as the game progresses, but also a tad smarter.  If you do not time your jumps just right, the archers' aim follows you.  If you do not break shields, enemies use them wisely.  Random button mashing typically won't yield the results you're looking for.

The final battles were just what I'd hoped for.  The weapons I'd procured throughout the game were not useless, but necessary, and the Bosses were legendary, not just some overgrown guard or creature.  The plot also get a bit poignant at the end, which was a bit of a welcome surprise for me.

Amazing for the PSP.  I almost went out and bought the PSP component AV cable, just to see this game bigger.  Both gameplay and cutscenes are engaging and you don't feel like you're combatting a bunch of pixels, there is quite a lot of detail for the tiny PSP screen.  Load times are virtually non-existent and the whole experience was very smooth and seamless.

Being that this is my first foray into God of War, I must say that Kratos' voice kind of bugged me.  I realize the guy is intense and extremely angry, but every word out of his mouth was way too dramatic for me.  I found it kind of cartoonish, instead of passionate.  The other character voices were much better and not so much over the top.  The background music blends well with each situation and adds to each scene instead of overpowering it.  

Replay Value
The game is somewhat short, I finished in just over 8 hours on Hero (Normal) mode, but surprisingly didn't feel too short.  I probably wouldn't go back and play the game in one of the harder modes, but there are different costumes to unlock, as well as some Challenges of Hades levels to unlock more Treasures.  I'm definitely ready to move onto the God of War collection on my PS3.


I completed God of War: Chains of Olympus on Hero (Normal) difficulty in just over 8 hours.  The game was purchased for $19.99.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: Outland (PSN/XBLA)

I typically don't purchase downloadable games during their first week of release, I must like to physically hold the game box or wait for the eventual sale, but something about Outland made me buy it on Day 1.  For some reason the character art reminded me of Cole, from Infamous.  Anyway, I added funds to my Playstation wallet and got started.

Outland comes from Housemarque studios (Dead Nation, Super Stardust HD) and Ubisoft (Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia) and is a unique 2D action platformer.  It borrows, but also gives nods to games like Castlevania, Metroid, and Super Mario Brothers, but still manages to seem fresh and innovative.

Our Hero is having some bad dreams and does the smart thing by visiting a Shaman, who begins telling of a Great Wheel and two sisters who lived ages ago.  They created the world, then strove to destroy it, but were imprisoned before their plans were complete.  Now, the sisters have escaped and the original hero who battled them has perished, and it seems like the Hero has some link to him via the nightmares.  Thus the quest begins with a trusty sword, to right the wrongs and save the world.

Outland starts off quite basic, as you are eased into your role as the Hero.  Typical moves such as jump, slash, and slide are introduced, and as you progress variations similar to wall jump and ground pound become available.  There are bombs you can hit to open areas or destroy enemies and spikes scattered throughout, and the requisite levitating platforms are also existent.

You begin the game as the Hero with a yellow energy (the third primary color, along with blue and red, representing dark and light, which become quite important later) and can be damaged by any color enemy, as well as a standard health meter.  Navigating the maze of each level is made easier with a map that can be called upon at any time.  Old-schoolers will definitely try to navigate without it.  On the map, a "spirit guide" shows you where you need to get to to progress further.  Sometimes that involves hitting a switch which opens a door that was previously locked, usually involving backtracking, or other times marks the passageway to another area.  There are a few save points strategically placed in each area, which make dying a lot less painful.  

Once the Hero gets the hang of his powers for a couple of levels, light and dark energies are introduced.  This marks the turning point and the basis for the whole game and amplifies what was just an average platformer.  With the press of a button, our Hero can change from light energy to dark energy at will, and it's this polarity feature that makes the game so ingenious.  To inflict damage, you need to be the opposite color of the enemy.  So, if you select red energy you can damage blue enemies but you can still take damage from both.  Another instance this crops up is with platforms.  You are only able to ride platforms mirroring the energy that you are using (the opposite appears transparent).  Many times you need to jump from one color platform to the next, which is a different color.  Switching energies mid-jump can be confusing at first, as you are almost pushing two buttons at once, but after a few attempts, feels more natural.

The moments where the game really wows, is when red and blue streams or dots litter the screen and your objective is on the other side.  The first time I encountered that screen I was mesmerized by the hypnotic patterns, but at the same time ready to shut off my console.  The developers seemed to be smart (or evil, depending on your point of view) enough to not allow just racing through.  It almost always leads to death.  Luckily, if you just watch the pattern for a bit, things generally become clearer and the solution opens up.  Executing it in a timely fashion, on the other hand...

The world of Outland is split up into 5 main areas: Jungle, Underworld, City, Sky, and Eternity.  There are subtle differences between the settings, but nothing major.  Each areas has five or six "levels" to it and culminate with a Boss battle.  The Bosses are really well done.  Difficult at first, but ultimately fair.  The Boss battles also get longer and more complex the deeper you delve into the game. They are all different and their entrances are intimidating and somewhat reminiscent, at least to me, of Shadow of the Colossus.  After defeating 4 Bosses, you need to battle the aforementioned sisters, and complete your quest.  There are some collectibles to collect, if you're into that completionist (or trophy/achievement) thing

The screenshots and trailers really drew me into the game, so it's no surprise that the graphical style is frequently mentioned.  Think a mixture of Greek and Mayan mythology, with a fusion of TRON.  The creatures, while somewhat varied, were pretty average (except for the Bosses), but I thought that the human-looking foes were admirably done.  If you jumped over one or hid, they would momentarily look around for you, before resuming their patrol.  If you vanquished one, their "soul" would drift away from their body.  The Hero, with his loincloth flapping, also moves fluidly and responsively, which is a plus in this type of game.  Yes, there are creatures that very much resemble Metroids

Didn't really stand out for me at first, but it didn't have to.  I was so enthralled with the graphics that I wasn't looking for the next great symphony.  There are the appropriate tribal beats, but also some trance-like melodies, which do really put you in the proper dream state.

Replay Value
Teleport.  An online co-op mode is available, where 2 players can battle through a challenge room, but only one of the players is able to change the light/dark polarity.  Additionally, there are Arcade chapters, in which a whole world needs to be cleared (5-6 levels, plus the Boss) in a certain time limit.


Outland is available from PSN and XBLA for $9.99 or 800 MS points.  I played the PSN version for a little over 8 hours, not quite defeating the 4th Boss (The Winged Serpent).....yet.