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.

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