This review is spoiler-free. Find more facts about Outland here.
Action, adventure, platformer, metroidvania, bullet-hell
-Outland’s Steam tags
Outland is neither a messy conglomerate nor fine stew of the above genres. Indeed, the game tried to be a lot of different things, but just a few came together nicely. The core mechanic is based on the player’s ability to switch between light and dark alignments, represented in-game by blue and red respectively. There are just a few core rules:
- You have immunity to bullets of matching polarity.
- You can only damage enemies of opposite polarity.
- Walls and moving platforms activate/appear only when you are of matching polarity.
These rules are productive enough to present interesting challenges throughout the game. Each colour presents different risks to consider, and only by utilizing both can you succeed. In exchange for the unstoppable onslaught of bullets most bullet-hells provide, you have to deal with platformers’ unstoppable pull of gravity. By tossing in some enemies the challenges come alive, requiring players to wait for the right time to sprint or strike.
Outland begins with a slideshow and narration introducing the story, but it’s clearly not the focus and falls to the background for most of the game. A minimalist visual style filled with deep blacks and few colours emphasizes the obstacles’ colours of red and blue. The non-distracting backgrounds make the world feel mysterious, ancient, and dead. You alone must save it. I found the most beauty in the intricate and mesmerizing bullet patterns. The sound design has a few nice touches like the avatar’s gasp when just making a ledge grab. Although I think I’d enjoy a more forward and melodic soundtrack, the ambient and subdued music fits with the visual style and grows only during the final stage and boss battles.
As is common in metroidvanias you begin stripped-down with nothing more than the ability to run and jump. Even polarity switching must be unlocked. Most other abilities are used to open “ability locks” in the levels or speed-up combat. These other abilities include a ground slide, downward thrust, beam attack, power attack, etc. I found that none provided new and engaging ways to traverse the world, though a couple became indispensable components of my combat repertoire.
While Outland presents a large world to explore, the game doesn’t promote exploration. This is manifest in that there is a floating indicator which constantly leads the player towards the goal. Even if you veer off track, most of the passages reward you with jars of money and an uneventful backtrack to the main path. Other than representing score, the only use for this money is to purchase health and energy upgrades. An alternative could be to forgo the money and place Zelda-esque “pieces-of-heart” for players to discover. I think this would provide a nice reward and promote exploration. Collectibles called “Marks of the Gods” are also scattered around the map, but the minor abilities these unlock are unknown to the player.
If there is a locked door in the level, the floating indicator always leads players towards the switch that unlocks it first. We’re given solutions before there are problems. Further, this floating indicator can’t be turned off. It may be that issues with level navigation prompted the designers to add the feature, and turning it off would cause players too much frustration. The simple visuals leave obstacles and checkpoints as the most notable landmarks. I think the checkpoint system could do with a revamp or improvement. There are several difficult sections that follow a trek through easier sections. For example, the most recent checkpoint before a difficult miniboss battle was far across the map. Luckily I was able to use a nearby teleporter as an ad-hoc checkpoint since re-entering areas saves the game. Perhaps simply changing the locations or adding more checkpoints would improve players’ experiences.
The aforementioned miniboss is battled three times but becomes challenging only on the final encounter. The first two require more repetitive input while the final encounter hits the sweet spot by implementing more polarity switching. I enjoyed most of the boss battles as they usually had several phases (with checkpoints) to switch up the gameplay. The final boss included a large jump in difficulty compared to the other bosses. Unfortunately, this difficulty prompted me to execute the fight very carefully to the point of tedium and also didn’t include checkpoints.
The standard enemies in Outland follow predictable patterns so 1-on-1 combat becomes boring, especially for enemies with larger health pools. This changes when enemies of different types are grouped together. Recall that you may damage enemies only of opposite polarity, meaning you must take care to be of the correct polarity to damage or absorb attacks from each enemy. Later in the game some enemies switch polarity on their own, forcing you to be even more aware the situation. Despite the challenging scenarios, I found myself avoiding combat more and more late game since I found the platforming/bullet-hell aspects more interesting. Other metroidvanias like Ori and the Blind Forest and Dust: An Elysian Tail have simple combat mechanics yet feel flowing and elegant by utilizing abilities that damage enemies and move the player. I enjoyed the lightness of these avatars, while Outland’s avatar is less graceful and more constrained to the ground.
Besides the main campaign (which should take 7-8 hours), Outland includes an arcade mode where you speed through levels, getting as many points as possible. The game also has online co-op multiplayer. Both the main campaign and special co-op challenges may be played with a friend, but I didn’t get a chance to try out this feature. I think planning out paths through the obstacles with a friend would be enjoyable.
Outland is a good example of the fact that fun mechanics don’t need to be entirely novel. While the platforming + bullet-hell + polarity fusion provided interesting challenges throughout the game, getting to these challenges became tedious. Outland is a sufficiently pretty game with nice mechanics that’s marred by its flawed structure.