Where to begin?
We previewed Outland a while back, and it left a very strong first impression. The steady progression into new areas and acquisition of new abilities, coupled with the splendid art style and animation got plenty of salivary glands working overtime. Now it’s out for real and (spoiler alert) it’s not perfect.
The game starts off strong, with the hero having to go forth and become a badass in order to destroy an ancient threat to existence. The usual, really. The world is divided into five distinct areas, minus the Hub, each with its own visual theme (jungle, snowy mountains, etc.), progressively tougher enemy and projectile patterns, bosses to fight and secrets to find. As expected, powers gained later on can be used to access new areas within previously visited zones, typically yielding money, health upgrades, and the like. Again, pretty standard fare. At first all the hero can do is run, jump, and occasionally pee himself when confronted with an enemy, but eventually he’ll gain access to a sword and a whole host of other abilities that will help him live up to that Legendary Hero expectation everyone has of him. It’s mostly standard fare for adventure games–a slide here, a floor-breaking ground-pound there–but then he gains the ability to switch between light and dark energies. Obviously, this makes things much more interesting. Also, I made up that bit about the peeing, by the way.
This energy swapping mechanic is Outland‘s chief saving grace. It adds an unexpected layer of reactionary “twitch” gameplay that’s both fun and satisfying to pull off… when it’s paced right. For the first couple of levels, everything is cool. The swapping feels natural, the environmental hazards are unforgiving but navigable, and the bosses are both impressive and challenging. After about the halfway point, it all starts to feel less like a compelling experience and more like a chore. Many areas of the later levels seem more interested in testing patience over reflexes, with plenty of cheap enemies and sparse checkpoint placement that will force a good number of players to repeat the same sections over and over again.
Nowhere is this issue more apparent than during the boss fights. The first one is fine because it’s short. The second one is a little bothersome, but it’s still not too bad. Come the third boss, the distinct lack of checkpoints becomes a huge issue. I’m not trying to whine or say the bosses shouldn’t be tough, but if they’re going to be that drawn out and have that many different stages in their attack patterns, there has to be some sort of system in place so that players don’t have to spend the bulk of their time simply getting to the boss. Seriously, the [SPOILER REDACTED] boss involves not one, but two different chase sequences that require lots of jumping, sliding, and midair energy switching before he can even be fought. Each one takes at least a couple of minutes and while they can be completed fairly easily, with little to no damage, they have to be done every single time the fight begins. So if a player were to die at any point during the actual fight, they’d have to start from square one again. That’s not difficulty, that’s bad planning.
Once the game is completed (or before, if people lose interest), there are also arcade and online co-op modes to mess around with. Oddly, the arcade mode seems more fun than the single player game, at least initially. The goal is to complete each of the five zones within a set time limit, with lots of score-boosting enemy genocide and flawless platforming execution needed to even come close to placing well on the leaderboards. Of course, this also includes boss fights, so it’s easy to imagine just how frustrating it’s bound to get for speed-runners. What with the awful checkpoint system and all.
But co-op! Co-op… changes nothing, really. It’s cool that they let people play the story, arcade, and co-op challenge modes together, but it’s full of weird design decisions. Having things react to each player’s energy individually, which allows them to keep both red and blue platforms active at the same time, along with other helpful scenarios, is cool. Making it so that energy-specific platforms, as well as exit doors, only react when both players are present makes sense. But why have the game pause for both players when someone checks the map? Without enough of a warning someone could find themselves in trouble. Having a co-op partner go down over a bed of spikes is another irritation, as it requires the living player to willingly injure themselves in order to revive their comrade. If they don’t have enough health to survive the hit, they’re SOL. Oh, and during each of my attempts at co-op I was dealing with crippling lag. Which was awesome.
I’m honestly shocked by just how much my excitement for Outland tanked after the first couple of hours. All of the irritating level design and enemy placement, coupled with the lackluster checkpoints, made the other four hours feel almost unbearable. With enough tenacity and practice there are bound to be plenty of players who could complete a level with little to no damage and make it look easy. These people will most likely love this game, or at least find something to love about it. Not me, though. I don’t hate it, but I’m very disappointed in it.
Things We Liked: Beautiful visuals and animations. Some nifty abilities and Metroid-style progression. The first couple of zones are fun.
Things We Disliked: No checkpoints during the extremely drawn-out boss fights; especially those last two. Sometimes the hero can’t decide if he wants to grab a wall or fall off of it; usually when whatever he didn’t do results in damage/death. Later levels become much less fun and much more frustrating. The whole game starts to feel like work, and not the good kind. Bizarre co-op choices. One seriously lame-ass ending. I’ll say it again: Really. Awful. Checkpoints.
Target Audience: People who like Ikaruga and Castlevania, and think the two would make sexy babies (as long as they have patience). Speed-run junkies who don’t mind incredibly irritating and prolonged boss fights. Anyone who find even the most vague Tron-like imagery sexually arousing.
(Outland – Developer: Housemarque. Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment. Available for Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade, and for PlayStation 3 via PlayStation Network – Xbox version reviewed. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)