Finnish developer Housemarque made a name for themselves in the co-op gaming market with the zombie shoot'em up, Dead Nation. Their latest project, Outland, is an action platformer which takes place in a beautifully created world. The player must use light and dark energy to advance in the game and solve minor puzzles. Upon seeing images of Outland, it's easy to make visual comparisons to Limbo or Patapon, but when you experience the game in motion it quickly distinguishes itself from both of those titles with its fluidity and vivid colors.
The story centers around a main character who has been having disturbing visions of creation and destruction, and an ever turning wheel. He decides to seek out a wise man and moves into a tent in the wilderness. Awesome choice, I know. His visions are haunted by two goddess sisters, one light and one dark, and the recurring theme of the world's cyclic nature. The story plays out in still shots and text. You can't skip it your first time through, so you may as well enjoy it.
Early on in Outland you will play through a flashback. In this flashback you are the main character's ancestor, who can switch between light and dark energies. Gamer who have experienced Ikaruga will be familiar with the concept. Players can change energies with a simple press of the right shoulder button. The character appears blue for light energy, red for dark energy. When you are using light energy, blue hazards can't hurt you. Blue objects, such as platforms or switches, become active. When using dark energy the same is true for red hazards and objects. You also need to be the opposite color of an enemy to damage it with your faithful sword. Yes, you're bringing a sword to a bullet-hell fight.
Behold! The Hub Area! Bask in it's hubby glory!
Once you have played through the flashback you find yourself back in present time. Sharp eyed gamers will notice that they're not blue or red, they're simply yellow. This neutral color can be damaged by anything. Bummer. After the you are set up in a hub level. As you progress you will see things that you cannot yet interact with in the environment. Upon touching these items the game will tell you that you don't have that ability yet. This instantly reminded me of classics like Super Metroid. There's some instances of backtracking as you earn new powers and abilities. You can access a local map, which is essential. There's also a world map, which is essentially worthless. This back and forth game design has become an antiquated feature in video games, but players who enjoy exploring and don't mind backtracking will find it endearing. Teleporters become available eventually, and they make the game world easy to navigate.
Dead Nation has earned a reputation as a difficult game, and Outland follows in its footsteps. While it's not overly harsh, the game requires skillful platforming while using the light and dark energy mechanic. It's like a slower paced bullet-hell game. There can be hundreds of projectiles on screen at a time, but given that the game is a platformer, you can take your time as you make your way through them. This change in the mechanic of a bullet hell style game really makes Outland feel unique. Players aren't forced up, instead it requires careful timing and quick button presses to platform. Jumping through a series of red and blue bullets all while sticking a tricky jump on a ledge is incredibly satisfying - but as we said - incredibly difficult.
Luckily, you have a health bar which can upgraded by purchasing extra heart slots. If you do die the game has a generous checkpoint system. You can also upgrade an energy meter which is used for devastating special attacks. These upgrades can be purchased from various shrines found throughout the world.
The on-screen action gets much more intense than this...
Each area has it's own unique look, and the painted backgrounds are beautiful. A magical guiding light will mark your path. Think of a prettier version of the golden breadcrumbs from Fable 3 and you've got the idea. As you progress through each level you'll eventually come to a giant door which requires a key to open. You'll have to travel further in to the level to find the key and bring it back. The game is designed very well in that the levels feed back into themselves. What I mean by this is that you will eventually come across a giant door with some monster emblazoned on its surface. The guiding light will take you off in another direction. After navigating through another area (sometimes several areas) you'll eventually find your way back to the giant door without feeling like you just retraced your steps. Behind the ominous door is a (surprise) a boss. The boss fights in Outland are challenging and satisfying, which is all you can ask for is a boss fight. After each boss is defeated you get a small dose of story and then the next area of your hub opens.
Outland is a very good action platformer. What makes it even better is that you can enjoy the entire campaign online with a friend. Sorry, no local co-op. Once you begin playing you'll see why. The platforming elements require a full screen display to complete. Split screen would leave players making blind jumps, and a shared screen would be a nightmare, therefore players are not restricted to the same screen. They can both be at different areas as long as they are in the same level.
Throughout the world there are a handful of co-op challenges. These cannot be completed by a single player. Once you have unlocked them, these levels can either be entered from their location in the game world or accessed through the main menu. They are decently challenging and mostly rely on timing type elements for co-op players to progress. Outland also offers an Arcade mode, which is basically a time-attack scenario where players can challenge online leaderboards. The Arcade mode can be played in either single player or co-op.
...that's more like it.
Game progression is saved on the host player's game. On the Xbox 360 Outland allows three save slots per profile. They can be used for either single player or co-op. For example, I have a save slot for my single player game, and another save slot for my co-op game. If you are a joining player you won't have a save data on your own profile. I didn't get to see how co-op worked for the PS3, due to the PSN outage. We did have a few issues with lag here and there, but overtime it seems to clear itself up.
Overall, Outland is a stellar experience for ten dollars.. The controls are tight, the visual style is captivating, and the gameplay is challenging.