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.