The easiest way to describe Outland is a blend of Metroid’s core gameplay with Ikarauga’s bullet hell boss battles and light/dark offensive and defensive polarity with a precision platforming and hack ‘n slash gameplay to progress. However, that quick summation doesn’t do justice to just how well-crafted the final product is. There’s a level of polish here that is missing from most games - downloadable or otherwise.
The core gameplay revolves around navigating around large levels with an optional map to show you where you’ve been and where you need to go while defeating all the enemies in your path and finding new powers to help you progress to the next area. However, while that may theoretically remind you of a Metroid-style game, the execution is quite different. Outside of using the map and implementation of new skills, Outland is its own game. For one thing, it’s spread across five distinct overall levels with 35 stages between them and, five of those being boss battles instead of taking place in one giant area. Also, while the usual blend of platforming and hack ‘n slash gameplay reminds one of the Metroidvanias early on, you eventually gain access to a long-range laser that reminds me a lot of the mega buster.
The biggest change to the Metroidvania formula here is the usage of light and dark polarity ala Treasure‘s classic shooter Ikaruga. Light is represented by blue energy around either your character, enemies, their attacks, and platforms - if you’re blue, you’re invincible to light attacks, but can only defeat those enemies with the red energy symbolizing darkness. You’ll have to change back and forth between them to vanquish foes, and also navigate tricky platform sections that have you switching from one to the other to actually land on the properly-colored platform at the right time.
The concept is incredibly well-executed thanks to inventive level design that tests your mettle and makes use of the polarity to create some tricky situations that will test your skills. Thankfully, Outland is outfitted with very responsive controls, which are an absolute must-have since the game not only requires you to use precise platform jumping to progress, but also avoid massive sprays of bullets while having to make sure you’re using the correct power at the right time. Using the right bumper to switch between polarities works perfectly once you get the hang of it. You’ll definitely die a lot, but since you’ve got unlimited lives, continues, and frequent checkpoints and save markers, you won’t have to repeat too much of the same ground to get back to where you were.
Online co-op play is a pleasant surprise for a platformer, and allows you play through the story mode with someone else. It’s a nice idea in theory, but given how platforming-heavy this game is and how crucial timing is to everything in it, lag is a real killer. Also, you can’t load your single player data for use in it, to perhaps get help against a boss battle you just can’t topple. While that works at forcing you to become a good enough player to win on your own, it is also slightly aggravating. Plus, the cut scenes slow things down in multi-player too. I’d say that the co-op campaign is a nice bonus, but doesn’t really add much to the game. If it allowed for local co-op, then you wouldn’t have to worry about lag, but online, it’s a problem.
While I didn’t enjoy my time spent with the online co-op campaign, the more focused co-op challenge stages are a blast. You’ll have to trust your partner to save your life when needed and focus on things like splitting the treasures you find equally so you can both complete your part of a puzzle at the same time - being selfish will get you nothing, so you not only have to master the gameplay in order to progress, but also resist the natural urge in a game to just be all about yourself.
Outland is a stunning game visually. The light-infused character designs remind me of Tron, while the crisp art style reminds me a lot of Patapon mixed with a lot of Aztec imagery - quite the bizarre combination there, but it all works within the context of the game. The soundtrack is fantastic, with some groovy bongo music in there at times, along with some incredible violin and trumpet work. The soundtrack has been crafted to get your blood pumping in the right way at all times - if you’re not in a boss battle, it’ll slow down a bit, but during them, the volume and intensity of the music will increase. The A/V work as a whole is fantastic and draws you in even in screenshot form.
While I’m not a huge fan of the online co-op, Outland is a tremendous game overall and should be purchased by anyone who enjoys Metroid-style romps, 2D platformers, or even bullet hell shooters. For $10, you’ll get one of the best action platformers, and one of the best-looking, sounding, and controlling games available.