Price: £6.80 (800 MS Points)
Format: Xbox 360 via XBLA
I remember years ago a friend of mine enthusing evangelically about a scrolling arcade shooter called Ikaruga, in which you switched the colour of your spaceship rapidly between black or white to absorb damage of the same colour, or hurt enemies of the opposite colour more effectively — it brought a new, thoughtful direction to what was at the time a pretty exhausted genre. When Outland dropped into my review box featuring a similar colour-switching mechanism, I was intrigued to see if it could do the same for the humble 2D platformer.
Beginning with the obligatory dodgy script and hammy voiceover, Outland casts you as the sword-wielding, colour-switching hero charged with appeasing ancient gods and once more bringing unification to a troubled universe. Even if the narrative is slight, the lavishly illustrated visuals do a good job of drawing you in.
Once the game begins you will breeze through the tutorial as it introduces you to the moves, a favourite of mine being the charge slide which knocks enemies into the air so you can finish them with a swift sword uppercut. The controls are spot on – responsive yet not over-sensitive, and the ability to hang on when you don’t quite reach a platform means even difficult jumps are rarely frustrating.
The duality aspect is swiftly introduced via a quick (and temporary) travel back through time, where you acquire the ability to switch between red and blue. This allows you to avoid damage when energy beams of the same colour hit you, but soon leads to fiendish situations whereby you must deftly switch from one to the other as enemies fire both colours simultaneously in riotous patterns. This really keeps you on your toes and adds a slight puzzle element to proceedings as you figure out the best way to navigate through the levels.
Movement is so smooth you quickly adjust to hopping through the jungle canopies at speed – the sci-fi atmosphere and animation a reminder of older classics like Flashback and Another World, perhaps even a little bit of Prince of Persia as you hack your way through past enemies and ascend ladders to the heavens. The game avoids too much repetition as movement through the levels is speedy, and the map is always on hand if you get lost.
Graphically, I was pleasantly surprised — there is a real unity in art direction throughout, and the decision to make so much of the game in silhouette against beautifully coloured backgrounds really works well. As you move through the Mayan-esque jungles and stonemasonry, dodging coloured energy beams and floor spikes, the background colours and illustrations subtly change, and although large parts of the screen are still black it never looks dull.
If I had any complaint it would be about the difficulty of the later levels — I found it very difficult after the second or third boss – and I dread to think how hard it would be if you’re unfortunate enough to be colourblind! Also a minor gripe is the lack of ability to look down — there is a fair bit of blind faith involved as you leap into the unknown, which slightly goes against traditional “don’t fall down the hole!” platforming dogma.
Overall, Outland is a stylish 2-D platformer with both a classic feel and a modern twist, engaging in the same way that all icons of the genre do, even if the main character is a bit anonymous — which perhaps only serves to make its achievements all the more admirable. For the money it’s definitely one of the best value platformers on the Xbox 360.