It is honestly hard for me to utter this game’s title, without drawing attention to a place that is dear to my heart. Outland is the name of the most known chain of geek stores in Norway and possibly my go-to place for whenever I want to meet like-minded people, prep for a night of tabletop gaming or just find something out of the ordinary. However, the image of an old XBLA-title also comes to my mind whenever Outland is mentioned. A metroid game that took inspirations from Ikaruga of all things, had me very intrigued from the start. However, I only played about 60% of this title upon its release, before I just stopped. Returning to actually finishing it, I sadly see why I did not care to go through it the first time.
The world and its nature
The tale of Outland starts with a man suffering from strange visions that includes a turning wheel and two sisters. A seer tries to enlighten our unnamed protagonist by telling him stories from the ancient past, but they are just as unclear to him as his visions. From this point on, our hero sets out to find answers to the questions he is given and what his destiny truly is. This is where the story of Outland is at its strongest: the focus on atmosphere and mystery. Building on the cliche of a chosen hero, Outland knows to keep itself simple and rather builds upon the uncertain symbolisms surrounding the plot. Everything is told through short flavour texts to spoon-feed the player lore that relates to the plot, leaving the player to create theories upon their discoveries. This is also helped by how this tale has some unique spices to it, despite tropes being met.
The game also offers a nice theming of balance, presenting that there cannot be shadows without light, and that the darkness should not exist without glimmers of radiance. Contrasts are important and neither sides are represented as good or evil. Sadly, this is where the rest of Outland’s story falls flat. Most of the texts you are provided with are just there to give you more insights to the bosses you have to fight, and these lore always appear after you have already struck them down. This destroys what could have been good buildups and instead, makes those setups feel like shallow afterthoughts of what no longer matter. Since they are also integrated into the plot, this form of storytelling drags the whole experience down. This is like having the perfect main course, but there are no form of sides or even sauce added. It is interesting and nice, but also completely unfulfilling.
Story Score: 5/10
Bullet Time Metroid
Even by looking at videos of the game, you can tell that Outland is a fast paced metroidvania with a heavy focus on platforming. Our hero will no matter what run towards a direction whenever you push the D-pad, has a high jump, can wall jump, and is able to cling to ledges. This makes him severely acrobatic, and while it can be hard to pinpoint his position due to his speed, the levels are designed to accommodate this by having platforms being sizeable enough to make every mistake feel like your own.
Like other metroid-titles, Outland is (somewhat) non-linear and will provide upgrades throughout the game to make exploration further on possible. This includes abilities such as the traditional slide, stomp, and a charge attack to get through different obstacles. What is a terrible shame, however, is that none of these are integrated well with either the platforming or combat. They feel like context-sensitive moments for traversing further through the areas or to remove enemies with no skills involved. I will get back to the combat later on, as there are more problems with the aspects of platforming and exploration.
While Outland is a metroid-title, it always guides you clearly to your next destination, which makes it linear and handholds the player too much. This is also damaged by the levels themselves, which are sliced into smaller areas and are all functional at best. Yes, while Outland plays it safe to make sure that the levels work with the high speed of our hero, the creativity of them are poor 75% of the time. This is quite the tragedy, but I do believe this was done to support Outland‘s selling points: shifting between two colours.
You see, in this title you can shift between two colours, red and blue, in order to alternate the scenery. Through this, you will be able to interact with specific platforms and objects, as well as become invulnerable to the bullets of the same colour as you. This should have made for some fast paced action, especially considering your character’s moveset. Unfortunately, there are a bunch of problematic design-choices that harms this title from ever becoming exciting. First off, you do not get this ability until you are about 40% into this game. Before this point, you start off with no colours and will only be able to eventually turn blue, making the first part of the game become a complete drag.
Secondly, even when you get to use this ability, the game does not pick up with its challenge and demand of simultaneous use of this power before world 4, and considering there are only five in total (not counting your hub world), this makes for a terrible difficulty curve. Lastly, this concept of shifting colours is generally poorly utilised, to the point of it becoming forgettable. Instead of making the player go fast, a lot of sections simply have you stop and go between pillars of hazards or jiggle the controller between awkward platforming segments. This hurts the speed that the game clearly wants to go for and makes the intriguing concept wasted.
The exploration is not any better either, as you will not even get the ability to teleport between areas before halfway through the game, making the non-linear approach tedious. Maybe the developers noticed this, as Outland is severely easy to navigate through and finding secrets in. Everything is at this point shallowly implemented, which makes the game’s structure feel completely rudimentary. That is, except for when it tries to be unique by having questionable design-choices.
My favourite example to how strange Outland can be, is whenever you find a shrine to upgrade your amount health or special charge with, since you need to pay them in order to get the upgrade. This is bizarre, because this just makes you grind for more money, adding only busywork to this concept. Why not simply make them fun to search out for like how 90% of the regular metroid-titles do, instead of being lazy about them? There is a reason for why this concept is as common as heart pieces are in The Legend of Zelda: exploration for important upgrades by carefully studying the environment is fun and rewarding. Outland just has me grinding for more coins by killing enemies, and it is here where the absolute worst part of the game comes to play: the combat.
To get the positives out of the way first, our hero’s sword has a great reach and he can do a three hit combo both on the ground and airborne, an upper cut, and a low swipe. The other abilities he gain can also help out, such as the mentioned stomp and the charge attack. However, none of these matters because of how completely uninteresting the enemies are. As long as you either jump over them, use the three hit combo or just uppercut them in the air, you will be fine against every encounter. You have to be in the opposite colour of the fiend you are fighting, but that is easily done with the click of a button.
Due to how monotone the enemies are in design, it becomes hard for me to even bother with the combat, making me always want to skip the fights or get quickly rid of the fiends with a simple charge attack. This lack of diverse enemies, interesting mechanics, and meaningful upgrades, makes the combat feel forcefully implemented. The boss fights do fare better, but not by much. They are either too easy with predictable patterns to exploit or goes on for a ridiculous amount of time. All of those fights will require platforming, but due to their uninteresting designs, they all become dull. That is except for the fourth boss, which starts out with a wonderful chase sequence with plenty of obstacles to avoid, forcing you to quickly react to them. Sadly, this is the only fight I can praise in the entire game.
I will give Outland this one thing: this might be a good place to start for newcomers. It is a forgiving title with plenty of checkpoints, is easy to pick up and play, and when the platforming actually picks up, it can provide a decent time. However, the amount of hurdles to get over due to poor design-choices can destroy the entire experience even for them. If the developers simply dropped the idea of having this fast paced game become a metroid-title, maybe Outland would have had a chance. Making this a more focused and linear, ironing out the tropes it wants to bring, and drop the combat, we could have had something decent. This is unfortunately not the case and the five hours of playtime felt instead like a prolonged and wasted tutorial.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Art in shapes
Despite the heavy focus on primary colours, Outland’s strength actually lies in the dark shapes that makes up the entire world, including both the backgrounds and the foregrounds, creating an artistically intriguing piece of work. Similar to a shadow play, the areas in the far distance tells a visual story of what once was or is, be it a civilisation filled with warriors, jungles with dangerous critters and ancient ruins, or the tall mountains that hides beings beyond our comprehensions, just to name a few. I love this setup, as it shows the focus can lie on how everything is shaped and make the colours blend less with the backgrounds, despite going with few palettes.
Speaking of, the idea of going for primary colours for specific platforms, characters, and boss fights, was a clever idea to not become blindsided by bullets or unforeseen environmental hazards. I also love how the subtle animations in every single aspect of the visuals always occur naturally. Some examples are the grass waving in the wind, our characters smooth movements, and the minor implementations in the background, such as sudden start of rain. It is an engrossing world to be a part of, and it all fits within its African style that combines civilisation with nature. Even our hero is memorable thanks to his tattoos glowing in his chosen colours.
This simple, yet smart approach was also given to the audio. You only have one male voice who narrates important events throughout the game, and he has a perfect direction for a title that wishes to provide a sense of mystery. The music is just as fantastic, being made up from tribal instruments, such as drums, flutes, and even humming. I love how authentic the entire experience feels, and the orchestrated parts only occur whenever there should be a huge highlight, with naturalistic effects like the sounds of critters and animals occurring when the area is rather peaceful. Every piece is varied, strong, and memorable. Ari Pulkkinen really outdid himself with this soundtrack.
Honestly, the only blemishes on this piece of art, are the enemies. They are organic and fits this African world, such as giant spiders, warriors with weaponry from the era before the middle ages, and of course enormous boss fights, such as the giant golem. The problem is that they become repetitive and are not interestingly designed to be unique, just traditional. Luckily, this is a minor issues in a game that takes an artistic choice on this tribal world through focus on colours and shapes, with an outstanding audio to boot.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Getting it quickly over with
Oddly enough, there is an arcade mode where you can run through one of the five main areas of the game. It is a strange addition, but not a bad one, since it is easy to break the game with clever jumps and minor glitches. This might sound like a criticism, but it also makes this title fun to speedrun through thanks to these shortcuts, and the overall game is beatable within a couple of hours through these methods. Although, this is not enough to save the rest of this package, as finding all the hidden Marks of the Gods (or the golden helmets if you will) just grants you a mediocre reward.
What does help, is the ability to play through Outland in co-op for maximum enjoyment. You can gather upgrades easier, and take on really fun challenges that embraces the fast paced nature of this title. This mode is only available online, but it is understandable as having limited view would be difficult to deal with in a game that is this fast. Being done with this game as quickly as possible with a friend, is not a bad option. Despite the fact that you will still have to deal with dull exploration and tedious combat.
Extra Score: 5/10
Outland is not necessarily a bad game, but I believe the praises it got came more from what it tried to give the audience, rather than what it actually provided. The exception being the stellar presentation, as the visuals and audio are works of art. However, think about it like this: this title has co-op, exploration for those loving to complete games, a cool concept of combining Ikaruga with metroid in a fast paced platformer, and generally appealed to the old school crowd. There is a lot that should be fantastic here.
Unfortunately, Outland misses the mark by not having a clear idea of what it wants to do with its ideas, as it is severely linear and there are many moments breaking the pace of this game, despite it trying to be a fast paced platformer with exploration as a focus. The baffling aspect of poor implementations all around, makes this game feel like a rushed project, instead of an endearing one. If the developers just focused on its strengths, this could have become a classic. It is not a terrible option if you just want to do a quick run with a pal, but why are you not playing Guacamellee instead by this point?