Version tested: Xbox 360
Outland is pure design craftsmanship.
Housemarque's latest isn't particularly original. It's better at cleverly combining old ideas than minting fresh ones and, despite a luminous, bloomy shadow-play art style, it's actually not that huge on personality, either. Instead, what marks it out is the grace with which it spins out its mechanics, twisting and turning each new concept in order to get everything possible out of it, then introducing something complementary – or contradictory – and twisting and turning again. It's more fun than it sounds.
Actually, it's a lot more fun. Suggesting once more that it's Treasure's back catalogue and the Metroid template that really get downloadable developers excited, Outland combines the ability gates and intricate mapping of a Samus Aran adventure with the polarity-shifting bullet hell of Ikaruga. To fuse it all together, Prince of Persia's nimble wall-springs, ledge grabs and sword fights are employed as you navigate delicate silhouette environments taking on some distinctly non-delicate silhouette menaces. It's shooter flesh on a 2D platforming body, and it's an excellent graft job.
There's a narrative, but we're in a good mood, so why spoil things? It's about gods and goddesses and nature and harmony, and the game's few moments of narration come across as the kind of lumpen poetry nice old ladies like to have stitched onto bookmarks. Instead, Outland's real plotting lies with the elegant curving line that marks your expanding skills – and this story is absolutely enthralling.
The unlock list holds few surprises. The most entertaining addition is probably a move that sucks in all nearby projectiles before blasting them outwards again. But all are well-explored and crafted with the same precision that has defined Housemarque's twin-stick back catalogue (Dead Nation, Super Stardust HD). There's a ground pound that would make Yoshi proud, a wall charge that's just as satisfying as it was in Shadow Complex, and a brief but sizzling laser-beam blast to compete with anything from Gunstar Heroes.
Showier skills have to be recharged by collecting orbs from dead enemies, introducing a nice rationing element. Only Launch Pad, one of the very last moves to be unlocked, offers even the faintest degree of input fuzziness, becoming occasionally irritating as you boost between one floating anchor point and the next, or miss and land on the business end of a passing spider.
Taken as a whole, your abilities make for one of those rare games in which you end up feeling almost as graceful with the control pad as your on-screen double is with his arms and legs. If Outland was just a simple action platformer, then, it would be pretty entertaining stuff by itself. It's not just a simple action platformer, though, and it's only after you're already on your feet and moving that the game layers on its most exciting element: the ability to shift your character between light and dark (or rather, blue and red) alignments.
As with Ikaruga, each shift in polarity pushes you between different threats and different rewards. When you're red, you can absorb red projectiles harmlessly, but cannot attack red enemies, and the situation is reversed when you're blue.
On top of that, the game throws in panels – or spike pits – that can only be activated in certain polarities, and ledges and walls that won't be available if you're not aligned to their particular hue. Having traversal tied into a mechanic that's often reserved for combat throws up some truly ingenious gauntlets to run, and it's here that the heart of Outland's challenge lies.
So there are staircases that will only exist if you're in red mode, and that are filled with enemies you'll need to be in blue mode to attack. There are spiralling waves of bullets you'll need to be in blue mode to absorb, surrounded by spikes that won't slide back into the floor unless you're red. There are sections where fountains fire beams of alternating colours, criss-crossed by patrolling guards of alternating colours, all perfectly synced to a devious rhythm. Finally, there are bosses – smart, stylish, multi-pattern bosses – that have you switching back and forth so quickly that you'll briefly appear purple.
Outland is an adventure of a decent size, too: well signposted, nicely mapped and filled with plenty of handy teleports and hidden areas to seek out on subsequent replays. The challenge gets fairly steep towards the end, but – aside from the odd prolonged boss – the checkpointing is not too sadistic. On top of that, there are good online options, with co-op play available across story and arcade modes, and a handful of unlockable challenges to power through, too. (We've been unable to get games to connect so far, so we haven't been able to try these modes out. We'll update this article accordingly when we've been successful, however – and in the meantime, we apologise.)
There's something a little frosty about Outland's particular brand of mechanical brilliance at times, and it would be nice to find a genuine surprise amongst the skills you unlock. But brilliance is still brilliance, however it's dressed up.
In place of character, Outland is never less than pretty; instead of originality, you get cold, hard intelligence. As with Super Stardust and Dead Nation, Housemarque has once again proved it's a fearsomely talented quick-change artist of a studio, able to take any genre and get to the guts of it quickly and with a chilly efficiency.
Don't play Outland because you expect it to be charming and filled with personality, then: play it because of the swooping, speeding cleverness of its design. Play it because of the craft.
8 / 10