Housmarque's Outland dropped on XBLA and PSN a few months back and was widely well received. With a beautiful art style, puzzling platforming, and some old school action its pretty easy to see why. Outland takes a lot of cues from classics like Mario, Metroid, Ikaruga, and others. But, it never really crosses over into rip-off territory. It's familiar yet original and a satisfyingly unique adventure from it's outset to the games final moments.
A vague over-arching story starts with our silent protagonist visiting a shaman to analyze his dreams. Having visions of a great warrior from the past who fought to keep the world in order, our protagonist wonders what it all could mean. The shaman divulges that he feels rumblings of the hero's return, as well as the return of the sisters of light and dark who created this world, which they will soon look to destroy. The shaman believes our protagonist is the hero reincarnate and sends him out to stop the sisters once and for all. While the story doesn't ever evolve beyond that, you'll be sporadically treated to a narrator reading the back-story of the various bosses you'll encounter and defeat. It's not much but, it is a little bit of insight into the world as well as the characters and a nice device to keep the tale on your mind.
The story really takes a backseat to the art and level design in Outland. The beautiful silhouetted foregrounds blended with splashes of bright colors and epic backdrops is really something to behold. The game is broken up into a few different areas each with it's own take on the overall visual style. The one consistent thing in all the areas, besides the silhouettes, is the presence of light and dark enemies represented by blue and red respectively. Foes and turrets spit out waves of color, sometimes creating incredible visual patterns akin to a lot of bullet-hell style games, but are much more artfully implemented. These patterns create puzzling mazes of color and make for some exhilarating platforming.
The duality of light and dark energies is a major device throughout the entire game. Very early in our adventure our hero gains the ability to alternate his body color between light(blue)and dark(red) energies. This mechanic quickly becomes integral to the second to second gameplay, allowing you to absorb "bullets" of which ever color you currently happen to be. Switching colors also allows you to interact with platforms of your same color; Some will move when you hop on them as the appropriate color, others won't act as a platform at all unless you're correctly colored. The flip-side here is that you can only attack enemies of the opposite color. All of this combined makes for some really frantic sequences where you'll be challenged to quickly shift colors and attack appropriate enemies while jumping through waves of, sometimes unavoidable, bullets. Defeating enemies and smashing urns will net you gold for upgrades a refill your magic meter a bit.
Boss battles are both challenging and puzzling. Half of the fight is figuring out the unique movement and shooting patterns of your current foe. All the bosses are incredibly different. Some require precise jumps, others speed, almost all require you to be constantly switching colors and the final encounter incorporates all of these. Since most bosses have multiple phases a lot of it ends up being trial by fire but when you finally do defeat your generally gigantic foe you feel accomplished and are rewarded with a special ability or a magic attack.
While initially your combat repertoire is limited to only a three-hit combo, you'll unlock several combat upgrades as well as some magic powers and abilities to help you navigate the world. Though your initial three-hit combo will be your bread and butter in defeating most of the enemies Outland constantly throws opportunities to use these new found powers and abilities at you. Your first trek through most levels will reveal that many areas that are unreachable without a specific ability. Generally, these hard to reach places are full of gold and hidden upgrade stations making the backtracking well worth it. By the end of the game these upgrades, abilities, and magical powers make you feel almost unstoppable.
Housemarque did an excellent job delivering one of the best XBLA games to date. Outland takes a chance by blending classic gameplay conventions with a beautiful art style that shines through every second of gameplay. While much of the game will feel familiar to most gamers it's hard to argue that there is something truly unique here. All the parts come together to give you one hell of an adventure that is definitely worth your time.