Housemarque's platform adventure Outland was recently released on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN and as all three editors got stuck in as we present our first ever co-operative review or conversation piece if you will.
What's the first word that comes to mind when you think of Outland?
Petter: First word? Smooth.
Gillen: Second word: Hard.
Bengt: Yes. Brutal.
Gillen: But first word: Captivating. Followed swiftly by testing.
Bengt: Smooth, brutal and captivating, sums it up nicely.
Gillen: The reactionary changes alone for mid-air switches (sometimes twice before you land) offers a glower at claims platformers are too ease these days. Testing my patience, my platforming skill, my creative swearing.
Petter: Yeah, it follows up nicely from Super Meat Boy - hard as hell, but with the added Metroid/Castlevania-feel. I'm not sure I'll be able to finish it, similar to Super Meat Boy, because I get too annoyed. I want to, mind, but I'm not sure I actually WILL.
Bengt: I woke the girlfriend up with my swearing on the very first boss...
Petter: It felt like I was cursing more than you when we played co-op though. I am disappointed!
Bengt: I'm not experienced enough when it comes to Xbox Live cursing...
Gillen: Love the level design, in that the butterflies will suggest a direction, but its entirely at your discretion whether you follow them or not.
Bengt: It's almost like they urge you to try another direction...
Gillen: ...and due to that openness not being strictly exclusive to having every single move unlocked, that exploration always pays off.
Petter: The butterflies are great. There's always a risk in games like these that you get lost - here you at least always know where you're supposed to progress. Makes it easier for the people that don't actually want to do the whole exploration thing.
Gillen: And they explain away those areas that are blocked off (or devices) in such a vague term that its more tantalising than revealing. How does the Teleporter work? I don't know - but I'm eager to find out and try it.
Bengt: Teleporters eliminate tiresome backtracking in a nice way when you revisit older areas to try and get those masks.
That takes us to the visual style, what did you think of it?
Gillen: like I said at the start - lush visuals are all well and good, but given this is a 2D platformer, the initial amazement of the beauty quickly disperses because you're too busy concentrating on the next platform or spirit swap. However (and this might be a small point) that the dev has chosen red and blue as the two primary colours look great against the black - something that'd stand out be it a 52 inch HDTV or a 13 inch monitor. It's clear no matter what - and that aids the gameplay.
Petter: The visuals do a lot to make the game more interesting, though. It makes me want to explore, to find out more - I felt the same way in The Undergarden, for example. Or in Metroid Prime. In Shadow Complex I couldn't really be bothered, since the backdrops and visuals felt so generic. The kind of mystical African style is gorgeous.
Bengt: Made me think of Limbo, obviously and shadow puppets... There is an attention to detail that is really nice to see.
Gillen: Only seen a few areas so far, but it'll be great if the visuals alter subtly as you progress, like Limbo's transition between forest, cave, town.
Petter: They do. The darker areas feel pretty disturbing. Not Limbo-disturbing, but they are quite a change from the initial forest.
Bengt: I think there are five principal areas to explore. It's not a huge game, but certainly longer than say Limbo.
Part Ikaruga, part Limbo, part Prince of Persia, sound about right?
Gillen: I'd say less Limbo, from the standpoint that limbo offered you puzzles which parts and solutions were right in front of you - Outland has a far wider reach, requiring you to trek across the map multiple times.
Petter: Yeah, I'm not really seeing Limbo either - it was much more contained, after all. What was that old Commodore 64 game called? Impossible Mission?
Bengt: The one with elevators and robots?
Gillen: That's the one. Though its cool the enemy design requires a bit more thought than choosing the right colour - guys with shields need to be jumped behind first - but then you're likely having to contend with a wave of bullets hammering down around you as well. So timing requires a lot more thought - but you do actually HAVE time to make your attack. Ikaruga was unrelenting in its game mechanic.
Bengt: I'm seeing some Limbo, in the minimalistic way enemies and characters are shown, but as far as gameplay goes, not much of Limbo in there. This is more of a core game.
Petter: At first, I didn't think much about the similarities with Ikaruga - but as you get further in, the amount of times you have to shift colors... Yeah, Ikaruga certainly stands out as an inspiration then. It gets pretty insane in parts where, as you said, you have to switch several times during a jump. Then land in the middle of a rain of energy balls, trying to deal with an enemy of a different colour...
Bengt: Yeah, the screen gets full of blue and red shots later on, there are some really tough passages where you need to time your jumps on platforms, switch between dark and light and mind shots that come in burst of varying colours.
Gillen: I'd say Castlevania's exploration with Prince of Persia movement coupled with Ikaruga combat mechanic, overlaid with an art style that evokes Limbo without actually copying it.
Also, your character is so swift - you can play cautious and slow, but you're equally as able to charge through if you have the confidence and reaction speeds to do so.
Bengt: Yeah, I like the fact that you're agile and quick... it really makes sense in arcade when you replay a level with a time limit. A totally different experience that the cautious approach I took in singleplayer.
Anything you did not like about it?
Gillen: Optional choice to pan the camera out would be great- sometimes its a little too slow when coming to a new area, and that's a problem if you're trying a speed run without taking damage.
Petter: There are a couple of cases when you have no idea what you're actually jumping into... So some camera controls would have been nice, agreed.
Bengt: There are a number of leaps of faith in there, but it's not extremely punishing. I missed a manual save system, especially when I turn the system off I had no way of knowing where it saved and the checkpoints you run past apparently aren't where you start of when you go back. I've had to replay several sections of levels as I turned the system off after reaching a checkpoint only to realise it didn't matter cause the actual save points are fewer and farther apart.
How was the co-operative experience?
Bengt: I think one nice thing about co-op is that there are bit size challenges as well as the longer levels to complete. It takes a bit getting used to the time limits and the stress though.
Petter: It was fun to play in co-op, absolutely. But I think I prefer the challenges compared to arcade mode. I would have loved to play through the campaign together, but having that artificial time limitation ruined the experience for me. Challenges with leaderboards, especially in co-op, is a nice feature though. Team up with a friend to beat people on the Internet is always fun, I guess!
Bengt: It does come across as a bit of an afterthought, but co-op works well. There were some issues with telling what character you were controlling, especially when it was zoomed out and there weren't that many co-operative elements as you mainly just played through things side by side.
So what's the verdict?
Petter: Well, I think I'd recommend Outland to the same people I'd recommend Super Meat Boy. You want a challenging platformer? Here it is. I wouldn't recommend it to more casual gamers, since it will test you. At times quite a lot. So unless you can handle that, don't pick up Outland. At the same time, it's 800 points and totally worth trying out.
Gillen: Platformers these days are as common as ikea furniture. they look nice, but there's no great art to them, and you can feel and see the joints that comes from production line manufacturing. Finding one that's obviously crafted from finer stuff makes you appreciate the work that's clearly went into it. Despite the issues with camera and the need to unlock co-op challenges, Outland has the craftmanship that sets it alongside Super Meat Boy and Symphony of the Night. Difficult yet captivating. 8
Bengt: Outland is one of those games that really challenges you, but that also fills you with a tremendous sense of accomplishment as you progress. It's beautiful, precise, and constantly throws new mechanics at you that you need to master. At this pricepoint it's a game I would recommend to anyone with a taste for platforming. 9
Gillen: Your score, Petter...
Petter: It's tricky. I believe it certaintly deserves a good grade, but it is also scaring me away at times and I really want to see more of it. But it's without a doubt an awesome game, with amazing controls and fluid animations. I also like that when you actually do die (and you will) it never feels like it was the game's fault - it was your own and your clumsy fingers. So I'll go for 8 as well. It deserves it. And the price point is *insane*. 8
This review was created from parts of a Skype conversation.