XBLA is home to some strange and enticing titles. Certain games simply wouldn’t sell as retail releases, not in this day and age of cutting-edge graphics, immersive storylines and progressive multiplayer modes. Titles like Trials HD, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and Castle Crashers wouldn’t survive the marketplace if released as boxed titles, but on XBLA they have their place. These titles and many others prove that you don’t have to have epic storylines, polished FMV sequences or bastard Killstreaks to make truly playable, addicting videogames.
Outland is a case in point. At its most basic it's a 2D side-scrolling platformer circa 1992; at its most intricate a devilishly addictive, wonderfully-responsive trip through a hell of traps and bullets and house-sized bosses. It’s reminiscent of Jordan Mechner’s original Prince of Persia, or on some levels Eric Chahi’s industry-changing classic Another World.
You take control of a nameless protagonist in a nameless world (according to the slightly impenetrable between-level narratives, possibly our own during some ancient period of Creation), and must guide him through various platform-based levels. The static cutscenes and text screens tell the story of a chosen one (you) who receives apocalyptic visions of a great wheel, always in motion, and two godly sisters who created the world. The main drive of the story revolves around restoring balance between light and dark, and will lead you through several different game areas. Throughout the story, Outland borrows from a great deal of modern classics, most-notably borrowing the concept of polarity from Ikaruga.
In Outland the right bumper causes you to switch colours from blue (representing Light) to red (representing Darkness) in order to defeat colour-coded enemies and activate switches and lifts of the corresponding hue. Also, Outland features bullets, thousands and thousands of bullets, launched from unexplained cannons embedded in pretty much any flat surface available or, on occasion, fired from living enemies who you can at least take a sword to. Switching between colours on the fly is the only way to navigate the minefield of bullets, traps and enemies, but the instantaneous nature of such transitions means it always feels fast and intuitive – before long, it’s second nature.
The open world set up allows for a great deal of backtracking, returning to previous areas with new skills like the ability to use teleporters or jump-boosting launch-pads. An easy-to-follow trail of lights (think Fable 2) makes navigation surprisingly simple, so you never feel frustrated or lost despite the black-on-black, silhouette-style art design. In fact, Outland is a simply-drawn game that manages to look completely mesmerising. Black, bright blue and deep red combine with subtle background colours to paint a vivid gameworld dripping with atmosphere. The music adds its own layers, too, increasing the element of tribal mysticism prevalent throughout.
Combat is simple but effective, with all attacks mapped to X. It’s mostly sword-based, but there are a few moves like the power-slide and ground-slam mixed in that come in handy for dealing with some of the tougher, faster enemies. Boss fights are surprisingly large-scale, and it’s incredibly satisfying to trounce a screen-filling behemoth with your tiny little blue/red dude. Thanks to the alternating colours and various environmental threats, some of the bosses require a lot of concentration and split-second timing. But then, most of the game demands the same.
The only aspect of the game that really betrays its youth – despite the smooth animation – is the non-local co-op. Playing with another person doesn’t change the game so much as it increases the fun, adding another facet to the nail-chewing platforming. Working with each other against bosses and mini-puzzles alike is great, but there are also co-op-specific challenges dotted around the various game areas to take on.
Ultimately, Outland harks back to a time before celebrity voice-overs and glossy cutscenes, before the industry exploded into the multi-billion-dollar behemoth it is nowadays. It’s straight-forward but intelligent, occasionally bastard-hard but never impossible, repetitive but never tedious and, though Outland might not make much sense story-wise, it more than delivers in every other department. Cracking.