Outland looks like basic math. It’s that thing you like plus that other thing you like plus an entirely different third thing you maybe don’t know so much about but once looked up on Wikipedia.
In Outland , players Metroid their way through a shadowy world based on vague approximations of Mesoamerican mythology, with an art style that could be called Neon Mayan (who I believe just got a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork). As they proceed they unlock new abilities that allow access to previously unattainable territory. Players also repeatedly change the color of the Avatar’s clothes from red dark energy to blue light energy. He has to be the opposite color of enemies to hurt them, and the same color as obstacles to get past them. If the two colors clash, somebody’s getting hurt. Yes, a Hypercolor t-shirt will save your life.
Like the ersatz Mayans of Outland, all civilizations steal from others, building cultures and cosmologies from the remnants of the past. Games are no different, but Outland openly embraces its very specific inspirations too closely to ever let us forget them, from the minimalist visuals of Limbo to Ikaruga’s two-color polarity to the side-scrolling exploration of Metroid. But pastiche is as far as Outland gets, not quite synthesizing its various elements into a single cohesive aesthetic.That doesn’t mean Outland is an outright bummer. It’s a mechanically sound two-dimensional platformer that’ll momentarily divert anybody who loves running, jumping, and slashing from left to right and up to down and everywhere in-between. Outland could easily be a modern-day sequel to a beloved old NES or 16-bit side-scroller. A game doesn’t always need to provide compelling reasons for us to do what it asks.
Still, some unity of vision would be nice. Later abilities, like orbs that propel players short distances at great speeds, or lasers that blast out of your chest, often don’t quite gel with the central light-and-dark-energy motif or Outland’s particular strand of cryptomythology. Ideas that fit mechanically but not thematically started popping up the deeper I traveled into the game.
The lengthy, multi-tiered boss battles are both the best and worst parts of Outland’s story mode. When they’re done right they forced me to quickly change colors while maneuvering around shifting landscapes and deadly blasts of energy. They can be difficult, especially the final boss, but rarely frustrating.
Another boss battle sums up the game’s weaknesses. I started to turn slightly against Outland the tenth or eleventh time I faced off against the Quetzalcoatl-themed boss three-quarters of the way through the game. It’s not that the giant serpent is too difficult. It’s not even because the game makes you repeat the same easily memorized introductory section every time, eating up a few dozen minutes in the process. Well, it’s not entirely those two things.
The battle with the flying snake god mostly renders Outland’s color-switching mechanic meaningless. Colorless bombs rain down the entire time, growing thicker the closer you get to killing the beast. Eventually there are so many on the screen at every moment that it stops being practical to dodge them. You have to soldier through and take the occasional hit and hope you can finish off the monster before you die. Instead of challenging players with a novel twist on the game’s primary mechanic, this boss fight largely forsakes that mechanic altogether. It’s just bad design.
The online co-op modes come in handy once you tire of the campaign. You can play through the story with a friend, or speed-run in tandem through the same levels for leaderboard glory. The five co-op challenge rooms usually introduce a single new wrinkle each to the color-changing formula, including such simple alterations as one player changing the colors for both, or attacks only dealing damage when both players are the same color. These co-op challenges are Outland at its best, adeptly tweaking the game’s core mechanic while demanding genuine cooperation from you and a friend.
It’s a sign of Outland’s eventual listlessness that a friend is needed to get the most out of it. Metroid is the series to which Outland owes the most, and the Metroid games are some of the most solitary games ever made. But then Outland doesn’t fully commit to the spirit of adventure expected from a Metroid acolyte. Backtracking is always possible but rarely necessary, and you generally don’t encounter impassible obstructions until shortly before you acquire the power-up necessary to overcome them.
Outland is striking at first, but there’s little variation as the game progresses. What initially comes off as admirable restraint eventually feels sterile. The other big names in this genre—Metroid, Castlevania, Cave Story—all have strong visual styles and musical cues that set very specific tones. Outland looks and sounds the same from start to finish. It makes a great first impression, but Outland is too cold and distant to ever really love.
Outland was developed by Housemarque and published by Ubisfot. It is available digitally via the Xbox Live Arcade and—eventually, once it’s up and running again—the Playstation Network.
Garrett Martin writes about video games, comic books, and music for a number of regional and national publications. He covers video games for the Boston Herald, edits a weekly comic review column at Paste, and is an editor and writer for Voice Media’s games blog Joystick Division.