words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Housemarque for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, and Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.
Outland tells the tale of an unnamed hero who is plagued with visions of the past. He seeks out a shaman who explains the origin of the world, which was created by two sisters, one of light and one of darkness. Eventually the sisters decide to destroy their creation, but they are stopped by a lone hero and sealed away for ages. As the sisters begin to rise again, so too is the soul of the hero reborn, and he must build his strength in order to face the sisters once more.

When the player leaves the shaman’s tent, he has only a very basic set of movement abilities, allowing him to perform a variable 2x jump, as well as walk, run, ledge grab, and wall jump. Wall jumps are executed in a slightly different way than in other platformers, as the character sticks to the wall for several seconds, giving the player a great deal of time to execute a second jump, which is often required in order to dodge sprays of projectiles.

If the player waits too long, the character falls down the side of the vertical surface and is unable to reengage it until he touches the ground. Conversely, the ledge grab may be held for as long as the player likes, and the player may opt to mount the ledge or drop down.

The protagonist’s movement is heavily inertia driven, allowing players to build up momentum to clear wide gaps, but the hero takes some time to slow down and reverse direction, and midair direction control is similarly limited.

This gives the character a more realistic sense of weight that is uncommon in the action platforming genre, emphasizing the character as a flesh-and-blood hero who must go to the limits of his strength and endurance in order to complete the challenges that lay before him. This also supports the game’s focus on deliberately-paced melee combat over traditional hop-n-bop action.

Early on, the player gains the ability to wield a sword, allowing him to perform a 3-hit combo to the left or right, as well as a single downward strike and an uppercut that sends most enemies flying into the air. Many enemies require three or four hits to destroy and have lengthy telegraphs for their attacks, further supporting the game’s moderate pace and technical gameplay.

Enemies must be engaged carefully, with consideration given to retaliatory strikes, and each enemy behaves differently. Some enemies are stunned with the first strike of the combo, while others will begin winding up a counterattack, forcing the player to consider whether he has time to finish his combo or if he needs to retreat for a moment. Enemies that require four hits cannot be killed with a single combo string, but the player may use the upward strike to send these enemies into the air, stunning them long enough to follow up with a 3-hit combo.

Further adding to the complexity are certain enemies that cannot be juggled, shielded enemies that can only be attacked from behind, and shelled wall-crawling creatures that can only be harmed after knocking them away from their perch with an upward strike. There are also some explosive enemies that charge at the player, requiring that he dodge away... or lure them into causing explosive damage to another enemy. Mixed into all of this are massive streams and bursts of bullets, the likes of which are generally only seen in bullet hell shmups (more on this in a bit).

The player is also able to attack creatures from lower ledges and from ladders, although ladders operate somewhat strangely… Players auto-grab ladders when jumping into them, which on rare occasions is problematic when the player is attempting to get around a ladder to attack enemies on the other side. Players can climb up ladders and slide down them, and players automatically dismount when reaching the bottom of ladders, but not the top, requiring players to jump away from every ladder they ascend, rather than simply climbing up and mounting a platform.

Throughout the adventure, the player slowly gains access to new movement and combat abilities. These include a sliding maneuver that allows the player to slide under low overhangs, break vases, and damage enemies; a ground stomp maneuver that lets players deliver death from above and also break through destructible floors; and a charged strike that allows players to deal heavy damage and break certain walls.

The most useful of the player’s ability upgrades are those that support the game’s core mechanic of color switching, allowing the player swap between blue highlights (light) and red highlights (dark), which impacts the way in which the player interacts with enemies, projectiles, and certain platforms.

First off, the game is absolutely filled with gigantic sprays of bullets, many of which are completely unavoidable. However, by switching to match the color of the bullets, they don’t cause any damage to the player, working similarly to the light/dark mechanic in Ikaruga. This allows players to run through fountains of projectiles and charge headlong into wide bullet waves, so long as their color matches. Later areas feature emitters that alternate between light and dark, as well as bullet patterns that overlap, creating some tough environmental challenges.

Secondly, every enemy (aside from those in the first area) is aligned with light or dark. A handful of enemies are capable of firing projectiles, and these may be absorbed by matching their color. However, in order to cause damage to the enemies, the player must switch to the opposite color (the player can still take damage regardless of his color). Later challenges feature light and dark enemies mixed together in tight corridors, along with sprays of bullets, forcing the player to consider his state and alternate between them rapidly. Some late-game areas feature enemies that can swap between light and dark states, making for some particularly tedious battles, as no damage is caused when striking an enemy of the same color as the player.

Lastly, numerous platforms are aligned to light or dark and they have different behaviors depending on the state of the player. Some platforms are transparent when switched to the opposite color, preventing the player form interacting with them, and sometimes the player is required to hop between different colored platforms while also avoiding bullets.

Additionally, these platforms can be used to block sprays of bullets by making them solid, and vertically oriented platforms can be used for wall jumping up shafts and mounting high platforms. Some colored platforms are always solid but will not begin moving until the player changes to the same color.

Later in the game, the player begins to gain abilities that draw from a secondary energy meter. These include an overhead strike that is very powerful and can stun certain enemies, even those of the same color as the player. Much later, the player gains access to a beam attack to strike enemies at a distance and the ability to pull in projectiles to unleash damage to all enemies in the vicinity, but given their late-game appearance and a slowly-charging meter, they do little to alter the player’s core strategies.

The secondary energy meter begins with only a single unit, and each time an ability is used, the unit is drained. The meter can only be recharged by killing enemies, and it takes several kills to replenish one unit. In addition, the energy meter can be extended by discovering certain statues spread throughout the environment (some of which are hidden), an using coins to purchase an upgrade. Coins are acquired by killing enemies and breaking vases, with tougher enemies and larger vases offering a bigger payout.

Health is managed in a similar fashion, with upgrade statues found around the environment, and the player begins the game with three units. Hearts may also be collected by killing enemies and breaking vases, and each heart restores a single unit of health. There is also a small twist on health restoration in that players may opt to smash the heart pickup with their sword, causing coins to appear, allowing skilled players to rack up additional currency.

Checkpoints appear fairly regularly, but they do not restore the player’s health. Of course, if the player is killed, he returns to the checkpoint with his health fully restored, encouraging suicide when players cross checkpoints with very low health, particularly when leading into more challenging areas, with the only penalty being that killed enemies will respawn. In some areas, however, there are green crystals that restore the player’s health when he stands in front of them, as well as yellow crystals that restore his secondary energy meter.

The player’s game is only saved when transitioning from one area to the next (not at checkpoints), but these transitions occur around every 10-15 minutes of gameplay, depending on the player’s skill and the complexity of the level.

While the game world is technically open, allowing for free backtracking to any previously-visited locale, and a hub area connecting them all, the path forward is actually quite linear. In most cases, the player is offered a direct route with the occasional dead-end side path (sometimes hidden) leading to additional coins, health restoratives, health/energy upgrades, or collectibles that let the player unlock concept art and minor ability enhancements, such as hanging onto a wall for a bit longer before falling.

In most cases a fluttering “guiding light” shows you the direct path through the level, and the map screen always shows where you need to go next. On occasions where the you must gain a new ability in order to access a new path, you are led directly to the ability upgrade or switch, and then led back to the proper location to access the next route, removing any sense of exploration.

The only exception are special launch pad discs that are spread around most areas, but the player doesn’t gain the ability to use them until almost the end of the game, relegating their use to those who wish to return and hunt for any pickups they missed the first time around… and the lack of detail on the map makes it impossible to determine where to backtrack in order to find missing collectibles.

The game world is built using 2D backgrounds and 3D characters, allowing for some beautiful landscapes and smoothly animated characters, enemies, and bosses, with characters appearing as black silhouettes with red or blue highlights. The game offers many layers of parallax, colorful backgrounds with dark foregrounds, added effects such as blowing leaves, and an emphasis on light and shadows. The game is accompanied by the ambient sounds of birds and insects and an atmospheric soundtrack with a focus on woodwind instruments and percussion.

Boss battles tend toward lengthy and occasionally complex affairs, with hulking creatures and multi-phase encounters, some of which have checkpoints. In some instances, the player must dodge attacks and await and opening to strike, but in many cases the player is required to run around an open arena, dodging huge sprays of light and dark projectiles, and activating switches or destroying certain objects in order to cause damage to the boss indirectly or to make the boss vulnerable to attack. There are only a handful of proper boss encounters across the lengthy adventure, but each is a huge setpiece moment with larger-than-life monstrosities, and each offers some unique gameplay element or challenge.

The game offers a story mode and an arcade mode, but only the story mode is available from the beginning, with arcade areas being opened as new regions are discovered in the main game. In addition, the game offers online co-op, with challenge areas opened as the player discovers purple portals during the story mode.

Outland was developed by Housemarque with a collection of dozens of team members. Housemarque also developed the Super Stardust series and the Dead Nation series. The game’s soundtrack was composed by Ari Pulkkinen, who also composed music for the Super Stardust and Dead Nation games, as well as the Trine series and the Angry Birds series.

The game was published by publishing giant Ubisoft, best known for the Rayman series, as well as the Assassin’s Creed series and numerous games based on the literary works of Tom Clancy.