Monday, 20 June 2011

Video Game Review | Outland, dev. Housemarque

The platform exclusive seems a dying breed in video games these days, and in all honesty, I couldn't have hoped for a happier circumstance.

Obviously exceptions can and will continue to be made for those tentpole products developed by the primary parties in play, which is to say the platform standard-bearers of Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. Perhaps in fan-fiction the day will come when Mario ground-pounds Master Chief, only for Kratos to quarter the poor plump plumber in a shocking Shyamalan twist. In the gaming industry of today, alas: you might as well waste your time ruminating on the dreamy ideal of a one console future.

By and large, then, the notion that you'd spend the fortune required to design the high-def friendly assets today's technological architecture insists on, and then develop an engine up to the daunting task of streaming them, only to skip that last short step - the porting of your blood, sweat and tears from one platform to another, and therefore to a whole other base of players - quite beggars belief.

That assertion holds true particularly in the case of your smaller developers. Take, for instance, Housemarque, who made their name in the contemporary climate with Super Stardust HD - a wonderfully reworked version of the same studio's Amiga 1200 favourite - for the PS3.

Super Stardust HD was a tremendous success: one of the first and still among the most powerful reasons to hook your big black media centre up to the Playstation Network - however foolish that resolution might seem in light of recent events. Yet Housemarque's long-awaited PSN successor was a disaster, relatively speaking. Hell, the dreary Left 4 Overhead shenanigans of last year's Dead Nation were disastrous by all accounts.

Yet somehow, Housemarque pulled through; pulled through long enough, at least, to ditch the twin-stick shooter mechanics of old so that they might twist together the platforming of Prince of Persia with bullet-hell environs ripped right out of Ikaruga. And thank the great console overlords they did, because Outland... is an absolute delight.

There's a story and everything... something to do with a hero of ages and twin sisters, as I recall. Sounds dirty filthy nasty, right? It's not. And let's not you and I worry about that, in any event - largely because to speak on it much further I'd have to ask Wiki what in the world just happened, and this having just finished the game. Not exactly a strong sign, but in all honesty: what of it? Narrative is not the reason why I'd urge you to purchase and play Outland.

But be sure, those reasons are legion. Foremost amongst them - and surely the first thing about Outland likely to strike you - is the exquisite aesthetic. Seemingly inspired by the handheld wormholes of Portal 2, the twenty-some 2D levels of Outland are brought vividly to life by a palette of bright blues and oscillating oranges. Each of the five Metroidvania-esque worlds you adventure through has its own unique twist on the general look, all of which awe in their way. Housemarque have truly brought their A-game to Outland; in design terms at least.

And the visual design very much informs the gameplay design. Outland seems somewhat simplistic at the outset: you'll be clambering up ledges and wall-jumping quite the thing within minutes of beginning. But the more you explore, the more abilities you unlock. A ground pound a la the aforementioned Italian lets you break through certain floor areas, and a dash achieves the same purpose with walls. With one power you're able to gather up all the blue and orange bullets on the screen - and there are almost always bullets on the screen - and make of them a defensive shield, or an offensive explosion; while with another ability you can teleport back to old haunts to make use of the previously inaccessible jump pads scattered here and there through the multitude levels - perhaps to find one last collectible, of which there are a fair few.

The one power to rule them all, however, and the ability around which a great deal of Outland is structured, is phase shifting. When you're blue, you can absorb blue bullets, and do damage to orange enemies through the neat, if underutilised combo system, but hit the bumper to change states, and everything in this wonderful world shifts with you: now you can absorb orange bullets without taking a hit, and layeth the smack down on blue baddies. It begins an uncomplicated thing, this game, yet a few levels in you're required to shift from blue to orange and back again in the space of a single jump before you can progress any further, and later on you'll be picking a considered path through bullet fountains of both colours.

From the outside I would wager phase shifting must sound terribly demanding, and at times, indeed, it is. But the difficulty curve of Outland slopes just so over its approximately six hour course. You'll rarely feel either overprepared or underprepared for the next impossible feat Housemarque demands of you - that is short a couple of desperately frustrating boss battles as you approach the endgame. And on those occasions, I'd hold some mean-spirited checkpointing accountable for the imbalance, rather than suggest the level of challenge rises too sharply.

Other than that, the only charge I'd level at this gem of a genre-bender is... well, perhaps there's a touch too much of it, for Outland seems to run out of steam some before it's over. Particularly in the last of its five worlds, after one final power has been bestowed upon our hero of ages, precious few surprises remain. Better that the experience had ended full steam ahead than petering as it does towards what is an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion.

It is an easy thing to trace various aspects of Outland back towards the respective origins of each: there's a great swathe of Ikaruga in the polarity of your player character, and the billowing curtains of bullets you encounter every which way, and a fair whack of Super Metroid in the way the world is organised to encourage return trips once you've become more powerful. There's some Ico to the stark aesthetic, and a sliver of Limbo while we're at it. Prince of Persia rules the platforming mechanics, for the most part, though there is too an echo of the pulse-pounding chases of Super Meat Boy and 'Splosion Man, and a heartening memory of Shadow of the Colossus about certain boss battles. But for all that Outland seems a sauté of overfamiliar ingredients going for a penny on the pound, what emerges from the mill is in its own right a memorable dish indeed, fully - and beautifully - formed.

Thank to Housemarque's multiplatform-friendly change of heart, you can purchase Outland for a measly sum on Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network. Released as it was to little or no fanfare, and received with a dreadful dearth standing in for the fervour it deserves, I dearly hope you do so, for I'd hate for Outland to be Housemarque's swan song.

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