Outland is a metroidvania-esque platforming game released by Ubisoft in 2011 for the 360 & PS3, 2014 on PC and 2015 for Linux. It seemingly draws inspiration from African and South American iconography and depicts the story of a nameless warrior trying to keep the world from being remade by the twin goddesses who created it.
Besides the setup, Outland doesn't really have a story. There are a few tidbits, but the game banks more on the presentation to do the talking. Which isn't a bad plan, since the game is stunning. There is a great use of contrast that manages to create distinct areas without using much detail nor many colours.
It leaves the game feeling plain, yet somehow majestic. Like you're playing an ancient legend given life. I approve of this decision, since it makes the game visually unique from other games of its ilk and keeps the pace at good level.
Outside of its back-off-the-box gimmick, Outland's powerset is very simple. These powers border on being boring, but they're at least all useful.
You can wall jump, slide and stomp through the game with ease and even hit some pretty impressive speeds a few times. I don't really have any complaints to offer here, it just works.
Combat is in a similar boat. It feels good, but has little depth. Enemies punish the careless, but aren't much of a threat. This leaves the game without any big surprises combat-wise, outside of the odd miniboss. You can use the stomp and the slide to stun and juggle enemies, so there is room for mastery, but it's not required. You also get a few super moves that run on limited energy to give you an edge against the beefier enemies. The giant laser beam in particular is a delight. Except when the enemies use it on you.
The greatest achievement of Outland lies in the way it implements mechanics from Ikaruga. Not far into the game, you get the ability to swap between the powers of light and dark. Being of one colour grants you immunity to projectiles of that colour, let's you activate platforms of that colour and kill enemies of the opposite colour.
It's a great system in a game with platforming. Every encounter challenges you to realise the best colour to run into it with and then asks you to swap back and forth as you make your way through it. Every navigation puzzle builds on an archetype, but manage to remain unique. I'm amazed just of much variety the game gets out of different configurations of pellets and lasers without feeling repetetive.
These challenges get a bit challenging towards the end, but by that point you can sacrifice some health for the sake of progress, so it isn't an issue unless you're dead set on not getting hit.
Unlike many other metroidvania games, Outland is quite linear. As such, I don't think I can call it a proper metroidvania game. It's impossible to break the structure of the game and get powers or fight bosses in different orders. It's an affront to the genre, but I don't really mind it. The main platforming challenges are so good that the lack of sequence-breaking doesn't feel detrimental.
Since the game is linear, the designers are in complete control of the progression of difficulty. Each of the 5 areas are ordered by difficulty, so by the end you'll be tasked with some insane colour switching challenges compared to the simplistic start. It's a really nice curve, culminating with an awesome showdown with the sisters.
There are secrets to find, but the main path gives you all you need. With this focus, the game keeps a steady pace and never drags. I see it as standard level based platformer with the odd place you return to. Fans of the metroidvania genre might find this disappointing, so YMMV.
The things you collect in Outland aren't very complicated. Enemies and pots contain gold that you spend on health and energy upgrades. Enough of these upgrades are along the main path to get you through the game and if you collect most of the gold, you'll always have enough to buy them. I never searched out the rest of the upgrades, so you might need to grind a bit to buy those.
Besides that, there's also a whole bunch of Marks of the Gods hidden around the game. Thankfully, every screen tells you how many remain, so they aren't impossible to find. Once you collect enough, you mostly get a bit of concept art, but there's also a few non-essential upgrades to reward completionists.
I'm quite impressed with the bosses of Outland. Besides maybe the first, they're all unique, lengthy spectacles that put their own spin on the colour mechanics. The game doesn't ever go full bullet hell, but the bosses get somewhat close.
You get a sense that these are majestic beings you are taking down, not unlike the bosses of Shadow of the Colossus. The length of the fights (and decent checkpointing) combined with the ramping difficulty really help make them memorable.
The final boss in particular, holy crap. It doesn't force you to use all of your powers, but it puts your colour switching to the test! It's very long, with multiple phases using many different patterns that exploit trigger-happy fingers. I think I failed to ”go with the flow” of the battle and instead relied on raw reactions. Had I spent more time on it or looked up a video, I might have found it easier.
But even though it's very hard, I still didn't get very mad at it. They do something interesting to balance the fact that you can bring a variable amount max health to the battle. Once your hearts drop below 3, the weak spots of the boss will always drop health. This creates some awesome tension, as you can recover from risky moves and misstakes, but you're never far from death. It assures that the game ends with a proper climax.
For extras, we have a co-op mode where two players can work together to make their way through the game. Since the game is about precise platforming and the game lagged a bit in spite of how close I was to my partner, this mode isn't for everyone. And to balance the potential double amount of damage you can deal in this mode, only one player can buy a specific upgrade and gold isn't shared. However, there are some thrilling co-op challenges scattered about the game that might make this mode worth looking into.
There's also Arcade mode, which is a dedicated speedrun mode with leaderboards that lets you replay an area with ease, which is nice in case you don't want to replay the whole game for just one area.