We all crow about originality in games, but what we really want is good iteration. GTA III was good, but it was many gamers’ first open-world sandbox. Do we all go back to it? No – we look back at games like GTA: Vice City for adding motorcycles and a protagonist who is more than a blank slate, Saint’s Row for taking the genre to its extreme while refining the gameplay even more, and Crackdown for turning everything around and allowing us to play in a similar sandbox with a focus on a more traditional hero. Similar to good iteration, skillful combination of elements can make for a great game as well. Look no further than Puzzle Quest for proof of that: the marriage of simple match-three puzzle gameplay and traditional RPG leveling and skills made for an enthralling game that kept gamers addicted for hours.
How does this relate to Outland? Well, Outland is the combination and iteration of several gameplay styles that don’t seem compatible at first glance. It is equal parts Ikaruga and Metroid. From Ikaruga, Outland lifts the idea of color playing a role in whether bullet-hell-style projectiles hurt the player but iterates on the idea by making red enemies only able to take damage from a blue player and vice versa. From Metroid, it lifts the general game design: the player explores a large map, gains upgrades and abilities as the game progresses, and battles screen-filling bosses in order to advance the story.
The art is beautiful and minimalistic. Everything is reminiscent of Aztec design, and color is used to great effect to communicate to the player how a section should be passed. Projectiles are blue, not only because blue is a pretty color, but because it communicates to the player that leaving the character red will make the next section difficult or impossible. The color-changing mechanic makes combat more challenging by throwing groups of red and blue enemies at you at the same time forcing you to be constantly aware of what color you are versus what color your enemy is because it won’t do any good to whack that blue beetle when you are a blue guy. Platforming sections also flex the color-changing mechanic by alternating blue-only platforms with red bullets and other arrangements that force color changes in mid-air and in the middle of a combat scenario.
Outland may not do anything new, but it combines elements from great games to great effect, creates a challenging campaign, and looks great while it does it. Outland is challenging without feeling cheap, artistic without feeling pretentious, and fun without being expensive. I am honestly surprised that Microsoft didn’t hold on to this one for 2011’s Summer of Arcade promotion.
Pros: Interesting art design, skillful marriage of shmup concepts with Metroidvania gameplay
Cons: It doesn’t pull any punches – as soon as a concept is introduced it is ratcheted up quickly