The last few years have demonstrated just how important the downloadable space is for showcasing new and exciting games. Finnish developer Housemarque's Outland is yet another shining testament to the online platform and is, in its own right, a sharp-looking and captivating 2D side-scroller that takes the best bits from a ream of influences and blends them all together with resounding results.
Castlevania and Metroid are the two most prominent spinning cogs at the heart of Outland: an expansive world map complete with branching sections makes light of this, as does the encouragement to re-visit previously inaccessible terrain once new abilities are acquired. The parkour-esque platforming is joyfully realised and compliments the swordplay nicely – their combined simplicity is well-suited and devoid of too much complication. Enemy encounters soon fall to familiar three-hit combo pattern attacks, but maintaining awareness of each and every threat around you becomes more and more demanding as the journey moves forward.
Outland's chief conceit is its Ikaruga-inspired take on colour-swapping between red and blue forms – denoted as 'Dark' and 'Light' respectively. Switching between the two colours at will is a constant necessity: navigating colour-specific pathways and attacking enemies of the opposite colour are regular tasks to undertake throughout the seven or so hours the single-player campaign lasts. Although the demands of colour-switching get drastically more complex later on, practical use of leaping and dodging can often prove a more efficient means to an end when things get really tough. It's also unfortunate that the consistently impressive boss battles are oddly lacking in checkpoints, despite them being extremely plentiful for the majority of the game.
From lush jungles to cavernous ruins, Outland speaks volumes through its striking visuals. Much like last year's Limbo, the entire working body of artistic design on display is uniquely mesmerising: detailed environments convey a vibrant, ethereal mood and the combination of prominent lighting effects with earthly colour pallets help create a moody tribal aesthetic. The accompanying narrative is fairly routine, focusing on typical fantasy tropes of mythical powers, brave heroes and a macabre world in need of immediate saving. It's standard stuff that never really ventures beyond expected fantasy bullet points, but the story itself is largely inconsequential to everything else on show. A befitting musical score also contributes to the eerie backdrop, furthering the ruinous atmosphere by virtue of heightened dramatism at the appropriate junctions – in fact, it carries more emotional weight than anything the story has to offer.
Outside of the main adventure, individual parts of each world can be re-played in a leaderboard-focused time attack mode as well as co-operative challenges that, as well as being confined to being online-only, have to be unlocked as collectibles in the proper game. This is fine for those who enjoy labouring for hidden goodies – and Outland makes a good case for doing so with beneficial health and power upgrades – but at the same time, locking away several instances of otherwise good content from the non-obsessive is an arguably poor decision.
An astonishing visual feat wrapped around a game that wears its ambitions on its sleeve, Outland is a rich collage of everything the modern 2D side-scrolling fan could ask for. The final product is something of a rare breed that reminds of a genre's past greatness whilst simultaneously looking forward to the future with inspired enthusiasm. At a fantastic value both price and content-wise, ignoring Outland's lack of originality comes easy when the experience at large is as refined and enjoyable as it is.