Have you ever asked yourself “What would happen if somebody made a Metroidvania and they used the polarity mechanic from Ikaruga?” Me either. Apparently somebody did however, as that’s exactly what Outland is. I was excited for this game from the first video I saw of it simply because of this fact. The game has very beautiful graphics and borrows the core mechanic from two extremely popular games/genres, but does an action/adventure puzzle game mix well with a bullet hell? Read on to find out why I think this is one game you should absolutely not miss out on this year.
The first thing you’re going to notice in Outland is the stunning visual style that is pervasive throughout every part of the game. The polarity aspect comes into play with the two very distinct primary colors of blue and red which stand out brilliantly amidst the muted, washed out tones of the background art. Finding your enemies or the energy beams / bullets is never a chore.
The orange and blue color scheme is where the polarity mechanic comes into play. In essence it works exactly like it does in Ikaruga; you absorb like colors and can only damage opposite colors. The game starts off without this power and is fun enough right from the beginning, but it’s not until you get the polarity power that the fun in the game really takes off.
The game ramps up nice and slowly in difficulty by introducing you to all red enemies while you have the blue power, to slowly introducing both colored enemies when you gain both powers yourself. By the end of the game the enemies are changing polarity mid-fight and there are turrets shooting both beams or alternating ones which will truly test your ability.
The game is split up into five different areas with a different boss at the end of each one, and this is where the game truly takes the “bullet hell” idea of the game and runs with it. The first boss has a simple enough pattern, occasionally raining down alternating streams of energy which you must dodge / absorb, but later ones will have beams raining down from the sky all over the place while other attacks are thrown at you from all sides. Each boss fight is an adrenaline rush where the tiniest mistake can cost you the entire fight. There are no checkpoints during the multi-tier boss fights; if you die you have to start the whole encounter over.
However other than having to do this there’s no additional punishment for dying. You don’t have a limited number of lives and nothing of any negative consequence happens otherwise. I found myself smiling and laughing when I would get defeated by a particularly tricky boss, eager to come back and master the pattern to figure out what I did wrong.
As one would expect from a “Metroidvania” type title, there is a good deal of exploration to be done. Throughout the early levels you’ll encounter switches or special objects which you’ll need to revisit at a later point to access. Sometimes these offer up large amounts of the in-game currency, other times the collectible “Mark of the Gods” items which unlock concept art as you collect them.
Navigating a level is never very tricky though. There’s a glowing “waypoint” emblem that will appear on the path you’re supposed to follow which moves towards the next area you need to go every time you touch it. If you should happen to get lost anyways there’s an easy to read and follow minimap available when you pause the game.
Checkpoints are spread liberally throughout the levels, and in the case of death you’ll return to the last one you activated. Each time you return all the enemies in the level will return, but other than that everything remains the same (levers switched, money/items collected, etc) and you’ll be returned to full health. As with the boss fights there’s no penalty to dying other than having to redo a section, so while the game is fairly complicated at times you’re never frustrated as it’s just one more trial and error away from success.
More abilities are unlocked as you progress including a few magic-type attacks that do varying degrees of damage. These are limited by the yellow gauge beneath your health, which starts out at a limit of three just like your health. Upgrade stations are hidden around the levels which will allow you to purchase one more unit of one or the other provided you have enough money. Only once did I get to an upgrade spot and have to find some more money, though I’m sure I haven’t found all of them yet.
All of this combines to make a game that is very difficult though oddly relaxing at the same time and more importantly very fun to play. Throw in an absolutely stunning visual style with beautifully rendered characters and environments and you have what is already one of my favorite games of the year thus far. The boss fights are intense, the level design is wonderful, and the atmosphere is brilliant. I tried my hardest to think of a single aspect of this game I didn’t enjoy and the only thing I can think of is that it’s over all too soon.
My final playtime was roughly six hours, though there’s an additional “Arcade” mode you can unlock which times you on each of the five levels and a selection of co-op levels to discover and play with a friend which are even more intense than the main game due to the well…cooperation needed to succeed. Helping each other is paramount to success, but throwing bombs at your friends is just as fun. Other than requiring two people to get pass certain walls or puzzles the core game is the same but even just adding one person to the game increases the chaos tenfold.
Outland is easily one of the most viscerally satisfying games I’ve played this year and I look forward to running through it a few more times. You owe it to yourself to check this one out. Ubisoft and Housemarque have touched on something very special here that I hope to see more of in the future.