Format: XBox Live Arcade
Approximate Time Spent playing at time of writing: 16 hours estimated (I have 34 hours on raptr, but that was massively higher than play time, caused by frequently leaving this game on while away from my Xbox, often paused… to understand why, read on).
Modes of play: Single Player, Online Two Player Co-Op, Online Leaderboards
It’s been a long time since I posted a full review and I’ve probably played more of this game than any other over the last few months (certainly the last month according to raptr), so it seemed like a good one to write about. With beautiful graphics, the promise of ‘old school gameplay’, shimmering mainstream reviews, backed (bribed?) by a huge publisher in Ubisoft, some even plastered over the game’s ‘cover art’ itself, what could possibly go wrong?
Well things certainly start off well for Outland… The graphics are indeed really great – and are rendered in a lovely timeless style as well, with 2d graphics that really won’t date at all other than potentially in resolution. The graphics and sound also do a great job at creating an atmosphere for the game that’s got a great mixture of ‘old-school’ gameplay elements, reminiscent of titles like Another World, Prince of Persia, and Castlevania Symphony of the Night, along with the more modern style of Ikaruga or Silhouette Mirage. Indeed it was reading these comparisons elsewhere that piqued my interest in Outland, as did the 2-player co-op and very low XBLA discount price at the time.
However the more you play through the game as a challenge, the more you realise these comparisons are surface thin at best, and have not mapped onto the gameplay at all. The absolute killing feature for this game is the health, checkpoint and saving system. Here are the key problems:
- Whilst checkpoints are frequent, the game does not save your progress unless you reach the end of a level. Early in the game when levels are longer, and you are still learning the mechanics whilst being low on health and are actually at danger of dying before an end-of-level save point can be reached, this is incredibly frustrating to anyone who (like me) would like to be able to dip in and make a little bit of progress and dip out again. It is unusually bad for this for a single player game. Instead I resorted to leaving the game on pause for hours until I could return to it (hence my ridiculous hours-played on raptr!). Thankfully as you progress this becomes far less of a problem though…
- But once you start to get a few more health points, most supposedly challenging sequences in the game become trivial because as long as you can make it checkpoint to checkpoint. Because, no matter how many times you are hit in between, as long as you make it to the next checkpoint with 1 health point left, you can progress just as well. In fact it’s incredibly annoying that checkpoints do NOT just replenish your health as soon as you reach them; because they do if you die and re-spawn at them! With an unlimited stock of lives, this means that it’s always better, apart from being incredibly tedious, to kill yourself just after a checkpoint to regain your full health – what a stupid system! It manages to ruin the challenge of massive amounts of the game, whilst being ‘grindy’ and time consuming at the same time. Any potentially difficult sequence of opponents, or dodges through a coloured ‘minefield’ of energy balls becomes far too easy because, with a big health meter, you can simply ‘run through’ most of them, take a few hits if necessary, and make it to the next checkpoint, essentially unscathed. Oddly your ‘EX meter’ for more powerful attacks does not replenish on a checkpoint re-spawn, so rather than use this to dole out more powerful attacks to kill enemies more swiftly, it’s often better to get hit a few times and/or deal with enemies more slowly with normal attacks – again, other than being slower and more tedious this is often a better method to play unless you are low on health and far from a checkpoint.
- Amazingly the system gets even WORSE in the (online only) 2-player co-op mode, because as well as all of the above, you can also revive each other as long as you have 1 health point left and can get near the ‘downed’ body of your comrade. ‘Health & revive brute-forcing’ through sections becomes even more possible because of this. Killing yourself off at checkpoints now becomes doubly-useful and doubly-tedious! 🙁
- Note that, unlike something like ‘Splosion Man or Portal 2, there’s actually no way to instantly kill yourself, so you actually have to find an enemy or dangerous terrain to do it for you – potentially many times over as your health bar gets very big towards the end of the game.
Put all this together and you end up with what once seemed like a promising and interesting challenge game reduced to a few platforming segments, that aren’t too hard but are frustrating to repeat given the time to re-start them, and a few decent boss battles. But that’s it. All the rest of the game just translates into a completely fake challenge if you are willing to take the time to use the checkpoint & health system to your advantage to ‘brute force’ your way through any section of the game. So despite appearing to be a skill-based challenge, like many ‘grindy’ games this game simply asks you, most of the time, rather than increasing your skill in some way to progress, to simply decide “how bored do I want to make myself to progress”. Admittedly if you are new or quite unskilled at combat platformers, the game could still prove challenging to your skills just to get checkpoint to checkpoint. But I suspect for most platform game literate players, the main challenge will be to your patience rather than learning a level/enemy layout, or any dexterity, timing or twitch skills really needed, with the aforementioned exception of the boss battles.
In addition though, there’s also an ‘exploration’ challenge element to collecting often slightly-hidden items alongside the main game, and this is reasonably interesting and well done. Although it’s no-where like ‘Splosion Man Cake levels of interesting, it does make you keep an eye on your surroundings a lot more, once you’ve actually unlocked all the abilities necessary later in the game to go back to the earlier levels to find all of the hidden items. One frustration here is not being able to see all the maps you’ve visited in the game to see where you need to search for missing hidden items. This forces you to run through all of the levels again rather than targetting the ones you need to re-visit with your new-found character abilities, despite the fact you can “warp” back to some of the previous levels and see their maps. Still, it’s this exploration challenge, as well as the bosses, that I found most interesting challenges in the game and did get my agon-istic side going to some extent. It was definitely a game that made me determined to beat it & get all of the Achievements too, except one that is pure grind.
There are a few other nice touches such as the ‘breadcrumbs’ sparkle effect showing you where to go next on a level instead of having to use the map to plot your course – which, since you have a map anyway in this game, is a good idea. The mechanics and feel of your character are great. The combat and platforming feel solid and responsive, and the boss battles are fine… It’s just that the utter disaster of the health and checkpoint system conspires to damage everything else that’s good about the game for any Agoner playing this.
Competitive Gaming Design Review: N/A
Competitive Game Review: N/A. Whilst there are Leaderboards you can do speed runs and score runs on, like most single player competitive things, these aren’t especially interesting in the grand scheme of things other than perhaps a brief “can you beat your friend(s)” moment. The co-op challenges are a little more interesting. If I ever get the chance and drive to play through more of those, I may re-score this under this category, but don’t expect any Outland Co-Op Challenge Tournament scene to appear any time soon… 😉
Interactive Story: Nothing of note. There’s quite a bit of text-based story but it’s really completely incidental and unnecessary, not to mention predictable and boring. I can’t imagine anyone being intrigued to play through this for it’s story.
Toy/Experience: Positive. Great graphics, sound and overall atmosphere. The ‘feel’ of the mechanics and platforming is good throughout.
Grind: None, but a kind of repetition to ‘brute force’ the game ends up being the same result as grinding, as described above.