Friday, March 6, 2015

Outland - Thoughts

Ikaruga is a fantastic game—it introduced an engaging polarity system that's easy to understand but brutal to master, especially in the heat of combat. It's short, massively repayable, highly difficult, and really creative with its level design. So in that sense it's easy to see why many revere and love Treasure's immaculate STG, though oddly, scant few have tried to replicate it. Housemarque's is one such (bold) developer; they aimed to marry Ikaruga's polarity mechanic with a side scrolling design philosophy in Xbox 360's Outland, putting the player on the ground with a sword rather than in the air with a gun. While the idea may seem positively engrossing (a Metroidvania platformer with a polarity mechanic!), it feels more like a basic platformer that will require a bit more patience than you'd expect.

First and foremost, the visuals for the game are great—the blues and reds stick out against the dark foreground, despite how much miscellaneous detail may cover the screen at times. The background art isn't something you'll find yourself fawning over, but it does a fantastic job at providing enough detail and variation so that you never feel like assets are obviously repeating. This can be especially tricky to pull off for a game that adopts a silhouette aesthetic—as foreground detail becomes essentially nonexistent—but it's also a wise choice for a game in which bullets need to be clearly and distinctively marked.

Unfortunately Outland takes far too long to finally get into full swing. I finally found a comfortable amount of challenge by the time I entered into the City area, but by then there wasn't that much of the game left. When you only have one polarity early in the game, you'll spend a lot of time just waiting for bullets and platforms to change color, which is my main disappointment—the game emphasizes shifting colors at designated times, rather than deftly dancing between the two and dodging particles. There are instances where you'll have to be quick on your feet, but those times are pretty rare, and since the game doesn't really offer multiple options towards overcoming its challenges, the level design is really all it has.

Beyond that I only have a few other minor gripes with the game: the absence of healing at checkpoints, the inability to view other maps from the menu, and the lack of rebindable controls (so switching colors could be RT instead of RB). Bosses are especially a mixed bag, leaning more towards frustration than fun. One problem is that the encounters last too long, often having a lengthy preamble before you can fight them proper. The Winged Serpent boss is the most offensive example of this, requiring a exhaustive running sequence just to get to a battle that becomes too cluttered and hectic for its own good. I do admire a lot of the heart poured into the craft of the game, even if it doesn't seem like I'm showing it... I suppose I was just underwhelmed with the direction Housemarque took in the end.

Perhaps I was at fault for wanting more precision and dexterity out of a game sharing its core mechanic with Ikaruga; Outland is strangely more about waiting than dodging, but seeing as its a downloadable title made by a very flexible studio, I think it remains a respectable title. The polish here certainly indicates that a lot of care went into it, and despite my gripes, it's an enjoyable platformer on a console mired in bad ones. I do wish more games would try to fiddle around with the polarity mechanic, but I'm also thankful for what's been attempted thus far.

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