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Outland: the Good and the Baffling

I’ve been playing a bit of Outland, and it’s really solid. XBLA continues to be a great place to go for highly accessible games delivered to a tiny potential market.

Early on, it hits you with fantastically harmonious game narrative and mechanics. The game’s final bosses– two sisters of opposing natures– reflect the core feature of the game, an Ikaruga style color-flipping mechanic. After foreshadowing this tantalizing set piece, the game then builds both your abilities and narrative up to the fight, in tandem. Aside from taking too long to get to the core gameplay, it works strikingly well. It makes a strong case for game designers to be game writers.

In spite of compelling narrative and mechanics, Outland makes it difficult to inhabit its world by resisting your attempts to understand its shape. Its environments make little sense. The best 2D games create intuitive maps. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night creates wide catacombs isolated beneath the castle; gradual inclines to new levels; grand towers to scenic outlooks. Super Metroid similarly plays with its simple axes of height and width to create cohesive areas with a sense of internal progression. Beyond that, appropriate creatures inhabit each of these spaces– flying spectres inhabit the towering and airy staircases; surreal swimming creatures inhabit the odd zen aquatic areas of Maridia.

Outland simply focuses on the moment to moment challenge. Its levels create interesting platforming challenges, appropriate to the character’s capabilities, ramped up over time. The monsters, too, reflect the abilities you’ve learned. None of the geography reflects the art or feel of the environment; new creatures reflect your change in abilities, but within the exact same environment that did not house them previously. My brain initially attempted to map its spaces, but gave up after seeing no pattern in the noise. I played Outland much as many people played Fable or (tragically) Bioshock– follow the highlighted trail to your goal; shut off your brain’s internal mapping urge. (Ironically, you want to go in the opposite direction of the hint trail– that’s how you get to the dead-ends that house secrets.)

At some point, Outland begins to focus more on challenge than aesthetic, so I’ve failed to progress too far. It may suit some folks who delight in mastering action game mechanics. And it’s still well worth the price of entry for the gaming tourist. Outland does enough new things with art style, narrative, and mechanics in the first couple hours to make it worth a look.

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