Creative types sometimes complain that everything’s already been done and there are no more original ideas to be had. Outland is a peculiar reversal: It’s hatched an original idea—or, more accurately, cleverly crossbred two disparate concepts—but hasn’t figured out how to execute it. The side-scroller has been touted as a “platforming Ikaruga,” and for those unfamiliar, picture this: Ikaruga was a nearly impossible shmup wherein enemies shot either black or white bullets. At a moment’s notice, you could change your ship’s polarity to match or oppose what was coming your way. Black on black wouldn’t hurt you; black on white would. Rotate that game 90 degrees, replace the player’s spaceship with a nondescript, color-shifting warrior, and that’s Outland. It might not sound inventive, but it hasn’t been done before. Unfortunately, that’s mostly all Outland has done: melded two ideas without smoothing them into something cohesive.
It’s almost like Outland was intended as a sketch of what could be. You play as an undefined dreamer having visions of the Hero’s actions as he battles for balance between Chaos and Light. Those folklore staples are trotted out as if they’re placeholders that were never filled in with something more specific. Not that it’s ultimately a big deal—who cares why Mario has to save Peach from Bowser?—but it’s tough not to notice the vagueness of everything.
As a result, the narrative blandness gives way to striking African-inspired storybook visuals and the core mechanics described earlier. Though Outland is extremely linear, going along the prescribed path is like embarking on a whimsical obstacle course. Previously ho-hum abilities like wall- and double-jumping must suddenly be treated with the utmost precision as you creep along fountains and fireworks that smear dazzling two-toned gushes of potentially hazardous colors. That’s where the majority of Outland’s challenge comes from, along with carefully placed enemies sure to knock you off a ledge. They do not value their own lives: They exist only to inconvenience you by falling a few stories, even if it kills them in the process. The jerks.
Boss battles are another highlight, a great example being a robed figure who can unpredictably cause colored rubble to come whizzing by from any direction. You’re forced to rethink your surroundings while stalking your prey and paying attention to your color. It’s just too bad the moments between these tentpoles weren’t given just as much attention.