“So much style without substance, so much stuff without style. It’s hard to recognize the real thing, it comes along once in a while. -Neil Peart
What do we expect from video games? Do we require innovation? New experiences? More of the same? Mysterious fun factor? I think what we should expect from games is a good usage of time, something that makes you feel like you haven’t wasted a large part of your life even if you actually have.
Outland, an Xbox Live Arcade Title released this year, succeeds at this in the most marvelous of ways. It is a game as sum of its parts and game as ethereal transcendence, a game grasping for those moments that make you remember why you love games. That fleeting moment of brilliance where nothing else matters.
As an arcade title it got some burn because of its style, but there’s only so much style can do without substance. And Outland, a great game, delivers. It is the marriage of style and substance.
Its inspirations are obvious, right down to its very core. Outland belongs to the ever-increasing cast of games that makes no effort whatsoever to contribute a unique thought to gaming; in this respect, it’s best bud would be Darksiders, which had no unique thoughts but managed to be quite good. The merits of this unsavory crowd are varied: some would damn them as regressive, while others would point out that the most popular titles of the past decade have all been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Neither here nor there, though. What we have here is a game, a group of games, that are mash ups between difference titles.
Outland is Super Metroid where you play as the spaceship from Ikaruga. And this might as well be peanut butter with jelly.
Those two are it. The game makes no effort to push beyond these humble roots; it doesn’t add in RPG elements, or competitive online multiplayer, or anything the kids love these days. It succeeds because it is nigh exact on all counts. It nails Ikaruga. It nails minimalist Metroid. It hits on the weight of jumps, on the complexity of combat, on a gentle yet unrelenting difficulty curve. It gives you the satisfaction of calmly shifting through rows and rows of multicolored bullets despite the overwhelming compulsion to make a mistake. It is execution at its finest.
Xbox Live Arcade has long been home to two types of titles: incomplete full titles that got stripped down into $10 experiences and small games that hit on their niche. Outland is the latter with the texture of the former. It’s a game that reaches for something feasible and it hits it out of the park. It’s very much a gamer’s game; like a true baseball fan will appreciate the well executed infield single, a serious gamer will appreciate such perfect, stylish execution.
It helps that there’s so much style backing up the gameplay. Outland is bloody gorgeous. It’s beautiful, and it’s not beautiful in the way games like this usually are. Most colorful Metroidvanias tend to rely on some sort of graphical gimmickâ€”expressive pixel art, hand drawn backgrounds, or anotherâ€”to mask the fact that things aren’t as imaginative as they seem on the surface. Outland scoffs at this: it is like walking around in a painting. The last three worlds are among the most evocative and incredible I’ve ever seen. The game hooks you with the last scene of the demo, flashing forward to the end, and you catch a glimpse of the game in its full glory.
Admittedly, the first two worlds after the prologue aren’t spectacular. There’s that. They’re engaging from a gameplay perspective, but they aren’t the most evocative. That’s okay. They are harbingers of things to come.
Most important, however, is the sound design. Outland sizzles because of its sound. Not the music, but the wistful, aluminum bat like whistle of the sword, the satisfying clink of dubloons, the crunch of the hit. The woosh of a jump. That’s what sets Outland apart from the crowd: the satisfaction of the simplest things.
Even the narrative is oddly satisfying, with its Liam Neeson soundalike offering up little tidbits about why that enemy you just destroyed wasn’t such a bad dude. Of course, they just shot one of Ikaruga’s nightmare patterns at you, so you won’t be in a position to care. The narrative is simple, and frankly it’s immaterial: Outland is not a game reaching for storytelling. It’s reaching for the person behind the controller, and it will grab them from the outset.
Outland made me excited to play it. In this world of gaming obligations, where we’re playing games not for fun but because they are five dollars on Steam or because they’re the new it thing everyone’s going to be talking about, it’s lovely to find a little gem that makes you remember the moments that made you love gaming. And for its derivative base, the moments I remembered were the ones that were wholly new: dodging waves of bullets as I platformed up the side of cliff faces, switching colors to battle hordes of enemies as bullets spewed my way, and running along a crumbling path through swaths of blue and red while a dragon chased me. Outland spins novelty out of old parts.
There are two blemishes to Outland’s brilliant design, however, one spun from the old and the other from the new. The most irritating part of the game are the bosses, who are suitably epic but who frequently feature padding before the main fight in terms of exploration, super easy segments, and light combat; these parts are frustrating when you have to do them for the fourth time because the final section of the boss fight is so difficult. With no way to restore health besides pickups, sometimes boss fights become wars of attrition that don’t feel quite as epic as intended. Especially when your death results in you having to spend 15 seconds climbing a ladder again.
The second problem is the secret collectables. Secret pointless collectables are the greatest scourge effecting the video games industry right now*, and Outland does not escape their wrath. While Super Metroid, Outland’s veritable father, offered missile packs and energy tanks as rewards for thorough exploration, Outland provides pointless golden masks which serve to unlock concept art. The basis behind this idea is sound: if you are physically benefited by backtracking and finding all the hidden rooms then it becomes something every player has to do if they hope to have any hope of beating the game (and backtracking, as we all know, is lame). By hiding utterly pointless masks that have no in game value instead, they’re rewarding players with extra skills and patience without penalizing new players.
That’s the one hand. The other hand is that I died at least a dozen times getting some of those masks and I have nothing to show for it but a lousy picture of a background I saw two worlds ago. To say I am unenthused by the prospect of concept art is a massive understatement.
Neither of these issues, however, torpedo a fabulous game. Outland is style with substance. It is the real thing, the kind that comes along once in a while**, and we don’t know quite what to do with it. Not too many people played Outland, perhaps because it came out at the wrong time, perhaps because it was marketed poorly. None of this should matter to you. What should matter is that there’s a game out there that gets everything right, and god, it’s such a good feeling to know that exists.
*I throw the blame for this change squarely at Batman: Arkham Asylum’s feet. Before Arkham, collectibles were generally useful; it sucked having to go look for them in mediocre games, but there wasn’t a problem there. Once Arkham’s Riddler trophies showed up, though, showing you could convince players to find things without giving them any sort of unbalancing motivation, it was like the wheels came off.
**Artist’s Statement: if I could go back in time and tell my thirteen year old stuff that not only would I be writing about video games in eleven years but I’d be opening and ending posts with quotes from obscure songs from obscure Rush albums (the esteemable, very eighties Power Windows) I’m pretty sure I would have hugged myself.