After receiving a PlayStation 2 for my 16th birthday in 2002, it would be almost another decade before I’d add another game console to my collection. When LIMBO arrived in 2010 for the XBOX 360, I was dying to play, but I was afraid I’d never get the chance. It wasn’t a lack of money and time that stopped me. No. It was the fact that the game was to be released as a download rather than a physical disk. And so, fears of viruses and privacy breaches kept me away from a fascinatingly dark gaming experience for a long time. In the end, it was a Microsoft Triple Pack featuring LIMBO that put my mind at ease. But then, this epic beauty came along. And of course, a disk version wouldn’t be available in the States. But with a bit of research and some kind help of a Gamestop employee, I was finally able to conquer my fear and successfully download the game. Although, I still do prefer game codes over credit cards for purchasing. Hey, can’t be too careful, right?
An ordinary man from a tribe deep within a flourishing jungle finds himself plagued by devastating visions of the past. Medicine does him no good, so at last, in desperation, he seeks the aid of the paal kaaba, a wise shaman. The shaman tells him of the Sisters of Chaos, twin goddesses—one the essence of the Sun’s light, the other the force of the Moon’s darkness—who sought to destroy the world they themselves helped to create. 30,000 thousand years ago, a powerful warrior faced the Sisters in battle; he ultimately perished, but not before imprisoning them in order to protect the world from their madness. According to the shaman, the man is the reincarnation of that ancient hero. The visions are a warning from the warrior’s spirit: the Sisters have broken free and are bent on carrying out their apocalyptic destruction once again. Endowed with the same powers of light and darkness wielded by both his ancestor and Chaos themselves, the man must make his way to the Temple of Eternity and stop the Sisters before their insanity wipes out all life from existence.
With the exception of Shadow of the Colossus, I think this is the most visually stunning game of the action-adventure genre that I’ve ever played. But unlike Shadow, with its comparatively washed-out hues, Outland derives its much of its splendor from its vibrant color palate. The art design reminds me of the Tron films, except the industrial techno city is now a lush, untamed terrain in which ancient ruins reminiscent of Aztec art hide within gnarled trees and twisted vines. Both the land marks and the characters are black silhouettes against a backdrop awash in color, though the latter’s features are more defined by the bright colors lining their otherwise shadowed forms, like elaborate, full-body LED tattoos. Outland has often been compared to the 2001 2D shooter, Ikaruga, in which the player must switch between two color polarities in order to fight ships and giant mechas of the opposite color and stay immune to attacks of the same color. Likewise, besides weapons and abilities one might expect to see in a traditional hack-and-slash game – a sword to slice enemies, sliding and stomping to stun and break barriers, etc. – the player in Outland must utilize the powers of light and darkness, represented by blue and red, respectively, also to fight enemies and resist attacks according to their own color. Not only is blue and red an attractive combination to the eye, but enemy projectiles are often displayed in flowing, elegantly symmetrical patterns, making for spectacles as dazzling to players as they are dangerous. However, the polarity mechanic featured here may be identical to that of Ikaruga, but I think Outland‘s use of it is a lot more thematically significant. Every facet, from the levels to the environments to the bosses, is designed so that it’s impossible to complete the game without the use of both powers. In a superb example of the video game concept “mechanics as metaphor”, it dispenses with the tired goodness-of-light-conquering-the-evil-darkness cliché and instead illustrates and focuses on natural balance. Just as no one color or polarity is any stronger or better than the other in the game, nature itself is also neutral, as capable of ugliness, pain, and death as it is of beauty, healing, and life:
SHAMAN: There is balance in all things. Light and Darkness helped make the world, and their touch is present in everything. One cannot use only the Light without denying half of all that is. And so the Hero learned to accept the power of Darkness – which was not evil, for there is evil in the brightness of the noonday sun – and to use it as a shield against Moon’s own creations.
Within the four environments the player must traverse – the Jungle, the Underground, the City, and the Sky – a variety of deadly creatures lie in wait: giant spiders, man-eating serpents, mummified soldiers, flying electric jellyfish, exploding armadillos (for whatever reason), and of course, the wrathful protectors of the world that have succumbed to corruption. After a protector has been defeated, we hear the tragic backstory of its fall from grace, each one mentally scarred by the Sisters’ defeat and imprisonment, leaving them destructive shadows of their former glorious selves. All this and more we learn through the narration of the shaman himself. The only voice-acting role in the entire game, the shaman is played by Andrew Chaikin, also known as famed throat singer and beatboxer, Kid Beyond. Here, his voice is low and worn, with a deep, husky tone, giving it an aged quality that perfectly conjures the image of a wise old man handing down the ancient stories and teachings to future generations so that they will not be lost:
SHAMAN: And so the warrior, the man of two souls, reached the gates of the Temple of Eternity. This was a place outside the world, where the Sisters had dwelt since their imprisonment by the gods. Here they had waited, timeless, for the chance to escape and unmake reality, so they might create it endlessly anew. Here now, their fate would be decided by the actions of a lone hero.
And a game this epic wouldn’t be complete without music to match. The soundtrack of Outland was made by Finnish game composer and musician, Ari Pulkkinen. Listening to the “Main Theme” at the title screen is like opening a book or taking a seat before a storyteller; underneath the soft, smooth notes and tranquil tempo lies the promise of new beginnings, for the first time . . . or yet again. “The Cursed Forest” evokes a lingering sense of danger; invisible but ominous, much like the beasts before they attack at the first sign of weakness. “Return to Holy Mountain”, as its name implies, has a calm, sacred air about it, as if to speak over it would be sacrilege. And during boss battles we hear a rousing piece that sings of destiny and the ever-fierce will to live, even in the face of impossible odds and impending doom, hence the title, “The End of All Things”.
This couldn’t be more different in tone from Pulkkinen’s most famous contribution to video game music: the original theme song to Angry Birds. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been so surprised – and impressed – by an artist’s creative diversity since I found out that the author of God Bless the Gargoyles, a gentle and moving picture book featuring lonely stone gargoyles being comforted by kind angels, is the very same mastermind behind the gross and wacky Captain Underpants. But I digress. Taking inspiration in part from the original Fallout games and the films The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, Pulkkinen weaves together the sounds of ethnic instruments and strong percussion to create ambient styles as wide-ranging and powerful as the warring emotions within the heart that struggles to survive in such a remote and savage world.
With its smooth and responsive controls, awesome abilities, and plenty of enemy variety and action, Outland is an immensely satisfying “bullet hell” platformer to play. But just as important, if not more, its gorgeous visuals, enthralling narrative, and imaginative mechanics all together help to create a true interactive gem, in more ways than one. Like the best games – and stories – out there, this is an experience that plays exactly how and what it advocates: timelessness and balance.
Credits: (All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended).
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Forest of Fear” - Aakash Gandhi
“Future Gladiator” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
All other music and sound clips are from Outland (developed by Housemarque; published by Ubisoft)
“The Cursed Forest”
“Return to Holy Mountain”
“The End of All Things”
Watch the original preview and episode videos here!
Listen to the episode here!
Outland on Wikipedia
Outland on Housemarque's Offical Website
Outland on Ubisoft's Official Website
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