You can never tell the most important thing about a game from looking at screenshots or watching videos. Even game reviews, try as they might, struggle to communicate the answer to the essential question about any game: how does it feel in your hands? How well does it respond to your input? How faithfully does it interpret your wishes? Rare is the game whose controls are so finely calibrated that the gamepad seems to vanish from your hands. Outland, a downloadable sidescroller for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, is such a game.
Whatever its other virtues and faults, Outland is never less than a joy to move through. It's a two-dimensional action-adventure that gives your hero most of the standard repertoire of the genre: running, jumping, clinging to ledges, climbing ladders. But your avatar responds to your commands with almost precognitive awareness. Unencumbered by elaborate animation sets, he transitions instantly from a motionless state to a top-speed sprint. He leaps to maximum height with ease, his momentum always landing him exactly where you've intended. This is not a game where you find yourself staring at the screen, agog, after another cheap death.
You will, however, die honorably and repeatedly. Outland's major inspiration is to mix two disparate game genres without diluting either of them. It is one part nonlinear action-adventure, in which you traverse the world map at your own pace, gaining powerups that open up ever more passageways, and one part bullet hell shoot-'em-up, in which the screen is saturated with brightly colored orbs that will kill you in a matter of seconds. Outland switches back and forth from a methodical, exploratory adventure to a withering action game, sometimes without warning. The important thing is this: when you die, you understand what happened and why, and can use that knowledge to move forward.
Screen-filling enemy fire isn't the only inspiration that Outland takes from the shoot-'em-up; it also borrows the polarity system most popularly associated with Ikaruga. Your hero can switch between light and dark states with the push of a button. In a light state, he is impervious to light damage and able to harm dark foes, and vice versa in his dark state. Simple enough against one enemy, but much harder against a screen full of phase-shifting foes, not to mention hundreds of light and dark orbs swirling in a kaleidoscopic orgy.
All this comes together in multi-stage boss battles that do a masterful job of forcing you to apply the skills you've learned in new and unexpected ways. The first boss separately tests your melee combat skills and polarity awareness; subsequent encounters add more layers of complexity. By the time you're riding atop a huge dragon, dodging airborne explosives and shifting polarity to stomp on weak spots on his back, you realize, despite the challenge, how well the game has taught you to play it.
Outland has a distinctive visual style that nevertheless seems de rigueur for a 2D downloadable title, and its story is a lot of mumbo-jumbo, about which the best that can be said is that it doesn't strain for profundity as something like Limbo does. A cursory look at the game would never convince you that it is something special. You'll know once you get your hands on it.