Housemarque's previous efforts are just as quickly decipherable, with both Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation built on solid twin-stick shooting, but Outland captures attention at mere sight. The graphics are "traditional" in the sense that they elicit a tribal reverence of nature, with gigantic tree silhouettes softly obscuring the vibrant blues, yellows and greens of the background sky. Outland's bold art seems to draw inspiration from Japanese shadow plays (before Nin2-Jump did it) and even Tron, with a dash of Incan history and mystery mixed in.
There's an interesting, cyclical element to the story, which sees your warrior-in-training slipping into slumber to experience the life of a previous hero, who counts defeating a pair of evil gods (and climbing the best ladder since Metal Gear Solid 3) among his accomplishments. You're much less powerful when the dream ends, of course, but you wake up with a taste of the abilities you'll unlock in further Metroid-esque exploration of the world. At its most basic level, Outland is about bounding, sliding and falling through the jungle in the quest for coins, switches and the next power-up. An elegant twist warrants a comparison between Outland and Treasure's mesmerizing shooter, Ikaruga. Once you progress far enough, you gain the ability to envelop yourself in one of two colors, red or blue. Donning blue will grant immunity to blue projectiles and allow you to damage enemies of the opposite color, and the same goes for red. What starts as a simple measure of recognition and response -- switch to blue before running through a downpour of blue bullets -- eventually becomes an elaborate, rewarding sequence of rhythmic color switching. Even in the early stages of the game, I had to leap through beautiful spirals of alternately-colored bullets and change aesthetic allegiance mid-air to make floating platforms of red and blue materialize before each landing. Pulling off flawless speedruns is going to be an achievement worth striving for, whether or not the game doles out a badge for it.
Your platforming and sword combat is also augmented with a couple of earned abilities (which gradually allow access to different parts of the world), such as a rock-breaking ground slam and a slide that can damage enemies and let you slip through some tight spaces. When you work those maneuvers into your movement -- taking care to assume the right color should you pause inside a pattern of bullets -- you feel imbued with grace and skill. And I don't get the impression (at least, not yet) that Housemarque has eschewed technically precise 2D platforming in favor of smooth motion.
Much like Super Meat Boy, this is a game with old-fashioned priorities but modern design sensibilities. A map showing the current area, as well as locked come-back-later sections, is accessible at any time, and a glowing trail signals the direction in which your next goal lies -- ignoring it briefly is usually a good way to uncover hidden vases and the coins contained within them. I didn't get to see where you might spend those coins, but I did learn that an obsession with gold can come to the detriment of your own health. If you'd prefer not to pick up the healing items dropped by enemies, you can just smash them open for money.
When I walked away from the game, all too aware that I had been a little too aggressive in amassing coins that I couldn't take home with me, I was hopeful that Outland could sustain its exploration with new abilities and trickier traversal throughout. If it keeps building on that wonderful foundation of fluid movement and arresting visuals, it'll be hard to resist for people who love to run and jump through their games.
Housemarque and Ubisoft don't have a specific release date in mind yet, but you can expect Outland to grace Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network sometime during April or May.