I thought I’d write a short review/analysis of two games I’ve been playing recently: Outland and Stealth Inc. 2. It’s worth saying that Stealth Inc 2 is free, and Outland very cheap right now on the Humble Store.
Both are great games, and both are 2D platformers, but that’s where the similarities end.
This is a platformer with strong bullet-hell elements. This makes for some fast paced platforming action, but also slow and careful analysis of areas. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them puzzles, because with enough lives one can just run through.
The movement in Outland uses actions we’re all familiar with (wall jumps, stomping etc.). But it’s pretty far removed from the Mario/Super Meat Boy style of fast paced platforming – it also includes ledge-hanging and uses a accurately proportioned humanoid, reminding me of Prince of Persia or Another World.
Most platformers these days have some kind of unique twist on the classic Mario or Megaman formula. In the case of Outland, this is the ability to change between two different colours, blue and red, to avoid bullets and activate triggers. Lots of 3D games recently have used switching between two different modes to add additional elements – I’m thinking of the Veil from Wolfenstein, Wraith abilities in Shadow of Mordor and Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed, to name just three. In fact these have been getting pretty tiring recently, but I can’t think of any platformers I’ve played that use a similar tactic. It’s quite refreshing really. Admittedly, the games I just listed had asymmetric modes whereas in Outland the areas would work equally well the other way round.
The world in Outland is a ‘Castlevania’ exploration, with a map to keep track of where you are, and easy teleportation between places. It features relatively difficult boss battles before one acquires new powers, which grant access to new areas. All this I like.
The setting and story is vaguely mythological, and is told through text screens. I don’t think it adds much, it follows that famous Carmack quote: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
The graphics are excellent: It uses intricately detailed silhouettes against pastel shades to create quite a unique atmosphere. I wasn’t a massive fan of the music or sound though, and I think Outland lacks ‘game feel’ – some screen shake when jumping or landing would have added a lot, sometimes it seems as though one is controlling a lifeless ragdoll rather than an actual person interacting with a world.
Stealth Inc. 2
This is the sequel to a game called ‘Stealth Bastard’ which, full disclosure, I’ve not played. It belongs very squarely in the post-Portal world of puzzle games: there are even ‘test chambers’. In fact, the world game is oddly reminiscent of this video.
The game expands as areas are lit up on a black background. I really like the way it looks, using pixel art but at normal resolution, and a rendered 3D character.
The platforming is Megaman-esque, with high friction and low jumps, which feels great. There is basic physics which is used in some of the puzzles, but the main unique element is the simple stealth system, where one can be visible or invisible depending on whether the player is standing in a shadow or not.
The puzzles are quick but sometimes require thought. It makes me feel like I’m progressing quickly and exploring new areas.
There is a story, told through simple animations which don’t look all that good or fit the feel of the rest of the game in my opinion. I also didn’t really understand the story, but perhaps that’s because I didn’t play the first game.
The game also seems pretty badly optimized, and runs very slowly in 1080p, which shouldn’t happen on my machine, certainly not for a 2D game like this. The slowdown actually affects the game too, as opposed to dropping frames in most 3D games where the game takes this into account and moves objects further: that is to say, the physics is all calculated per frame rather than per second.
In Outland, every collision with an enemy loses one life, and when all lives are gone the game restarts with lives full at the last checkpoint. These checkpoints are relatively spread out, and the game only saves between sessions at each level.
In contrast, in Stealth Inc dying (by falling off, hitting a fan or being shot by a laser…) results in immediately respawning at a checkpoint just before, and these are close together. It’s not quite what happens in Fez where you return to wherever you fell off from, but it creates that same fast paced experience, and I think it works very well.