Are you brave enough to tackle this new punishing open-world RPG?
Outward is a game that doesn’t give you much at first. First appearances are deceiving and your initial impression likely won’t be positive. This is going to be a game that creates thousands of bad first impressions. But those who stick with it might just have a completely different take on the game. When given enough time, this is a game that can grow on you in ways games haven’t tried to do in many years.
Outward is an open-world RPG where you have to survive by any means available to you. There is a loose story along with some NPC dialogue peppered throughout, but this adventure will mostly be shaped by whatever you end up spending your time doing. Nothing is really explained to you, but through playing, you can learn more about the culture of Outward and what kind of a situation you find yourself in when you boot up the game. There’s plenty of examples of effective environmental storytelling and it really goes a long way to make the world of Outward more interesting than it appears at first.
"All in all, combat will most likely be familiar to people who have played an action-RPG in the past decade and the real challenge will come from the variety of enemies you’ll encounter."
To get one thing out of the way up front, Outward is a downright brutal game. You’ll die and struggle against smaller enemies for your first handful of hours. Immediately upon starting your game, you’re given a deadline of 5 in-game days to collect a relatively high amount of money or else you lose your house. I, of course, ended up dying a few times to chickens outside the village and failed to raise enough money, losing my home in the process. This just sets the tone for the rest of the game. Enemies hit hard, tangible progress is slow to come, and to top it all off, there’s no fast travel in this game. Outward strips away many of the niceties that open-world RPGs have come standard with for the past decade and gives you a distinctly “hardcore” experience, for better and for worse.
Controls are easy to get the hang of but they don’t push any boundaries. You have a health and stamina meter and combat should be familiar to anyone who’s tried a Dark Souls title. You have a variety of weapons at your disposal, from broadswords to spears. Managing meter and choosing your opportunities to attack is the name of the game and aside from a few tricks thrown in like deployable traps and spells, it never really deviates. A nice touch the game includes is the ability to instantly drop your backpack at the press of a key. Getting into combat, you’ll need every bit of mobility you can get, so dropping your pack once you find an enemy will become second nature. Combat is serviceable without ever being too exciting. The main issue comes from the lack of fluid motion.
Most of your attacks have heavy ending lag, leaving you unable to block a counterattack from an enemy that stopped being stunned by your hit ages ago. And although the stamina meter is important in balancing out offense and defence, once depleted, it takes far too long to fill back up, killing the pace of battles. All in all, combat will most likely be familiar to people who have played an action-RPG in the past decade and the real challenge will come from the variety of enemies you’ll encounter.
"Environments and character models all have a good amount of detail and creativity present in their designs."
You also have survival aspects to contend with, having to deal with hunger, thirst, sleep, and disease. You have to balance all of these needs if you want to survive in the world of Outward. When you sleep, you’ll have to devote some time to security in order to prevent bandit attacks. But if you spend too long sleeping and repairing weapons at your campsite, you’ll be hungrier and more thirsty when you wake up. If you’re not careful, you can leave yourself in a bad position. And even if you are careful, you can still fumble up and acquire acute indigestion from a raw egg with no real knowledge of how to cure it. Like I said before, Outward is brutal. The information that you need to survive in Outward is in the game but you have to sometimes travel far and wide to find it. Even with its lengthy tutorial that explains the basics, Outward is a beast that needs to be tamed over dozens of hours and countless deaths.
Appropriately, the defining feature of Outward comes from your many deaths. You can’t save your progress in Outward. Instead, every time you die, a scenario will play out and you’ll have to figure out how to progress from there. Sometimes you luck out and get dragged back to the starting village where you can safely resupply.
Other times you won’t be so lucky. One of my favorite moments with this game came from when I died against some bandits, whereupon I was dragged to their mines and forced to slave away. I had plenty of people to talk to, alliances I could have formed, and a few different methods of escape I could have pursued. Eventually, I worked up enough coin to bride a guard into sneaking me out in a bag. These moments really serve to give death some personality in this game. No longer can you just retry and scenario over and over until you win. Now, you’ll have to deal with whatever consequences your defeat brings.
"This game is a big mountain to climb and a lot of the footholds that line the path are loose."
The presentation in Outward is a mixed bag. Environments and character models all have a good amount of detail and creativity present in their designs. The soundtrack also helps set the tone, embracing the ambiance of the world. However, with all these positive aspects, Outward certainly isn’t perfect. Once you’re out in the field, you’ll run into framerate dips and graphical glitches that occasionally serve to take you out of the experience. If you’re unlucky, you might even have your Pearlbird quarry clip up the side of a mountain while you’re in the middle of a hunt.
Voice acting is all on-par for this type of game and does its job. Outward does have this strange habit of only voicing some of the written dialogue or in some cases completely different dialogue. Whether it’s because of budget restraints or time deadlines, it’s a distracting aspect of the game and instead of creating a half-hearted attempt, Outward may have been better off opting out of voice acting entirely.
It should be said that Outward is also playable split-screen with a friend. It’s staggering how performance doesn’t suffer much from this and the developers should be commended for putting this into the final product. Both players start together and can synergize abilities and weapons to progress through this harsh world side by side. A couple of adventurers may have to share the loot, but they can also revive each other when one gets knocked out which is more than worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned. Playing with a pal is a great addition and should really help players ease into this type of game if they’re not used to it.
Outward is a game that is not for everyone. If the idea of dying over and over without much meaningful progression for hours at a time doesn’t appeal to you, this game may not be for you. But if you stick through the grind, you might be able to sift through the jank of this game and find something worthwhile. This game is a big mountain to climb and a lot of the footholds that line the path are loose. But at the end of your trek, you might find an experience that you can’t have anywhere else. Because after the hours of tears and frustration, Outward can end up giving you satisfaction in something as simple as finding a backpack.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Creative death system, experience doesn’t hold the player’s hand, split-screen multiplayer.
Combat is somewhat dull, some technical issues.
For those players looking for a truly hardcore experience, Outward is more than happy to provide but for others, it may just be too much effort for too little payoff.