GAME REVIEW: Outer Wilds
Maxwell Alexander on a journey of discovery, intrigue and banjos
Title: Outer Wilds
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, MAC
Release Date: May 29, 2019
Rating: PEGI 7
AFTER a few hours with Outer Wilds, I found it incredibly easy to put down.
The game gives zero direction and most everything you do seems to be inconsequential. Over the course of this review I’m going to tell you why I’m glad I stuck with it.
At its core Outer Wilds is a game about space exploration.
Players will wake up beside a camp-fire as a little four-eyed alien that is about to set off in to the space for the very first time.
You’ll wander around your tiny home planet of Timber Hearth and speak to the locals there, most of whom will have very little of consequence to say.
They’ll poke fun, talk about some of other explorers before and some will speak of the Nomai, an ancient, almost god-like race that have left clues to their existence dotted around the universe.
This is your first clue to their being something bigger to explore.
It won’t be long until you are all set and ready to take off in to the great unknown.
You’ll blast out of the atmosphere and be presented with an entire solar system just waiting to be explored.
From planets like the Giants Deep and its harsh weather patterns that see islands literally being sucked up into tornadoes and hurtled across the planet’s surface. To Brittle Hollow, who's surface is being sucked into a black hole at its core while you play. Each planet has its own flavour and rules all set to a mesmerising soundtrack reflective of its personality.
Resource management is a major factor in Outer Wilds and you’ll have to keep an eye on your fuel and oxygen levels in different ways, depending on where you are at the time.
Some areas might have harsh gravities and require you to use your jets often to navigate their even harsher terrains.
You could damage your ship in space and have to get out to repair it. A task requiring both fuel and oxygen.
If you have managed your fuel poorly, you’ll find yourself floating out in to space with no means to get back. Just floating there until your oxygen runs out and you have to start the loop again. Not a pleasant way to go.
After around 20 minutes you will be hit with a catastrophe that sets the stage for the rest of the game.
The Sun will explode, destroying everything in your solar system as well as wiping all progress up until that point.
You will wake up beside your camp fire, just as you did at the start of the game and you will stride out in to the universe as you did before, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop that is ever set at 20 minutes explore time.
It’s here that my first frustrations began.
With the complete lack of hand holding, I found myself feeling a little lost, without purpose. Being set lose in a world where you have no particular objective and no real way to make an impact can be frustrating.
You will set out with the same three tools you started with each time (a remote camera, a sound detector and a translator), never gaining any new gear to help you reach the next advancement in story.
Sure, the spectacle of each planet is beautiful to take in but beauty wears thin if you have nothing else to do. Which is why to get the most out of it you'll have to take onus on yourself to scratch a little deeper beneath the surface (sometimes literally).
And you should.
Underneath Outer Wilds’ space explorer exterior is a puzzle game entirely focused on story. I’m not talking about traditional video game puzzles, like you’ve come to expect, but one that sees you play more as a galactic detective than just a planetary wanderer, picking up on old conversations left by the mysterious Nomai or using sound detector to follow the thread of a lost explorer gently playing their banjo in the outer reaches of space.
All the time, piecing together clues from discoveries made on one planet and using that information to further your progress on another. These clues and discoveries get stored in your on-board computer and create a kind of investigation board that, eventually as you fill it up, creates a bigger picture that slowly links together and eventually give you an almighty Eureka moment that sees everything you've been doing fall meticulously into place.
The way developers Mobius Digital have designed each planet is truly staggering in that each planet and its set of rules are entirely deliberate in that each planet is a puzzle in of itself.
There is something of a strange dichotomy in how you explore this game to get to your Eureka moment. A kind of juggling of hurried exploration and patient investigation.
For example, if you do not move fast enough you could find a vital clue has been sucked into that black hole at the centre of Brittle Hollow.
On the other hand, if you were to rush about the planet without carefully looking around you, you could easily pass by something important. It's all about making baby steps of discovery. And this can grow tiresome, should you miss something that you didn't even know you needed.
I can’t ultimately criticise Outer Wilds too much for this as everything you need is all there to waiting be discovered – it’s just up to player to get there.
Gamers will play the same loop over and over. The loop of waking up at your camp and doing the same launch numerous times and each time you will have learned a little more about the universe.
You may not realise it at first, but slowly but surely you will edge your way towards that next piece of the puzzle, all the while taking in some tremendous sites and listening to a superb Americana soundtrack that is as grand as it is quaint.
Outer Wilds is not for everyone and is surely going to be a game that passes a lot of gamers by. But it is a game full of wonder and ambition that few games have boasted in recent years.
Outer Wilds won’t beg you to explore it but ultimately it will reward those that do.