Outward Review

Game name:  Outward

Release date: March 26, 2019

Price: US$39.99

Available on: Steam, Epic Store (ref link)

Genre: Open world action RPG

Developer: Nine Dots Studio

Publisher: Deep Silver

Opencritic: Here

Launch trailer

I took a look at Outward back in February, and though the build I played wasn’t the finished version of the game, it managed to impress me with its rustic “Gothic-like” charm. Now that the game is finally out, I got my hands on the full thing and took it for a sixty hours long spin in order to find out whether my initial impressions were accurate or not.

Unlike more “classic” RPGs, Outward is not a game about a super powerful hero saving the world from an otherworldly threat. Instead, Nine Dots Studio chose to create a title that makes us play as a very normal person trying to survive in a gunpowder-meets-magic fantasy world that doesn’t pull any punches. Starting from humble beginnings, we’ll have to make our way through deserts and wilderness, using landmarks as our guide and avoiding both wildlife and bandits, while also taking care of our bodily needs. There are no experience points to be gained from fights, so we should choose our battles carefully, balancing the items we could obtain should we win, against our chances of getting knocked out cold and awakening in some unknown place, far away from our intended destination and missing loot acquired elsewhere. In this world, everything we do must have a reason if we intend to survive to see another day.

Of course, since Outward is an RPG, there are ways of developing our character, even if they are not your usual “kill things, get experience points, level up, repeat”. Big settlements will always house skill trainers who will be happy to teach us new skills in exchange for a bag of cash, and in some particular cases, we might even get to learn powerful new spells without having to spend coin (though that doesn’t mean we won’t have to work in order to earn said spells). A word of warning, however: there are some skill trees that will permanently lock our character out of others, so as with many other things in this game, we should carefully consider our options before committing to a particular tree.

Speaking about magic, it seems the hard-working people behind Outward weren’t content with making the game’s character development systems as different from “normal” RPGs as possible, so they also put their own spin on the spell system. This means that not only we need to learn various spells before we can use them, but also we’ll need specific materials in order to cast said incantations, and if that wasn’t enough, there are also several ways of using a single magic spell. For instance, if we wish to create a magical fire, we can do so without too much of a fuss, but if we intend to use that fire as a weapon and not just a replacement for the old fashioned flint and steel, we should also create a Sigil (and step into it) in order to be able to summon powerful fireballs. This opens up a number of tactical options in specific situations, while at the same time making us even more vulnerable, as we can only pummel enemies with magical fire projectiles (for instance) from within our Sigils.

Since we are in the subject of combat, I’m happy to report that most of the “floatiness” that plagued fights in the early build I previewed back in February is gone. This doesn’t mean that Outward’s melee clashes will win any awards (and if people start comparing this title with a dedicated combat game like Sekiro or the Souls series, it’ll end up badly beaten), but fighting is now far more rewarding and controllable than it was when I first got my hands on the game. I was also impressed by the amount of tactical options we have going into most fights if we prepare for combat instead of rushing headlong into any scrap. There are many different types of traps, which can be primed with a number of payloads, depending on the prey we are after, and as we said before, magic can also play a big part on any fight. The ranged options are not limited to bows and spells, as gunpowder is also a very real thing in Outward‘s world, with rudimentary pistols making a welcome appearance in this fantasy setting. Continuing the theme of somewhat free-form character development, we can use all sorts of weapons without any artificial limitations, and our fighting stance will not be the same if we go into battle wielding a machete and a shield, or charge enemies with a two-handed pike.

As an average Joe (or Jane) who hasn’t been blessed with superhuman abilities, our character will need to eat, drink, sleep and even dress appropriately for each environment we traverse. This means that some of our time will be spent looking for food and water, or crafting new clothes in order to protect us from harsh climates. Aliments must often be cooked, as consuming raw meat will lead to sickness, and spoiled food is a no-go, as any adventurer worth their salt will tell you. Of course, food and crafting materials are physical items which weigh quite a bit, so we’ll have to carry them somewhere, as there are no magical deep pockets in this world (or at the very least, we don’t own any of those). That somewhere will be a backpack, of which there are many types. Some are better suited for combat, while others can carry a lot of very useful stuff, but will slow us down considerably, and should we engage in a fight, we’d best drop them on an easy to remember spot unless we want to get caught with our pants down due to the strain all that weight puts on our ability to dodge blows (or deal them). If we manage to survive a full day and get to night time, chances are we’ll be quite tired and might require some sleep in order to get our sharpness back (both literally and metaphorically speaking, as we can spend some time repairing our equipment while we rest). Should we choose to spend the night outdoors, we’ll have to waste some of that sleepy-time guarding our camp, lest some sneaky predator decide to have a party on our behalf.

Oh, and speaking of parties, Outward supports two-player co-op, whether offline (splitscreen) or online (and if we wish to have more than two players in a party, we can also take advantage of this handy mod, which removes the multiplayer limit). There are some caveats, however, as quest progression isn’t shared (it only counts for the host), and we can’t change areas on our own (so for instance, a player can’t be out in the wilds while their partner sells stuff back in town). Even with those limitations, the cooperative mode is not only fun, but also adds a lot to the game (although it might ruin some friendships, but which co-op game isn’t guilty of that, am I right?).

At this point, I expect that you, dear reader, are thinking “well, this guy REALLY likes Outward“, and if that’s the case, then you are not wrong. I do have a few nitpicks, however, aimed mostly at the story, which isn’t all that exciting, and some aspects of the world design that make it a bit more hostile than needed. There are no fast-travel options and no mounts or anything of the sort, so if we wish to move all of our belongings from one major settlement to another, we’ll be looking at some serious travel time. If we are also wearing heavy armor, the simple act of going from A to B will be even harder (which makes sense, but at the same time feels a bit tiresome after doing the same route three or four times). I did find unlockable shortcuts that made the journey easier, but in a world where teleportation technology exists, it’s weird that the developers didn’t use it for a fast travel option (which should probably cost a fair amount of coin, but in the late game I wasn’t exactly poor, so I would have paid the price). Another aspect of the game where I’m not exactly sold is the technical one, as character models can look incredibly dated and there’s some spotty texture work here and there.

But even with those criticisms in mind, Outward is still burned into my mind as an experience I won’t easily forget. In a generation focused on quick thrills and stories about an all-powerful hero saving the world, Nine Dots Studio chose to focus on the story of the average adventurers trying to make ends meet, and the fruit of their labor is a resounding success, a game that doesn’t exactly have an equal in the genre.

8.5/10 – Great.

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