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Outward, Nine Dots Studio's survival-oriented open-world RPG, is currently slated for a March 26, 2019 release. And if you'd like to learn a thing or two about this intriguing title prior to it going live, you should check out a number of detailed hands-on previews below:
I'm 12 hours into fantasy RPG Outward when I travel to its second region, visit the city of Berg for the first time, and buy my first proper backpack. Strange to say that buying a backpack feels momentous, but dammit, it really is. I feel triumphant to discard my primitive satchel and shoulder a real pack on my back. Not only does it fit more loot, but I can hang a lantern from it too, so I can have both hands free and still see in the dark. That's the kind of game Outward is, one where the things you take for granted in other games feel like a real accomplishment.
I've also been humbled repeatedly in those 12 hours. I've been battered unconscious by large birds and angry deer, gouged by hidden spike traps, and pummeled senseless by scruffy bandits. One time I even ran into the wrong castle and was imprisoned in a mining colony beneath it, from which I only escaped by first convincing the guards to let me work in the kitchen, stealing back my precious backpack from the fort's storage room, then leaping into a pit and washing up later on a beach, freezing, confused, wracked with pain, and dying of thirst. I had to build a fire for warmth, chow down on some dried mushrooms, tear my hood into linen scraps to use as bandages, and brew a potion with my alchemy kit to regain my senses. Outward is a fantasy game with monsters and wizards, but it's also a completely engrossing survival experience.
There’s nothing inherently special about your customizable create-a-character outside the fact you’ve incurred the debt of your family, and now your tribe has given you five days to pay it off or you forfeit your family’s house and holdings. That’s your incentive to get out the walled safety of your township and take to the open road.
Once you’re out there, your destiny is yours to make. Literally. You don’t start the game as a fighter, or rogue, or mage, or cleric – you purchase skills from trainers in the direction you want to build your character. You can’t do everything, there are only so many skills and disciplines in which you can train, so you’ve got to make difficult decisions.
And that difficulty extends into Outward’s gameplay. At the risk of sounding cliche, Outward plays similarly to those Dark Souls-esque action RPGs. You lock on, you swing light and heavy attacks with an array of weapons, and you use skills to break an enemy’s guard in order to open them up to free damage. But in the same vein of being just a normal person rather than a fantasy superhero, you’re also very fragile, and charging headlong into a pack of wild animals (or even just two) can end in unceremonious death.
So Outward struck me as striving for preparedness. To over-analyze and strategize every encounter. To sneak up on enemies and ambush when they’re most vulnerable – which is easier said than done if you’re in a pitch-black dungeon surrounded by enemies and can’t use your torch or lantern because you’ll give away your position.
At its core, Outward is a game about progression. While you initially start with little more than some clothes on your back, you will slowly grow stronger and more capable through a variety of means. One of them is training. There are a plethora of different skill trainers spread throughout the world of Aurai, and each one of them offers new skills for you to learn and master that will become useful on your journey. Another way you progress is through learning from failure; being defeated in battle doesn't always mean death. Sometimes, enemies may capture you and try to force you to be their slave. While this puts you in a weakened state, it also presents you with a challenge, which is to break free. Doing so is far from easy, but if you manage, you'll walk away a stronger player.
There are several different ways you can overcome your problems, too. In traditional RPG fashion, you can win the hearts of others with words and deeds, strike down foes with blades, and even perform rituals to conjure magic. This is where the aforementioned skill training comes in handy, as learning how to execute feats that assist your chosen play-style is crucial.
Interestingly, Outward has both online and split-screen co-op, which works extremely well. Cameron popped into my world to run from overpowered enemies and died with me for a couple of hours. It worked perfectly. All it takes is the host player to open their game to Steam friends, at which point those friends can jump in. The co-op is a lot of fun and will likely expand how much people enjoy the game as opposed to walking the vast world alone and dying without anyone to revive you.
There are a lot of things I like about Outward. But it seems a little too intent on not being user-friendly to its own detriment, even if its challenges can definitely be overcome. I’ve had a fair amount of fun with it, but also a large amount of frustration. Enjoying it will hinge on how hard the individual is willing to work to learn the game and push through its less user-friendly design aspects. Anyone who doesn’t like handholding will probably get the most out of it.