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What do you get when you combine an open-world action-RPG with survival elements and then sprinkle a bunch of crafting on top? Well, in theory, you get my least favorite kind of game. However, after watching some promotional trailers for Nine Dots Studio's Outward that promised memorable adventures in a dazzling yet deadly fantasy world, I was intrigued. And when I got a chance to check out an early preview version of the game, I immediately jumped on that opportunity.
And since the game is now less than two months away from its March 26, 2019 release date, let's see what it's all about, shall we?
To Boldly Go
Outward puts you in the shoes of an unfortunate individual who has to make regular payments to their tribe as punishment for some transgressions of their ancestors. To make matters worse, right before the game starts, your character catches a lucky break and earns a small fortune overseas, but then on the way back, a shipwreck sends all that hard-earned money to the bottom of the sea. Which means that you start the game with nothing but a pair of shorts and a family lighthouse that's going to get taken away if you don't come up with a hefty sum of silver within the next few days.
In order to do so, you'll have to “borrow” whatever basic gear your fellow villagers have lying around, or alternatively drape yourself in makeshift garbage, and then venture outside the relative safety of the village walls.
The immediate area around your village is packed with bandit camps, hostile settlements, ancient ruins, and mysterious caves, with the main attraction being a giant magic mountain right in the middle. Looking at the map of your home region, you'll probably notice that your character is not on it. You get a compass, some occasional signposts, a series of landmarks, and that's that. If you want to get anywhere in Outward, you will need to actually follow the directions the game's NPCs give you.
You will also need to be prepared for anything, as pretty much everything in Outward is out to get you. Forget bandits, skeletons, and giant lightning-spitting shrimp, even the game's oversized chickens are brimming with bloodlust. And if you're not careful, the chickens will get you.
And if they don't, then it will be the heat. Or the cold. Or the lack of food and water. So, not only will you need to be on the constant lookout for monsters, you'll also have to forage and hunt for food and collect water wherever you can. On top of that, the longer you stay awake, the shorter your stamina bar gets, forcing you to rest from time to time.
Once you process all that and get a few coins to your name, you buy a proper backpack from a village trader and start chanting, “failure to plan is a plan to fail” like a mantra. You pack a change of clothes, some firewood, a cooking pot, a few waterskins, a bedroll or a tent, a lantern, an alchemy set, a bunch of food that won't spoil for a while, and maybe some potions. And then you try walking and find yourself overburdened already. You make some adjustments and it dawns on you that inventory management is one of Outward's most prominent features.
Even the game's survival elements aren't there to annoy you with having to eat and drink every five seconds. Instead, they simply force you to allocate some inventory space for food and water. And seeing how different meals provide you with different buffs, you will also want to account for that. Every item in Outward has weight, even money, so you'll need to be very careful with how you prepare for your journeys and what you pick up along the way.
Your inventory is divided between a modestly-sized pouch and a backpack where you carry most of your stuff. The backpack is understandably quite bulky and as a result slows down your combat rolls. So, when there's a fight on the horizon and you plan to be rolling a lot, you'll be wise to drop the backpack and then come back for it later.
Personally, I love inventory management in games, and it being such a major part of the overall Outward experience made me enjoy the game much more than had it just been a hiking simulator where you walked across mountains, going, “Ha!” upon spotting peculiarly arranged skeletons.
Outward's combat system is clearly inspired by Dark Souls, but it does put its own spin on a few things. You still have stamina-draining light and heavy attacks, but you can combo them together for different outcomes. Your enemies also have a visible stability bar that determines their resistance to being interrupted or knocked down.
On top of the regular attacks, you also have access to a wide selection of skills. Now, why does a game that already has a stamina bar that stops you from spamming attacks feels the need to put cooldowns on its skills is beyond me, but that's how Outward does things, and I can't say that I'm a huge fan of this design decision.
There's also magic. In order to learn it, you'll need to go through a dungeon first, and then sacrifice some of your life and stamina. After that, you'll be able to cast spells or become a spellblade of sorts and infuse your weapons with various elements. And because nothing is ever that simple with Outward, most of its spells require not only mana but also expendable reagents.
Now, it's good to have such variety when it comes to combat, because Outward is far from a tripple-A game and its animations are nowhere near smooth and precise enough to carry the combat system, especially since the game's enemies don't telegraph their attacks all that well.
In fact, the best thing about Outward's combat isn't the part where you're actually fighting, it's all the preparations that happen before the battle even begins. Eating the right food, enchanting or poisoning your weapons, setting up traps and snares, sneaking around your enemies to get a few free hits – all these things make the awkward flailing that happens afterwards way more enjoyable.
And if at some point you end up losing a fight or succumbing to the elements, you'll discover that your character can't actually die. Which is quite a bold choice for a survival game if you ask me. Instead, you will get what the developers call a “defeat scenario.” During such a scenario, your screen goes black for a moment, and then your character wakes up in an unfamiliar place with a terrible headache, usually some unpleasant status effect, and no recollection of the past hours or even days. Some of these scenarios result in your character being robbed, captured, or dragged into some dark lair. Others can actually help you out and transport you to safety.
And that's the problem with these defeat scenarios – if you find yourself stuck, you can just start jumping on swords in the hopes of eventually getting saved. Alternatively, if you lose a tough fight a couple of times, you may find yourself on the other side of the map with no quick way to attempt the fight again and learn from your mistakes. And seeing how the game constantly autosaves with no manual save option, you will just have to deal with it.
Another thing I should mention here is the fact that Outward doesn't have classes or levels, and so improving your character boils down to finding better gear and learning new active and passive skills from NPCs. Because of that, if you're someone who likes their games to feature robust roleplaying systems, Outward may disappoint you with what it has to offer.
Story and Presentation
Unlike most other survival games, Outward has an actual story spread out across several factions. Once you pay off your initial debt, you can continue to work for your village, run off to join a holy monster-fighting order, or become a mercenary hero of a far-away land. This translates into a variety of quests, most of which have you delving into various set-piece dungeons, retrieving ancient artifacts or sometimes even dealing with a bit of political intrigue.
Though admittedly, the game's writing can be safely described as merely functional. It gets the point across and sends you on your way, but doesn't really make you invested into what's going on. The voice acting doesn't help either. More often than not it doesn't exist at all, but when it does, it usually consists of a few words vaguely related to the text you're seeing on your screen. Honestly, whatever the voice acting budget the developers had, it would have been better spent elsewhere.
Still, it's nice to have some incentive to explore and have clear goals when doing so, instead of aimlessly meandering for no good reason. And since the game also offers a good number of, usually repeatable, side quests, you'll always have something to do.
During my time with the preview build, I visited two of the game's expansive areas (can't say how many of them there are in total but definitely more than two). They both offered over a dozen hours of content and had a nice mix of major landmarks, minor points of interest, dungeons, and unmarked locations for you to discover.
I just wish those points of interest had a bit more going on personality-wise. I want the places I visit to have rich stories associated with them. I want to hear rumors about a fierce beast that's been terrorizing the village and then get a chance to encounter it on my journey. Unfortunately, in Outward a bandit is usually just a bandit. There were some exceptions but not enough, in my opinion.
You should also be aware that the game is pretty shameless when it comes to blocking certain areas off with invisible walls, and those can be quite jarring. Though perhaps this was an issue with the preview build, and by the time the game launches, those invisible walls won't be quite as obvious.
Now, even though the game's visual fidelity can't really compete with the behemoths of the industry, its vibrant color palette, lighting system, and creative placement of glowy and mysterious props more than make up for its somewhat lacking models and textures. This lively vibrant feeling was further augmented by the game's music that was extremely pleasant to listen to.
Less pleasant was the fact that regardless of the settings I used, the larger open areas suffered from some weird micro stuttering where occasionally the game would freeze for an instant and then make the camera controls hyper-sensitive for a bit. I mostly attribute this issue to playing an early build, but it was still annoying enough to mention.
The game's controls should also be mentioned. Despite the fact that Outward's combat system is heavily inspired by Dark Souls, some alterations to the basic control scheme and the addition of active skills made the game feel extremely clunky when playing with a controller. Navigating the game's menus and managing its robust inventory was also quite annoying without a mouse. As a result, I firmly advise you to use a keyboard and mouse for Outward.
The UI was too small for my taste, and the fact that you couldn't move or resize its elements meant that most of the time I had no idea how much health or stamina my character had left.
And finally, you should also keep in mind that you can play the game together with a friend. You can do so online or even locally. And while I didn't get a chance to try Outward's online functionality, the local split screen co-op worked perfectly fine and only required a plugged in controller.
Overall, Outward is a curious specimen. Its story is pretty basic, its combat can be quite anemic, and some of its systems feel a bit underbaked. But at the same time, the lack of hand holding, a healthy degree of challenge, and the ever-present desire to find out what's hiding behind the next rock manage to balance those shortcomings out somewhat. As a result, it's hard for me to say whether the game will remain enjoyable in the long run, I just know that I had quite a bit of fun playing the preview version.
And if I, with my distaste for open-world games and survival elements, managed that, those of you who generally like these kinds of games should definitely put it on your radars.