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Nine Dots Studio's exploration and survival-focused open-world RPG Outward launched on March 26, 2019. But prior to that, I had a chance to check out an early version of the game. You can find my impressions over here. In short, back then I thought Outward did some things really well but was rough around the edges and a bit lacking in the feature department. And now that the game is fully released, let's see how it turned out, shall we?
Not a Hero's Journey
At its core, Outward exists to answer a simple question - what would happen if a fairly ordinary individual decided one day to become a daring adventurer. An individual like that needs to eat, drink and rest, wear weather-appropriate clothes and not carry around too much stuff. This not at all hero is not too great at the whole fighting thing and mostly perseveres through cunning and preparation not iron muscles or decades worth of experience.
In gameplay terms this all translates into a variety of interconnected systems, all working together to create a deep and engaging sanbox experience. Now, from my understanding, Nine Dots Studio's team is quite small, so as a result not all of those systems are created equal.
For example, take Outward's magic. In order to get access to it, you have to go through your first challenging dungeon. Then, you have to sacrifice a certain amount of health and stamina, then find trainers in the game's world and learn some spells from them. There are multiple types of magic. Some spells require reagents you have to craft yourself, while others have you combining runes into special runewords with various hidden effects. In order to cast those spells you need mana, and to replenish it you will need to drink potions and special teas, or rest. But if you rest for too long, your connection to the arcane forces will weaken and the maximum amount of mana you can have will decrease. And on top of that all, wearing heavy helmets makes it more difficult to cast spells, while certain magic gear can lower your spellcasting costs.
Compare that to how you repair items. You repair them while you rest, but only the items your character is wearing. You can't fix anything in your backpack, you can't pay a blacksmith to fix your stuff, and most annoyingly, you can never be sure just how much rest you need to get your gear fully repaired.
The same can be said about pretty much every one of Outward's systems. They are either incredibly deep, well-designed and fun to play around with, or underbaked and needlessly convoluted. This makes Outward a game of compromises. In fact even its open world is not so much an open world but four large expansive areas you can travel between. But since these areas all have distinct themes and challenges associated with them, you will probably have quite a bit of fun exploring them, as they are all packed to the brim with dungeons and various points of interest, including cities that belong to the game's three major factions.
In my opinion, Outward is at its best when you're going through a dungeon and things aren't going too well, but have not yet turned catastrophic. You have to make your way through some dark and dangerous place with no map, very little guidance, and no idea what awaits you around the corner. You don't know if you have the right equipment and enough resources to tackle the challenges ahead. You're constantly on the edge of your seat.
But that's a very narrow set of parameters. The game's open world, or rather its open areas, are a stark contrast to its dungeons. Sure those areas get you to the dungeons, show you some pretty sights along the way, but not a lot actually happens there. The areas are populated with some random wandering monsters that at times fight among themselves, and credit where credit is due, the game's bestiary is pretty impressive and full of weird and unique non-humanoid enemies, but that's about it.
The game's world is almost completely static (a single side quest can make the starting town inaccessible forever, but that's the only world-altering event in the game that I know of). Its faction interactions are not simulated at all, there are no NPCs wandering the wilderness and no memorable foes you can run into multiple times, except for the random mooks that keep respawning and pestering you while you're trying to get somewhere. There's also no theft system, no lockpicking, and you can't even fight friendly NPCs. This makes Outward's sandbox experience extremely lacking.
At the same time, while the game offers three mutually exclusive faction-based storylines, the writing is not on the level it needs to be to make them truly engaging, the voice acting is atrocious, and the storylines themselves consist of four quests each. They are pretty complex, multi-stage quests with plenty of choices and numerous optional objectives, but still, there are just four of them. And on top of that, all the choices you make tend to be purely cosmetic in nature.
At one point during the main quest, a faction war broke out, but it existed exclusively in dialogue boxes and merchant prices. And at the same time, the game's lore is quite intriguing. There are humans becoming gods, some alien invaders known only as the Scourge, ancient golems fighting the Scourge, plenty of strange old abandoned structures, mysterious liches and their nefarious plots, a race of giants who seem to know more than they are willing to share. All of this is quite promising, but it's too understated, and more importantly, it's not really used for anything, it's just sort-of there. Blink and you'll miss it.
It's like the whole game is a framework for what could have been if the developers had more manpower and a bigger budget. And that framework is kind of a shaky one, too. The game has more than its fair share of rough edges, bugs, and puzzling design decisions.
Here's an example that made me want to quit Outward forever.
I just completed a quest that allowed me to use magic and found myself on a beach, itching to try out my new skills. A heavily armored bandit was patrolling a nearby road and after a stern talking to, he was kind enough to lend me his tower shield along with his mace. The bandit's hideout, an ominous fort, was nearby. I walked in. Another bandit inside offered me some tea. He looked shifty, so I refused, he refused me right back and we had to fight over it. His friends joined in, so I got plenty of opportunities to use both my new magic and my new mace.
When that all was over with, I was left with some loot and a couple of keys. I pressed onward, expecting to clear out the entire fortress. Only the rest of the bandits inside were friendly for some reason. I explored the place, ran a few errands for the bandits, mined some ore in their slave mines, then found another chatty individual. He was not too pleased to see me and decided to express this by sticking me with a bunch of arrows. I did not expect this and ended up falling to the bandit's dirty tricks, but not before noticing that still, while he and his henchmen were trying to kill me, the rest of the fortress remained friendly.
After the fight, my character was thrown into the mines. Which posed a problem, since the obvious ways to get out of there included jumping into a dangerous-looking pit and mining enough ore to buy your freedom. The kicker was that I have already mined all the ore while exploring the place earlier. Not to worry. I simply asked one of the guards to let me out, which, to my great surprise, he did. Outside, I retrieved my stuff, applied some poison to my club, drank a few potions and took my revenge. Afterwards, my backpack was filled with loot, and my character wasn't feeling too hot. One bandit leader remained. I decided to come back for her later.
Walking back to town, I decided to reorganize my backpack. I figured that since I've opened all the doors inside the bandit fort, I didn't need the keys any longer, so I threw them out.
This was the set up. We fast forward a bit. I'm working for my faction when I get a side quest to deal with some bandits threatening my home town. The same bandits from before, so when I get the quest, I only have one out of the three leaders left on my to do list. Almost tasting an easy victory, I make my way back to the fort. And find out that the doors that I have previously opened, are now locked again, and the bandit that dropped the keys no longer exists.
So I go back into the cold and try to remember where I dropped those keys, hoping that they didn't despawn too. After a while I find them. Slightly annoyed, I set a course for the fort again. On my way there I'm distracted and have to quit the game while trekking across some random mountain.
When I come back, the game treacherously spawns me high in the air and lets the gravity do its dirty work. My character “dies” as a result of me loading the game. My eye begins to twitch.
My character regains consciousness back in town. Which means five or so minutes of backtracking. This would be annoying enough, but then, when I open my inventory, I realize that half of my items are gone. And it wasn't a case of the game not saving some recent loot either, since many of the things that disappeared were with me almost from the start.
This was when I had to chuckle and step away from the computer. I wanted to start writing the review there and then, but after a short break, I kept pressing on.
A bit later, another quest in my main quest chain sent me after some kidnappers. I tried to follow the directions I found on some piece of paper, but since the game gives you a simple map with no glowing trails or quick travel opportunities, I got lost on my way to the kidnappers' hideout. I stumbled into a manticore's lair instead. The beast was fierce. I was underprepared and udnergeared. But I also had lots and lots of potions. Having drank most of them, I fought the creature. It was a close fight, but in the end I was victorious. The manticore dropped some random loot, and among it, what could possibly be the strongest sword in the game.
My enthusiasm was revitalized. Armed with that sword I was able to cut through everything the game threw at me from that point on.
And that is the quintessential Outward experience. The game can be annoying, irritating, and downright unpleasant at times. But it keeps you coming back for more, and when something does go your way, it feels extremely satisfying.
Now, you may have noticed that when my character was defeated, the action didn't end there. That's because Outward constantly autosaves your progress and instead of game overs, it uses these so-called “defeat scenarios.” Sometimes they take you back to safety, occasionally, they strand your character naked in some dungeon. It's a curious system that doesn't exactly work, since by losing again and again, you will eventually find yourself back in the safety of the nearest town. And when bugs are not involved, you don't lose any of your belongings in the process.
The game's progression system is fairly unique as well. Instead of levels or skillpoints, there are trainers all over the world who can teach you new active and passive skills. This encourages you to go out and explore, which is Outward's strong suit. And while many of the trainers just offer you a skill or two, eight of them have entire skill trees that can be considered Outward's classes. Each character starts the game with three Breakthrough points, which are required to learn those class-specific skills. Because of that, you can combine up to three classes when building your characters.
Aside from those Breakthrough points, skills cost silver, the game's currency, and seeing how there's no experience points, this makes earning silver the main form of Outward's progression.
The other way to improve your character is to find better gear. And in Outward's case, it's one of the game's better features. Instead of randomized MMO-like stats or some linear gear progression, there are various materials all with their special characteristics, plus some unique items on top of that. You can craft most of the gear yourself, but there are some items you can only find during your travels, while some special armor sets have to be commissioned from the various blacksmiths. As such, finding new gear in Outward is always a lot of fun.
Aside from gear, you'll be able to cook food that fills your stomach and gives you useful bonuses. You'll also brew teas and potions and craft various arcane reagents.
You'll need all those skills and items to fight whatever creatures the game throws at you. Outward's combat system can be described as Dark Souls with worse animations and a few twists. The active skills are one of those twists and when writing my preview I was puzzled as to why those skills had cooldowns when the game already limited what you could do by giving you a stamina bar.
As it turns out, those cooldowns are there because Outward's active skills go a bit deeper than it initially appears. Some of the skills grant you certain boons you have to have active to use other skills. And on top of that, certain other powerful skills expend those boons as their additional resource. As a result, you're not only managing health and stamina, but are also juggling boons. I can't say I'm a huge fan of how this works in the game, but at least now I can see where the developers were going with this system.
Content-wise, an average playthrough should take you about 20-30 hours. If you rush and know what you're doing, you can probably beat the game in a few hours, while seeing everything it has to offer may take you around 60-80. Moreover, during your playthrough you can leave certain items in the so-called legacy chests and then use them on subsequent runs as a form of the popular these days New Game+ mode.
During my preview I noted that Outward had frequent frame drops and some stuttering issues, and unfortunately these issues were still present in the release version. Looking into it, I discovered that these issues were not at all universal, however I saw plenty of mentions of crashes and co-op related problems, which in turn was something I didn't encounter, so when it comes to stability in Outward, your experience may vary, as they say.
Also, as should be obvious from my example above, the game uses a Dark Souls-style constant autosave system, but it doesn't do a very good job. So, I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that you shouldn't experiment with unusual save systems unless you're sure you can make them work.
The game's visuals, while somewhat outdated, are propped up by its fantastic art direction. Its sound design is not far behind, both when it comes to music and the miscellaneous sound effects.
Outward is an ambitious game. Perhaps too ambitious for the small studio that developed it. Yet even despite all of the game's shortcomings and technical limitations I had fun playing it. The things it does well, it does really well, and that was good enough for me.
Now, if in a few years, Nine Dots Studio releases Outward 2, and this time around manages to craft a more engaging story and puts together a sandbox world similar to Space Rangers or Mount & Blade, I will recommend it to any and all RPG enthusiast.
As it stands, you should set your sights on Outward only if you're ready to deal with some frustrations and are interested in a refreshing exploration-rich experience that doesn't coddle you too much, or at all, really.