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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.
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