Outward is a new survival RPG from developer Nine Dots Studio, which does away with the hand-holding of the usual fantasy games, and replaces it with a more brutal and realistic style of gameplay. Outward is the first RPG I have also ever played where there doesn’t seem to be a main storyline – about an hour in you will have to make a choice of three unique quests, but there is no Skyrim-esque “Save the World” story mode to be found. And unfortunately its just not entertaining or rewarding enough for me to invest the time that its been designed to need.
Outward needs a whole lot of investment to get any enjoyment out of it. This is not a casual RPG where you can pick it up and play for half an hour before bed, to knock out a side mission or two. This is a game where thirty minutes of play time might see you prepare for a journey, or travel from one location to another, just to top up on water. In Outward you will need to eat, sleep, keep warm, drink water, prepare your food, boil water, gather wood for a campsite, etc, etc. There is no fast travel, no map markers, and lots of dying. Some will find this enthralling, but I just found it unrewarding and frustrating.
Outward starts with your character being the victim of a shipwreck, and you recover only to find a crowd baying for blood. In the world of Cierzo, any misdemeanour is settled by a debt to your bloodline, and you have 5 days to pay this outstanding debt, or to do a good enough deed to another member of the community. Walking around the town soon gives you a good idea of how and where you can do either, but before you’re allowed to go exploring you are forced to get equipped with some of the tools and equipment you need to survive, namely a weapon and water, as you won’t stand a chance without being prepared with the basics. So, off I went, to find a cave with a mushroom in it, but details of this quest weren’t stored in my journal, and although I found the cave based on the instructions given, I soon died at the hand of the creatures within and was returned to my home town. So, off I went again and the second time I was successful, if not a little battered from the combat, but then I got attacked on the walk back, and died again. This was a process I soon came to get used to, and to hate. When you die you are treated to a text screen informing you of your fate, which is usually along the lines of “someone rescued you and got you to safety”, which generally means you get sent back to your home town.
Now, at this early stage I was really struggling with Outward, and if I wasn’t a reviewer I would have given up and moved on, however you have to be aware that some games take a while to “click”, and then maybe turn into a great game. So I persevered even though I wasn’t having a good time, and found out how to craft new weapons and an emergency campfire – even though the first time I tried to use one I realised you also need something to light it with. I found how to cook, and where to find recipes. I got a fishing tool, so I could catch fish, which could be cooked. I found out how to make potions from ingredients found in the world. I improved my combat skills. There is so much going on under the surface of this game, it really is a hell of an achievement. The problem is that the game based around all of this just isn’t good enough to warrant the investment in the systems.
Graphically it feels like we are back in 360 territory. The character creation screen is a design studio to create ugly people. The sound of your own constant shuffling footsteps is irritating. The ability to turn off the repetitive (but nice) music was used very early on. Unfortunately the combat is not good either, at times I felt like button presses weren’t being registered. It also felt very floaty and spongy, and really punishing (almost Dark Souls-ish at times). The dialogue was also really strange, as the voice work only seemed to cover a snippet of the on-screen text that accompanied it, and the actual voice work was a bit like Fable on a budget. One thing really irritated me to the point of rage quitting. Early on you are given the choice of three quest lines. To get to the quest destination meant asking a tavern landlord for directions, which were very detailed. I remembered the first part and headed off. When I went to check these I found that they were not recorded in my journal or on a map! So, the only way to get to the destination was to manually write down the directions! For me that is just a step too far.
However, there are some nice touches. Different regions have their own aesthetics, and these are really nicely designed, especially the Abrassar desert area. The thought that has gone into every design feature is mind-boggling, a great example being the backpack, that can be dropped before combat which in turn makes you more agile. The torches, that need refilling or they’ll burn out. Some of the questlines are also intriguing and well written. But I can’t shake the feeling that Outward would be a more enjoyable game had the survival aspects been toned down (especially having to think about the being too hot/too cold based on the clothing you wear) and the map and quest markers being more user-friendly. In its current state it is just too tedious and unrewarding. I am certain that Outward will find a strong fanbase, but I am betting that the player base will have loads of time to invest in the fantastically designed survival mechanisms. But Outward is not for me.