Nine Dot Studios has crafted an utterly unique fantasy adventure, but it's one where you've got to take the rough with the smooth.
Outward is a survival-orientated, third-person action-adventure, emphasising exploration and timely quest completion, with deliberately different approaches to fantasy game tropes and some fresh world-building. There are ample crafting opportunities, RPG-style character building, strange locations to see, and three different main quest paths. It also sports local and online cooperative multiplayer. Quite a list. How all these elements coalesce is a bit more complicated, however, as we'll see below.
From the beginning, Outward reminds you of its survival underpinnings, subjecting the more incautious players to a health-sapping infection and ushering you into the first main location, where you'll learn some of the basics of survival and gear. Cold and heat need to be managed, as do hunger, exhaustion, thirst, as well as poisoning, indigestion, and disease, although many of these are avoidable through sufficient preparation, or are quickly remedied. Food can be prepared, potions brewed, cold or hot weather gear can be equipped, water can be scrounged from a variety of places and then boiled to eliminate the chance for complications. Sleeping allows a combination of rest, guarding for ambushes, and automatically repairing equipped gear, which is a nice touch.
Gathering components is relatively painless, especially for rudimentary items. Basics can be fashioned from leather, cloth, wood, and iron scraps that are plentiful enough to find. A campfire kit requires three wood and you can walk up to pretty much any tree and get an unlimited supply of wood, three units at a time, a few seconds apiece. Rarer and more useful materials take a bit more patience to find and gather, with some of the more exotic ones scattered across the game's four major regions (a mountainous starting location, a poisonous swamp, a forbidding desert, and a sparse forest), or for sale at a store. Perishables degrade over time, as does equipment when used or damaged. Gathering materials, setting up camp, and meeting basic needs are fairly easy and add a bit of calming ritual to the game.
Crafting, too, is straightforward. Creating new equipment needs no crafting area and can be done from a menu. When cooking, though, doing anything more complicated than grilling a steak requires a cooking pot or kitchen, and potions require heavy alchemy apparatus. Both of the latter may result in wasted items if you're experimenting (for example, when it says boil a marshmellon, just grill it on the fire. Boiling it in water inexplicably turns it to wasted food). Potential recipes can be attempted all but instantly, and while in-game recipes need to be learned for combinations to display, one can combine anything from a contextual list if one desires, or has, you know, read a wiki with the recipes on them. For those who love all the grindy mechanisms of survival and the chore of chopping down trees and gathering stones, this may be disappointing, but it seems like a good compromise that few games seem to manage well. One is also expected to manage encumbrance, which is measured solely in weight. Whatever you have equipped weighs effectively nothing, but everything in the abstracted pockets on your person, and whatever you have in your backpack, counts against you if limits are exceeded, slowing your character down and increasing stamina drain when running or fighting. Backpacks can be dropped, and this is encouraged to enable a quicker dodge, as well as removing items from potential breakage should your hindquarters get hit during battle. This is often not the best idea, though, as we'll explain later on.
Though we were able to use a lot of stealth and speed to get past obstacles, often combat is hard to avoid. Much of the game is devoted to different weapon styles, and character progression requires finding, making, or buying better armour and weapons. Attacking is a combination of quick attacks, special manoeuvres based on the weapon and which attack swing you activate them on, and activated special abilities that often require special prerequisites. Meanwhile, defending means blocking physical attacks, dodging, and a few special moves. Both require a diligent managing of stamina and health. Combat is frantic and the timing difficult, even with some playtime under your belt. Things feel loose and it's easy to miss an attack or block, or mistime a roll, especially early on. Conversely, it is entirely possible, especially in indoor locations, to cheese it by hitting an enemy stuck on terrain, especially with ranged attacks. We also would often pit enemies against each other (something we used to great effect and feel no guilt about). Enemies range from ubiquitous human bandits to rocky mantises, glowing troglodytes, sword-mawed automata, and undulating horrors, with little to help you guess just how powerful a creature is without some potentially lethal experimentation. Lethal insofar as it goes in Outward, at least.
A fundamental system in Outward is the death mechanic. Your character never really *dies* per se, but is instead delivered from death in different, often randomly selected ways that are anything from being healed and respawned nearby, to being thrown to the other side of the map, injured and without your backpack if you'd dropped it (though it's recoverable). To balance your character's inevitable survival, there is no reload function, at least by in-game means. If you left all of your camping equipment in your backpack and your backpack is in a cave far away, it may take you a while to get things together again in your quest to reclaim your gear. Probably why, even when encumbered, we often wound up leaving the backpack on so we wouldn't be separated from that hoarding enabler.
The death system can be gamed at times. If you have an irritating condition like a disease you can't readily cure, throw yourself down a mountainside or get torn apart by hyenas. If you don't relish the idea of traversing an area or escaping a mine, die until you wind up somewhere better. It can also be incredibly frustrating, as we found when trying repeatedly to complete a plot dungeon. We'd left our backpack in there and upon dying were placed at the entrance of the dungeon, but each time we died and respawned outside trying to recover the backpack, the guards near the external entrance drew nearer, until upon our next death we magically appeared right in front of them, were killed, and woke up in the opposite corner of the map, still backpack-less. It also must be said that it is possible to save scum, that is, reload from a prior autosave buried in the files, as others have discovered. This in a sense allows a limited reload, though one must, of course, use it at one's own risk.
Outward's maps feel large. Enemy density is not that high in the overworld, allowing for all but a few narrow corridors to be stealthed or run through if desired. Some may not like the lack of enemy density but given the game's often lethal and taxing combat it seems to strike a good balance. For main areas, the player is provided with a vague map highlighting several locations you can use to figure out where you are, but there is no symbol on the map that tells you your location. This quickly became second nature, as one is provided with a compass heading at all times, and added a sense of accomplishment to traversal. Encounters in the wilderness are as a rule hostile, though some creatures are more aggressive or easily avoided than others. The vistas are often rather epic, with great stone statues, the oversized leavings of primordial creatures, crystalline beacons, shipwrecks, and sparkling towers, with a resplendent skybox visible at night. One of the fun things in the game is just exploring, finding hidden chests or resources, safe alcoves, specialised merchants. The game's lore isn't hammered over the player's head at all, and often one struggles a bit to understand what's going on, what events lead to these ruins, what the Immaculate really are, and so on. Information seems a bit too sparse at times but this seems preferable to too much lore, lending a feeling of depth to an already intriguing setting. When one does get bits of information it feels earned. There is a point, though, after avoiding the main plot for long enough, where things may feel a bit empty. Much of the game allows you to stumble into areas meant for the story but usually all you'll find is a chest with random items, resources, maybe a nice-looking ruin. Side quests require travel or collecting items, but don't tend to flesh out the world.
The magic system is unusual. No one starts with magic, it must be earned by reaching a ley line past one of three different paths, and one then chooses how much mana they want in exchange for a permanent loss of health and stamina. Spells are eclectic, using a variety of disciplines, most of which require a bit of time to kick off and are often preparatory in nature. You can't just cast a fireball, you have to use a fire stone to create a fire circle, then cast a spark from that to do any decent damage. Many of the spells work this way or create passive effects. One rarely feels overpowered against a dedicated caster, and spellcasters must use their brains to take advantage of a situation lest they be quickly overrun. The magic we tried included turning a torch or lantern into a flamethrower, calling upon the winds to give various boons based on the location you're in, and combining runes to cause effects. The latter seems to beg the need for a way to macro, though, as unlike potion brewing, cooking, and crafting, it doesn't record combinations you discover. We never felt powerful with what little spellcasting we managed to learn, but it adds another tool to your arsenal.
In addition to magic there are several trainable skills, passive and active, which one can accumulate. You can trigger spells and active skills in the menu with a series of clicks, but you're encouraged to put skills and equipment into the taskbar, which has eight slots. This often felt like too few, even though this is obviously a design decision reflecting the character's ability to prepare ahead of time. One doesn't switch loadouts between your bow and your shield-and-mace, one must take out shield and mace separately, for example. Casting a series of runes requires either mapping each to a quick slot or right-clicking and selecting use over each one in the menu. Spells often needed to be cast in combination to have more powerful effects and would take up several slots. The pressure in picking the right skills and items can be compelling, though a more easily accessible lexicon of abilities, and while we're at it, maybe a list of all recipes somewhere might have mitigated some of the stress. Note that it's almost expected that players will try additional characters.
Most of the game's lore is contained in the three main quest lines, each mutually exclusive. The one we followed had an interesting enough variety, though the long traversal times between locations wore us down a bit at times. One thing that is not adequately addressed in-game, and which can lead to rather severe consequences, is the game's use of time-limited quests. In the map you are told what time of day it is, and in a given quest it will say meet someone in three days, but you don't know when the countdown started, and unless you took notes and know how much time passes when you travel between regions, you may quickly lose track. We managed to fail several timed quests this way, sometimes catastrophically, with consequences a lot more severe than you would expect. Not taking the timing seriously can close off avenues permanently, which can be demoralising, and if you're facing combat you can't currently handle and need to upgrade first, you may be out of luck. If this were a running theme for all quests it might be easier to get used to, but some quests seem to wait for you forever. It wasn't the severity of the consequences, then, so much as how it was inconsistently applied in the logic of the world.
The quests themselves were interesting, and there are some plot-important ones that can resolve in several different, permanent ways, but still they often felt thoroughly contained. Note that it's almost expected that players will try additional characters. Once you've absorbed many of the game's systems it is a bit revelatory just how much you've retained. Restarting early on means you're able to skip past mistakes, fill out recipe lists without wasting time or money experimenting, and go straight to preferred techniques and tactics, making play go a lot smoother.
Multiplayer is a concurrent feature in Outward. In addition to a split-screen option, you can at any point open up your game to people on your friend's list, and one can join using a character of their choosing. They are full partners, and you can trade goods, help each other in combat and with puzzles, and revive your partner should they fall. Players can also steal anything in your world that's not nailed down, and can twink their own characters by popping in and out. This is a bit remarkable, as it's not possible to trade items with your own characters, and it can mess up your own character's progression if both parties aren't careful. It seems that in one multiplayer session, our companion triggered an important quest completion, earning a free spell meant for our character, which seems to mean that at least some major events aren't gated to the host alone. Pick a companion wisely, and warn them. Multiplayer takes on a new dimension as you might expect, and it seems best when both players have had separate experiences for a time, as you're able to share world information, recipes, tips, locations, and gear. Combat becomes a bit easier, as you can kite and draw aggro, while coordinating stealth and escape become a bit harder, as you need to both be trying to leave an area for it to work. Still, even the pratfalls take on an extra degree of entertainment when you're both fleeing from a horror nestled in a seemingly empty tower, or trekking across the map to recover backpacks from a wine cellar on the other side of a ghost-infested pass. With the wrong companion, it might not be as fun, and even with the right one sometimes things can drag when having to meet each other's needs, but it certainly can enhance the experience.
Outward is not a game for everyone. One may feel less than heroic, especially early on. One often looks more like a heavily laden fisher in plaid and a wide-brimmed hat than your typical fantasy knight, often running away from battle or taking pot shots, and spending more time managing health, stamina, and mana than righting wrongs. Magic is deliberate and requires a bit of planning, as does staying fed, rested, hydrated, and organising gear. The world is eclectic, sometimes full of details, other times feeling sparse, sometimes rewarding curiosity and experimentation, sometimes punishing you for it. The death system is different than most and has to be well understood if you're not to fall victim to its more cruel, capricious moments. Survival considerations are consistent but not constant and feel like one of the better-balanced aspects of the game. Combat is janky, unfortunately, and takes some getting used to, and even then can result in an unpleasant end should you be overwhelmed or take something on that turned out to be a bit too tough for you. The timed quests create a strange paradox, with the game encouraging you to explore but then cutting important quests or creating other negative consequences which can make you feel blindsided. With just one save per character you can be tossed into situations you cannot avoid, and once we did got stuck on terrain and were almost forced to start over, but managed over several minutes to wend our way out of it, thankfully. Pausing also requires hitting ESC and the selecting pause from the menu, so there's that.
When Outward fails you, or you fail it, it stings just a bit more, in part because the game is so different from a lot of what's out there. When it shows you a beautiful sight, gives you a bit of loot after finding a well-hidden secret, shows you something strange that you rarely see in sword and sorcery games, or makes you feel particularly skilful after trouncing the opposition or figuring out a puzzle, the sting fades. The crux is whether or not one can endure the game's unevenness to appreciate the sum of these novel components.
7 / 10
Unique and creative setting,
Survival elements just the right level of involved,
Both character and player progression feel earned.
Combat can be awkward and difficult to practice ahead of time, Timed quests cruelly punish but are hard to track, Game systems can sometimes leave you feeling stranded.