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SummaryAn out-of-this-world adventure!
The Good* Spaceflight is a joy
* Deep lore to uncover and clever puzzles to solve
* Seamless and immersive planet exploration and travel
The Bad* Time loop can occasionally become tedious
* Random stuttering issues
* No voice acting
The Bottom LineNot to be confused with Obsidian’s recent RPG, Outer Wilds is probably the indie darling of 2019. Aside from winning the Seamus McNally prize at the Independent Games Festival a few years ago, there was little media coverage or hype about Mobius Digital’s console/PC debut game. It wasn’t until after release that word of mouth got around quickly. Almost every time someone would bring up this game, I would hear them say “go into it knowing as little about it as possible”. To which I would inevitably respond “So what do you actually do in Outer Wilds?” Since the purpose of a review is in fact to tell you about my experience of playing a game, I’m going to try and keep things as vague and broad as possible.
In this first-person adventure game, you play an alien that is part of a four-eyed alien race called the Hearthians. You’re the newest recruit of the Hearthians’ Outer Wilds space program, which sets out to explore the miniature solar system that their home planet, Timber Hearth, resides in. Your goal is to investigate the history of an ancient alien race known as the Nomai, who had previously explored the galaxy in search of something called “The Eye of the Universe”. Oh, and you have exactly 22 minutes to do this before the sun explodes in a supernova.
Not to fear, for after your first death (assuming you completed the early objectives on Timber Hearth before your first launch), you discover that you’re trapped in a time loop. In Outer Worlds, every death is a new beginning. Every time you die, all of the information that you obtained over that journey is recorded in your ship’s log, allowing you to pick up where you left off. The galaxy has many areas to explore and reach, and some of them are only accessible during very small windows of time, so the 22 minutes isn’t nearly enough to see and do everything in one run. It’s the knowledge that you gain over time that forms the game’
Outer Wilds strikes a very intriguing tone. On the one hand, its full of whimsical charm. The character designs are cute. The ships and planets all have a very rustic, woodsy or ancient stone feeling to them far removed from the more futuristic look of most sci-fi media. The score has a very down-home country sort of vibe. It’s also just as trippy, weird, and profound as all of the best space films, dealing with themes of exploration, sacrifice, and the search for something greater. On the other, its a game that is more than happy to kill you if you make any mistakes during space travel. Its a game that is more than happy to let you get separated from your ship with no means of getting back. Its a game that will let you auto-pilot into the sun since you didn’t pay attention to the direction you were going. It’s a game that will let you choke to death if you forget to put on your space suit before exiting your ship. And you’ll often find the dead bodies of previous Nomai and explorers lying around. Despite its often fantastical nature, Outer Wilds really puts some of the harsh nature of space exploration into perspective.
Spaceflight is portrayed in a semi-realistic manner. You’ll have to be very careful with thrust and inertia, but your ship can take a fair amount of damage. You also have infinite oxygen and fuel when you’re in the ship, but when you’re outside in your space suit you’ll have to manage those resources. Flying around in your suit is a lot of fun. With the exception of Giant’s Deep and Timber Hearth, most areas in the game have very low gravity, and with enough practice you can soar quite rapidly above the surface of each world. You can fill your oxygen by standing near any trees you find, which somehow grow even on planets without a proper atmosphere, but to fill your fuel you’ll have to head back to your ship or find one of the explorers on each planet and use their fuel canisters.
When traveling around in your ship or in your suit, you have three tools to use. The first is a device which lets you scan for various radio frequencies. You can use this to locate various objects across the galaxy. The second tool is the scout, a probe which you can fire out and take pictures of areas which are dangerous or inaccessible. The last tool is a device which translates Nomai text, allowing you to read crucial information as well as plot-related details. You’ll need to make full use of all three in order to solve the puzzles and reach the game’s ending.
Each planet that you visit in Outer Wilds is radically different from the last and generally avoid the cliches you might find in other space games. Timber Hearth, your home world, feels more like a mountain village rather than a spaceport. Giant’s Deep is an ocean planet with constant tornadoes which can lift islands almost entirely out of the atmosphere. Brittle Hollow is a planet loaded with ancient Nomai history that is slowly being torn apart by meteors from a nearby volcanic moon and a black hole at its center. The Dark Bramble is a frightening foggy pocket-dimensional maze of vines that is much bigger than it first appears, and has giant fish roaming around that are more than happy to swallow you whole. Finally, the Hourglass Twins are two desert planets, one of which is slowly filling the other with sand. You’ll have to make multiple trips to each planet to access new areas as you accrue more knowledge about how each one works over the 22 minute period.
The core of the game involves solving puzzles to gain access to more information and new areas. Some of the puzzles will have you do surprising or clever and unexpected things in order to reach certain areas. They’re the kinds of puzzles that you’ll only be able to do once you learn certain rules and pieces of information and wonder “Will things actually work that way?” The eureka moments you get when solving them are some of the most satisfying in any game released last year.
There are quite a few locations that are actually completely optional to completing the game, being dedicated to lore or just your natural curiosity. You can basically speed run this game after you learn all of the puzzles and locations for each item you need to actually finish it. If you want to see the full ending, you’ll need to explore everywhere you cn so you can fill in your ship’s log.
While the time loop is a neat idea, it can occasionally get in the way when you just want to explore the galaxy. A few sections of this game will involve heavy trial and error to solve them even after you figure out what to do, and it would be nice to have to skip the tedious “wake up and launch” sequence every time you die. For example, you could spend several minutes flying to a specific spot on another planet, but if you forget to put your space suit on you’ll end up choking to death and have to wait several minutes more to try again, which isn’t a fun process when you just want to continue. Less skilled players with the game’s platforming and spaceflight mechanics might get even more frustrated due to this. You can kill yourself in multiple ways to reset the time loop, but I wish there was an easier way to simply reset the time loop in case you’re too stuck to continue. The only way to do this currently is to go back to the main menu, but i wish there was a dedicated option in-game to do this.
The sound design and score are fantastic across the board, from the takeoff of your craft to the whirring and buzzing sounds of electronic equipment and switches and the frightening screams of the fish which roam the Dark Bramble. The game’s soundscape is always intensely atmospheric and evocative even when nothing is really going on. Similarly, the score is fantastic, from the country themes of the Hearthian homeworld to the synthesizer music that plays when the sun is only moments away from exploding. The score doesn’t reply on one thing, it has a balance of acoustic and electronic elements much like the ship that you pilot. Sadly there is no voice acting of any sort in the game, which is surprising considering the relatively high production values of everything else. You can chat with other Hearthians that you meet but all of their dialog is represented as subtitles with no means of hearing them speak. The writes do a good enough job at giving each character their own personality through the written dialog, but hearing it spoken would have really taken things to the next level.
This Unity-powered game, with its seamless open world and semi-realistic physics, really pushes the limits of the engine. I was very impressed with how well-done the transitions from planet to space and back again were achieved visually with little in the way of visible pop-in or hitching. The art style is a mixture of cartoonishness with slight realism. Theres a very flat-shaded, almost low-poly look to the environments. I’ve read that the game spent years in development, and it shows. The art design also deserves praise as well, with a very original look to the ships and technology that I just don’t see very often in video games. It’s the kind of stuff that’s evocative of the early space exploration era back, with a rustic twist. On the negative side, I’ve had some weird stuttering issues crop up occasionally for no apparent reason. The game runs very smooth 99 percent of the time, but the hitches don’t seem to occur because of any noticeable problems. It’s still better than most Unity-based games that I’ve played and the team should be proud of what they were able to wring from the troubled engine, but its not a completely flawless experience.
Outer Wilds is the utterly captivating mixture of No Man’s Sky and Majora’s Mask that you never knew that you wanted. Cracking the history and mysteries of this miniature galaxy was a rewarding, thrilling, and profound experience, despite the minor technical problems. Its basically this generation’s Myst - a non-violent adventure game that nonetheless brings intense satisfaction and satisfies your curiosity at every turn. So if you’re a fan of exploration, spaceflight , or puzzles, be sure to book an expedition to the Outer Wilds whenever you can.