There are times playing Outward when you feel lost, both literally and figuratively, but it’s almost never a bad thing. On the contrary, getting lost in Outward can result in some of its most rewarding moments. This sense of adventure and discovery is key, and Outward achieves this by placing realistic restrictions on what your character can do, so that what you do accomplish feels all the more monumental. Unfortunately, for all the ingenuity Outward takes, it is also plagued by a host of issues from bugs, to outdated graphics to peculiar voice acting. But taken as a whole, Outward is still an engrossing experience.
Unlike most open-world fantasy RPGs that place you into the role of a great hero or the chosen one, in Outward you are a nobody, and even worse, you are a nobody in a whole lot of debt. After returning from a disastrous sea voyage in a woeful attempt to make enough money to pay back your blood debt to your tribe, your ship crashes ashore only making things worse. You are then given five days to repay the debt or lose your house. Yet this plot thread merely serves as a brief introduction. The real story begins once you choose one of three major factions to follow. Each faction offers something different and the storylines for them will last around 20 hours a piece. I chose the Kingdom of Levant as my faction, and after completing the main questline, some side quests and, of course, lots of exploring, I ended up sinking around 40 hours into the game. In order to play every faction and see everything there is in Outward, I’d estimate it would take well over 100 hours, which is certainly nothing to scoff at.
The story itself is a mixed bag of quests that mostly follow the “go here, fight this, recover that” formula. The writing is decent enough but with no cutscenes or cinematic moments, much of the story comes from talking to rigid, near-lifeless NPCs, which makes it difficult to get emotionally invested. Like a lot of RPGs, only about half of the dialogue is voiced, which isn’t inherently a downside, but most of what voicing there is comes off as wonky, occasionally bordering on silly. Overall, the story is serviceable and the fact that there are three entirely separate questlines to play through adds enough replay value to make up for a lot of the other narrative shortcomings.
With such a small development team and a modest budget, it’s clear the creators of Outward had to pick and choose where to spend their resources. Because of this, the scope of the story, graphical fidelity, and presentation in general is meek, but there is a clear focus on the world and how you interact with it and that’s where Outward shines. There aren’t hundreds of tiny icons cluttering a map – instead, each region gives you a few points of interest and lets you discover them for yourself. Speaking of the map, there is no GPS or guide markers at all. In order to get where you want to go, you’ll need to use your surroundings to first determine where you are, and then decipher what direction to head. Often, traversing an open-world game can feel like you are on autopilot, with the game taking you exactly where you need to go at all times. This convenience is typically great, and even required for some games, but it was surprisingly refreshing to be forced to find things on my own in Outward. This elevated the sense of adventure and made discovering hidden dungeons, unique loot, or secret areas all the more fulfilling.
The World and I
Outward’s world of Aurai is split up into four distinct regions; the mountainous seaside of Chersonese, the bandit-filled forest of Enmerkar, the perilous desert of Abrassar, and the toxic swamps of the Hallowed Marsh. Each area is visually varied and features unique enemies and obstacles to overcome. But let’s talk for a second about visuals. Going in, some people will immediately write Outward off because of how it looks. It’s by no means an ugly game, but it does not stack up to the expansive AAA RGPs you’d expect in 2019. The best way I can describe the graphics is that they are inconsistent. The lighting and particle effects are actually pretty impressive, but some of the textures look like they could have been ripped straight out of the PS2 era. Sometimes I’d stop to admire the picturesque sunset light against a swampy lagoon, and others I’d be shocked at the lack of detail in a something as simple as a tree. Most of the people who will be interested in Outward will likely not be too concerned with graphics, but if you need a picture-perfect game, this isn’t it. Similarly, the sound design is also rather lackluster, with much of the sounds feeling tinny and small. However, the compelling, dramatic soundtrack really keeps you distracted from how the rest of Outward sounds.
The meat of the gameplay will be exploring the world and fighting enemies, but there is a large emphasis on survival as well. The combat has been rather divisive in the community, with some calling it floaty, clunky, and unfairly difficult, while others praise its demand for a methodical, carefully planned approach. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t dislike the combat completely, but it isn’t as deep as I would have liked. It takes clear inspiration from FromSoftware games but isn’t nearly as creative or responsive. Though there is a wide array of weapon types, each one only has a few swing animations. The combat gets more interesting, however, when it’s combined with skills. Skills can be learned from various trainers throughout the regions and offer a multitude of options for how you can approach combat. You could, for instance, have a mage build and use ranged magic attacks to eliminate your foes, or you could opt for an assassin build, wielding a dagger and skills that multiply backstab damage. This freedom to construct your character how you see fit mostly compensates for the lack of variety in the weapon combat.
As for the survival elements, the hunger and thirst mechanics became one of the most annoying aspects after a while, but the crafting and cooking still felt novel many hours in. Outward is definitely challenging, especially in the first 10 hours or so when you have weak weapons and haven’t figured out how all the systems work, but it begins to feel more balanced and fairer as it goes on. I do wish there was an option to adjust the difficulty for those who need it, but luckily a lot of the combat can be avoided entirely if need be.
A Split Screen Game Changer
One of Outward’s most brilliant features is the option to play cooperatively both online and locally on split-screen. Yes, you heard me correctly – the entirety of Outward can be experienced in split-screen with someone next to you, and it really is a game changer. I spent about one-third of my time in co-op, and it is a hell of a good time. Exploring the regions, taking on monsters and arguing over who should get the loot never got old and allowed for entirely new strategies in how nearly every situation could be approached. One caveat to multiplayer, though, is the risk of near game breaking bugs. Many players have reported crashes, items disappearing from inventories, and even entire backpacks vanishing. Losing a few items is a pain but losing your backpack with everything you’ve collected so far can completely ruin a playthrough. Thankfully, the developers have already sent out a patch that is supposed to fix many of these issues, including other bugs that are common in single-player such as getting stuck on world geometry, visual glitches, and map errors. I experienced a lot of these bugs in my playthrough, but nothing that broke the game or made me want to start over from scratch. The devs seem keen on updating the game to eliminate the remaining bugs, but it’s worth knowing you will likely experience some weirdness.
I’m at a crossroads with Outward. On one hand, the loop of exploration, combat, looting, and crafting kept me engaged for the entirety of my time with it, but on the other hand it lacks polish, has a lot of bugs, and some of the systems left me wanting more. Still, considering it was created by a group of approximately 10 people, Outward is an impressive, fresh take on the open-world formula, and the option to play in split-screen or online multiplayer is something I’ve been craving in an RPG for a long time. If Outward had released a decade ago, I have a feeling it would have been an instant cult classic, but in 2019, it’s harder to look past some its more outstanding issues. But even with its long list of flaws, I’d still happily get lost in Outward again.
***A PS4 review copy was provided by the publisher***
- World exploration is satisfying
- Lots of loot and crafting items
- Split screen co-op!
- Lots of character abilities
- Presentation is lackluster
- Story isn’t gripping
- Very buggy at launch
- Hunger and thirst are annoying