*This is not The Outer Worlds coming out later this year. *
The way reviews are scored is as a Pass, Wait, Play, Must-Play. Pass means skip it, it’s not worth your money or time. Wait means it may not be in good shape right now but it might be in the future. Play means it is worth it and you should play it. Must play is pretty self-explanatory but means drop everything to play it as soon as possible.
Outer Wilds is an open-world(s) space exploration/discovery/puzzle game. It is best experienced in a vacuum (hah, like space you see?). Like The Witness before it, going in blind (without reading the jerk descriptions in the EGS or Xbox Store) is the absolute BEST way to play the game. In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I will be leaving it fairly vague regarding plot details and certain mechanics.
First off if you wouldn’t be blamed if you haven’t heard of Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital Games, published by Annapurna Interactive because of course it is. It’s a crowdfunded (via fig) indie title which got its the biggest exposure during Xbox’s E3 2018 briefing, albeit during their annual indie montage which gives little to no information about what’s being shown. Also, it should be noted it was promised to be given out to anyone who watched said conference live on Mixer. Outer Wilds was originally scheduled to come out Fall 2018 but was delayed for around 6 months to May 29th earlier this year. During that time, it became an Epic game store exclusive on PC while also releasing into Xbox Game Pass with the promise of coming to other platforms later.
Phew okay, that’s all the background you pretty much need to know so far.
Outer Wilds is set amongst a tiny six-planet (and one comet) solar system. You play as a race of four-eyed aliens called the “Hearthians” after their home planet of Timber Hearth, the third planet from the Sun. You are the next pilot of the Hearthian’s space-faring organization, called the Outer Wilds Ventures. The aesthetic could more or less be described as lumberjack/camping chic. Since Timber Hearth is also home to an abundance of pine trees wood features prominently in every design. The houses are all log cabins, the launchpad is made of wood, your ship is even made partially of wood, so even while hurtling through the void of space you’ll always have a cozy cabin-like vibe to return to. It makes the ship feel warm and inviting instead of cold ambivalence, almost making the ship a character in its own right. Any time you are out on the other planets or in the deep dark of space, getting back to your ship feels like coming home.
The aforementioned tiny solar system is reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy because of how small the planets and other planetoid bodies are. You can run across most from one pole to the other in a few minutes and break the atmosphere with almost no effort depending on where you are.
Now about the other planets. Each one is very distinct and has a lot to discover. The binary orbit of the Hourglass Twins is a sight to behold. The Ash Twin is a sandy desert and The Ember Twin has a Mars-like surface with tunnels permeating throughout. The Attlerock is the moon of Timber Hearth and likely your first stop after leaving your home. It feels like moon…or what I assume our moon is like, minus you know…a few things. Giant’s Deep is the largest planet and is made primarily of water and has raging storms under its cloudy exterior. Dark Bramble is a planet in the throes of being ripped apart by giant thorn laden vines. The Interloper is a small comet made almost entirely of ice. Also, there’s a moon that changes location if you aren’t looking at it because it’s a Quantum moon.
Quantum physics plays a surprising role in the game. Talking too much about it would significantly spoil certain aspects of the plot. Other things in the system also exhibit quantum behavior. I’ll leave it at that.
The game takes place entirely in first-person, between navigating on foot and via your spacecraft. On foot has standard FPS walking controls with a sort of charged jump in place of a traditional hop from other games of the same perspective. But it is dependent on the gravity of the planet you’re on and whether or not you find yourself alone in the void of space. In the latter case, the controls are more similar to that of the ship’s controls. You have forward, rear, retro, upper and lower thrusters. Maintaining control of the ship is integral to not damaging its components (or outright destroying it). The physics of space flight was a little difficult to get used to (at least for me), but are replicated pretty true to life. Velocity in space is constant so figuring out when to accelerate/decelerate is paramount. The ship has an autopilot, but it does not account for anything in the way of your destination. This is the best way of flying straight into the Sun (or another planet) short of doing it yourself. The ship/spacesuit UI will show you how far off you are from your destination, with velocity, distance display, and guidance arrows showing you how to make the most desirable approach. Note that there are no upgrades to find for either you or your ship but there are a few tools you’ll use. Early on you are introduced to the translator tool, the signal scope, and the scout launcher. The scout launcher will launch a small probe you can use to take photographs of the environment ahead, check if there are hazards, or provide a source of light in a small area. Alternatively, you can take pictures without launching the probe. The signal scope can detect audio signals and will guide you across the system to their sources. You can use the signal scope and the scout launcher both on foot and while piloting your ship.
Overall, the controls were a little clunky to get used to but after slamming into the sun or a planet or a moon a few times I learned. By the end of the game, I was whipping the ship (and myself sometimes) around and landing with the utmost grace of a flamingo.
The mystery of the game lies amongst a long-gone ancient space-faring race called the Nomai. The translator tool is used to translate their writings and is the primary way of discovering the plot. Your ship will keep a log of your findings and actions displayed by a combination of a map and rumors web. The web will display knowledge gained amongst the locations you’ve visited, which in turn will guide you to the next discovery and the next discovery and the next discovery. One of which is meeting the other members of Outer Wilds Ventures. Each will tell you something to help you along your way.
Okay, I know this is vague, but getting any further into plot details would honestly spoil the best part of this game: the sense of discovery. I’m going to leave it here and just hope that we can discuss it further once you’ve played it.
The game culminates into one of the best and amazing endings I’ve ever seen. Ever. Of all time. It’s really hard to put into words what I felt at its conclusion. A combination of melancholy that the journey was over but content that it occurred. I won’t be forgetting it for a long time.
The music of Outer Wilds is brilliant. Andrew Prahlow’s score emulates each setting appropriately but subtly. It’s not always constant so in space sometimes you are left with nothing but the sound of your thrusters and your thoughts. I sat in childlike wonder at awe-inspiring moments with the haunting and beautiful score so many times. You won’t forget it, and may even find yourself whistling along to the main theme like me. I’m not as good as Esker, but I’m getting there.
The sound design is equally great. Every sound is believable and just feels right. Sounds get muffled in space and more so underwater. Space debris clunks and tinks off the ship’s hull. Getting too close to a planet’s or the Sun’s gravity is a terrifying experience with the roar of breaking the atmosphere and struggling to get away before crashing or getting fried to a crisp.
Negatives: There is little to no replay value outside of completing your log once you’ve completed the main game or trying to speed-run. The graphics are quaint and achingly indie but they work. The controls are a little tough to get used to but not too much so.
Positives: Everything? Nah I can’t put that. The sound design is amazing as is the score. The story is thought-provoking and heartbreaking. The mechanics are sound and the physics are fun.
Outer Wilds is a must-play.
I cannot emphasize the emotions I felt while playing this beautiful game. It is simply unforgettable, and one of the best games of 2019 if not the decade.
Outer Wilds is out now on the Epic Game Store for PC and Xbox. This game was played to full completion on an Xbox One X via Xbox Game Pass. Images provided by Gamespress.com and courtesy of Epic by way of Google.