From measured curiosity to utmost respect and admiration. Such was the process that I went through while playing Outward, and I suppose this is what should happen with every survival RPG worthy of the label. Nine Dots Studio has crafted an amazing and brutal open world where only the strongest survive. The strongest being the ones who strive for the best gear and abilities.
Outward is the perfect game to celebrate the little things, such as a better weapon, a proper backpack and… gasps… some clothes that prevent you from freezing to death. Small victories indeed. This is a game where a snowstorm can be almost as dangerous as a mythical fire creature.
Places to Loot, People to Kill
I don’t tend to judge a game by its cover, but Outward’s character creation is very limited and highlights its somewhat crude character models. A couple of hours into the game, I had completely forgotten about this, as I marveled at the beautiful world design and everything that made it feel real: day and night cycle with transitions that are smooth as butter, dynamic weather, and a color palette that isn’t afraid to go full garish when it must.
However, it is a brutal, pitiless world. Your first proper task is to earn some coins to save your lighthouse, and if you fail, homeless you are. Not that it matters that much; if you always keep a bedroll or a tent on you, you can lie down and rest for a while in most places. Preferably do it inside safe walls or you may be at risk of being assaulted.
Knowing that you’re not the chosen one or someone with special powers makes for a nice change. You’re just you, who happens to be down on his luck as well – when it rains, it pours. Get out of the Cierzo gates without listening to fellow advice and you’ll be eaten alive by bandits and all kinds of fantastical creatures. Take the time to learn some skills from trainers, do a favor here and there, and eventually you will become stronger. Not strong, per se, but at least stronger that your former pitiful self.
Outward demands patience and rewards perseverance. Finding some better loot sitting deep in a dark cave is worthy of celebration and getting your first backpack or tent is a moment to treasure forever. Being able to face an enemy without fear of being crushed is as rare as it is exciting but be prepared to run – a lot! You’ll run not just to explore the huge areas of Aurai, but also flee from several types of enemies who can easily one-shot you, Dark Souls-style.
The world of Aurai has its own rules, so it’s not uncommon to find a couple of bandits being attacked by a random beast. You watch closely as one swings his sword and the other throws some ice magic from afar, completely ignoring the fact that you, the one that everything should revolve around, is right there, excitedly staring. This is the kind of emergent gameplay that every RPG should feature, and while it’s not without its bugs, with creatures getting worked up about a small fence or rock and losing their temper, it’s always exciting to see.
Legs Don’t Fail Me Now
No matter your overall strength and gear, there is always someone stronger than you around the corner, so don’t be ashamed to make a run for it – a living coward always gets away with more loot than a dead hero. Outrunning your enemies isn’t an easy task, mostly due to stamina concerns, but it’s highly recommended. You can also avoid confrontation by stealthily moving in the shadows, trying to go by unnoticed as the walking horror has turned its back for a moment. A few potions may even help you with this strategy.
For all its brutality and unforgiving nature, Outward does have a brilliant detail to bring some sense to your frequent dying. Instead of punishing you in disheartening ways, the game works your passing into the story, as if it was always a part of the whole picture. There are many ways that you can be “saved” from an untimely demise, such as awakening as a prisoner to bandits or cave creatures, being rescued by someone in gleaming white armor and safely returned to a city, or managing to drag yourself from a dangerous cave in the very last minute. Accomplished artifices to mask traditional in-game death.
You’ll be struggling with your inventory more frequently than you do with real enemies. There’s the equipment you are currently using, such as clothes, helmet, torches and weapons, and then you have your pockets for a few more objects within a strict weight limit. This is the bare minimum, as a primitive satchel should be with you early on, to carry more loot. However, it’s only when you have enough silver coins to purchase a proper backpack that you feel complete – not to mention acquiring the best weapon from a blacksmith.
Always keep a few waterskins with you, as well as diverse types of rations. You may be fighting fantastical creatures, giants, bandits and whatever comes your way, but environmental hazards are a case for major concern. A snowstorm can swiftly freeze you, while thirst and hunger must be constantly taken care of. Infectious diseases are another hot topic and pausing your adventure to get some sleep is crucial.
There is one issue with Outward that I somewhat understand, considering its challenging survival nature, but I can also see some players complaining about it. The lack of a mini-map can be disconcerting, with the compass and full-screen map not being good enough substitutes. It’s far from easy to pinpoint your position in the huge areas just by looking at the map, leading to some frustratingly hopeless wandering and loss of valuable time and consumables. But hey, maybe it’s a feature, intentionally designed to add to the survival feel of the package? I’m inclined to think so.
Survival Never Sounded This Good
Combat in Outward is serviceable, but it is far from being the best part. Sure, there are tons of options and weapons to try, including magic spells, but it’s not of ‘The Witcher’ quality, for example. In all fairness, at times it feels more Dark Souls than anything else. There’s something odd about it that I can’t quite point my finger at, but it has to do with hit detection, or lack thereof. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of fun picking off your enemies from afar with a bow and arrow, swiftly dropping the backpack to the ground as to not let it slow down your dodge, and unsheathing your sword to finish the remaining opponent in an exciting duel.
I couldn’t possibly write anything about Outward without mentioning the musical score. What a positively awe-inspiring work, worthy of massive praise! Every survival RPG gets that little bit better when you are alone out there, with nothing but these gorgeous and diverse music tracks to help shape your story. Sublime!
One final mention goes to the innovative two-player split-screen option. You can go on an adventure with a friend, both locally or online, splitting the screen in two. This is unusual enough to deserve a round of applause, and if you have a friend willing to go the distance with you, Outward will surely be an even more memorable experience.
While it may not be the survival experience of the decade, Outward is shaping up to be an incredible experience that is bound to draw comparisons to Skyrim or similar titles. It’s intimidating and harsh, as much as it is beautiful and rewarding. Fans of the genre will feel at home in this brave new world.
Outward is coming on March 26 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.Related: Open World, Preview, RPG, Survival