For many of us, video games offer escapism – a power fantasy. That’s especially true of RPGs: strange worlds, magical powers, extraordinary creatures. In Outward, though, you play as an ordinary human. You are not the chosen one. In fact, there’s nothing special about you at all.
If you think this might strip the fun out of a survival RPG, then you’d be right. In separating their game from the competition, developer Nine Dots Studio has you exploring a lifeless world filled with laborious mechanics where the odds are never in your favour.
That you start the game in debt is symbolic of the mundane life of your personality-free hero. There are no cutscenes in Outward; the story is minimal and the quest design basic. Find some cash or lose your home – and it’s downhill from there.
Everything revolves around money. Cities have shops selling the usual RPG wares, but you can also pay for training – for a high price. There are no experience points, so unless you stumble on some decent equipment out in the wild, buying it is the only way to improve your stats.
Combat takes its cue from Dark Souls. There’s the usual stamina bar, blocks, dodges, and attacks, but without any of the finesse or satisfaction. It’s brutally hard, despite some laughable AI, and more often than not you’ll just run away, which only leaves you weaker down the line.
In another cue taken from the Souls games, Outward plays with death. Instead of dying, you’ll black out and awaken somewhere totally different; it may be back in town with a handy recovery potion, but you’re often left stranded with reduced health and stamina, and your hard-earned money stolen. Then you’ll fail immediately again. It’s incredibly frustrating.
So too are the survival aspects. Eating, sleeping, and drinking are required to maintain your health. Thirsty? You’ll need to drink to stop the negative effect of slowed stamina recovery, so first, collect some water in your waterskin. Then boil it to prevent disease.
But to boil water you’ll need to make a campfire, requiring wood. Then you’ll need flint to light it. Then you’ll need a cooking pot, which requires money to buy, at which point you’ll struggle on, parched.
There’s at least a strong sense of adventure, as your regular Joe slings on his backpack and trundles off into the wilderness, to the sounds of a rousing orchestral score. Yet the world is drab and empty, with functional design and flat textures.
Rarely are you rewarded with useful items or intriguing discoveries. The game wants you to explore, but with difficulties at every turn, you’re actively discouraged from it.
There’s a lack of polish, too. Loading times are long, animations are wooden, text is tiny, and the game does little to explain its systems, leaving you lost and confused.
These systems aren’t inherently bad – in fact, you can see what the developer was trying to achieve – but the end experience is tedious to the extreme. Breath of the Wild this is not.
Combat does have some interesting wrinkles. Once you gain access to magic, you can mark runes on the ground to boost your attacks, and if you drop your backpack, you’ll have increased mobility. Die, though, and you risk losing your entire inventory.
An intriguing concept let down by poor execution. Overall, it’s a decidedly deflating experience.
Format: PS4 (tested) / XBO / PC
Developer: Nine Dots Studio
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release: Out now