Caution: Minor Spoilers
Outward can be best described as an open world survival game with punishing tactical combat. At the start, you will be tempted to play this game just like any other similar title. However, once you make that mistake you’ll be greeted with immediate and unrelenting death. As a lover of all things Souls (Praise the sun!) I can tell you immediately that this game has the capacity to infuriate you well beyond the standard of the death/respawn cycle. The catch however, is that it won’t take long for your inner masochist to want to pick up the controller and try again.
Developed by Nine Dots Studio and published by Deep Silver, Outward is available for PC, PS4, and XB1. I logged 32 hours into the game for review purposes on the PS4, 20 of which were played in co-op.
In terms of survival mechanics, Outward strikes what I feel is a pretty fair balance. I typically steer away from survival games due to the repeated annoyance of the “drinking/eating/dying from room temperatures every 3 minutes” cycle. Outward is the first game where I didn’t feel pestered by nonstop biological requirements. This doesn’t mean you won’t be assailed by survival elements at certain points though. Disease, weather, wounds, and inventory management will all be at the forefront of the game in the right situation. For instance, fighting and getting bitten by wild animals can result in disease, requiring a cautious approach. To combat these dangers, you will have food, drinks, clothing, skills, and magic; all of which are designed to help you survive.
Combat in outward is fairly straightforward and utilizes the light attack/heavy finisher mechanic for core combat. Each weapon uses unique attacks and varies in terms of damage, distance, and tactical application. One key highlight which I eventually grew to love, is that you are no god amongst mortals in Outward. You can eventually kill some enemies in two hits, but rest assured there are plenty of opponents who will also combo you after one opening which will lead to your defeat. I found myself immediately trying to learn the patterned swings of specific weapons and claws so I knew which way to avoid and exactly when to place my counter attack. The game features a fair amount of weapons including swords, maces, axes, guns, bows, shields and chakrams. There are many two handed variants as well for a heavier risk/reward play-style.
In addition to the martial combat, there are also various skills, magic, alchemy, and traps that can be used to overcome opponents as well. You are limited to eight shortcut commands between all of your abilities, but they can be changed at any time. You will have also to find your own personal balance of guarding and dodging as there are drawbacks to both. Guarding too much will eventually see your defense broken. Dodging too much places a severe wear on your stamina and will eventually lower your maximum stamina until your next rest. The most difficult experience in Outward will be learning how to utilize the various tools in your arsenal as well as overcoming the same from your enemies.
This leads into the death cycle, which I feel objectively is one of the most hardcore experience I’ve had for a game of this type. Death will result in one of several scenarios, all of which will give you an old school narrative text explaining what occurred. These results can vary depending on where you were knocked out, who or what killed you, and who rescued you. Sometimes, a benevolent stranger will aid you with no repercussions, but other times you’ll wake up at an inn, only to find money and belongings missing. Die while in or near a bandit camp and you’ll find yourself stripped and taken prisoner.
There is no leveling system in Outward. This may be a turn-off for some individuals but I found it to be personally enjoyable. To aid in character growth, you can learn a myriad of skills from trainers located in various points of the game. There are many passive skills, of which you can learn freely and without limit. Some of these raise your stats such as life or mana, while others increase your survival through resistances. Additionally, many of these will teach you active skills, attacks, and spells.
Each trainer has a teaching threshold however, of which you can only pass by using a “breakthrough” point. This allows you to pass a barrier to learn advanced skills. The catch is though, that you may only spend three of these per character. You have absolute freedom to combine any of the 8 classes however you see fit as long as you stay within the three breakthrough limit. Once past the breakthrough, you can purchase additional specialized skills, many of which are mutually exclusive. Within these 8 skill trees and many other skills you have the ability to create unique builds as many skills are also designed to work differently depending on specific catalytic components.
The world itself is fairly expansive. It is not so grandiose in size as an Elder Scrolls game, but exploring the maps and various dungeons will take time, especially during adverse conditions. Many enemies can also respawn over longer periods which can impede you again if too much time passes. There are also many areas within caves and fortresses that you may not initially have access to, but may choose to backtrack to later with the right key or item. Over the course of your gameplay you will also choose to join one of several major factions. Rewards and available quests will of course vary depending on your choices.
If I had to drive one nail home, it would be that Outward is a game that favors the prepared. Though you can be exceptionally skilled at combat, you can still be overwhelmed easily after one or two mistakes. What Outward really demands is forethought and preparation. Setting escape routes, traps, catalysts, buffs, and correct weaponry will take you very far. If you try to run through just relying on basic combat skills, I can guarantee you won’t have a good time.
One of the most enjoyable features in Outward was the multiplayer aspect. With the level of vulnerability your character has, adding a second player to joust and tank enemies feels really good after playing solo. Loot is shared between players which adds an extra layer of tactile distribution to the mix for survivability purposes. Quest progress is individually saved, however, quests can be initiated and completed by visiting characters. Outward ensures that the host character receives the rewards to reduce griefing though it does have some oversights. I was able to spam start quests and throw items into my wife’s inventory without her permission which led to some hilarious moments.
Playing with friends is enjoyable and the game feels designed to work out that way. There is no way to drop in and out with randoms, and the multiplayer is limited to two players maximum online or split screen/local. I was also able to complete things like armor crafting requests as a visitor so a fair amount of effort went into bridging individual and co-op progress. I did find however, that the game became less of a challenge despite warnings to the contrary. Even some advanced enemies were waylaid by the simple addition of distraction. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenging parts, but multiplayer does trivialize some of the content to a degree.
The protagonist starts off as villager attached to a sea voyage gone wrong. After a brief survival stint, he/she finds themselves back at home but unwelcome by the various residents. Having already possessed a negative stigma from their family’s previous offenses, the protagonist finds themselves at great odds to resume life as normal within the village and has their home seized. The ongoing blood-price of their family contributes to the character’s choice to set out for adventuring work to survive.
The plot line and available quests will alter depending on your choice of faction, though many aspects will still be available to explore regardless of your choice. To discover what all factions have to offer however, you will need to complete the game multiple times. Legacy chests are available to aid with this, allowing you to pass a limited number of items from one character to the next. Wealthy and pack mule friends can also help accelerate you a little quicker should you decide to make the journey more than once.
The controls in Outward can be fine most times, but they have their moments of clunkiness. Traversing slopes in particular feels like PS1/2 era attempts which is disappointing given the wide range of environments in the game. Combat timing is crucial and will take some getting used to and in most cases there are little to no issues. There were sporadic moments where you would deal a finishing blow to an enemy, only to have it’s attack animation finish right before it dies, resulting in an unnecessary wound. Regardless of platform, quick-slots are still limited to eight and I found no issues with maneuvering the UI after the first patch of the game.
The camera controls are fairly free allowing you to take any views necessary to accomplish your task. There are also many visual aspects to the game such as land navigation that require the use of the static map, the compass, and finding landmarks with the camera to ascertain your position and where you’re heading. You can add markers to the map to aid in finding an obscure location and can drop items to act as a breadcrumb trail.
The graphical quality in Outward is average, but is equally capable of some beautifully lush effects and horrible textures. Render distance can also be a problem at times for far away objects though it never really affects the gameplay. There were some really impressive and imaginative areas such as Conflux Mountain which were enjoyable to adventure in. Clearly, there was a lot of imagination used in some of the natural landscapes and flora/fauna which is refreshing.
Unfortunately, most of the bugs within outward were contained within the graphical department. There were times when co-op player corpses would float to different areas despite appearing in specific places on each of our games. My wife and I would argue where we were but would rewatch our Twitch stream later and laugh. Enemy corpses would also fluctuate wildly at times like they were being beamed up by a primitive transporter from Star Trek. There was also several instances where we would drop items for each other only to have them fall through the world.
The vocal quality is substandard and is only exacerbated by the horrible volume leveling. It was bad enough at times where I had to turn my volume way down just to lower the hazy feedback my speakers would have to endure. Each NPC seemed to have their own piercing decibel which made me pause more than once to adjust the levels myself. Sound effect quality, volume, balance, whether it fits with the gameplay or not requires professional leveling to avoid conflicting with the overall game enjoyment and I felt that this was one of Outwards lowest qualities.
Combat effects and other skills were less than average and belonged on previous generations. Some of them felt like they were from generic soundboards or libraries which is a shame given the creativity of the environment. There were some enjoyable effects here and there but overall the better sounds came from the natural ambient areas of the game.
The music itself managed to weave itself into every area with feeling and was very enjoyable to listen to. Each area had unique travel and battle music which really amplified the surrounding visuals. Composed by Jean-Francois Racine, Outward features roughly 25 tracks of orchestral laced tracks featuring several live instruments. Each instrument was well played and added lively and dynamic parts to each track. My personal favorite was the Hallowed Marsh which features a somber intro which really conveyed being surrounded by a poisonous environment. The tempo eventually picks up which really fit perfectly with following a marked trail to the area’s sanctuary.
There were a few instances of music cutting off abruptly or being dead in certain areas. Variable fade outs or ogg vorbis dynamic formats would have been very helpful in these cases.
At the end of the day, I personally recommend Outward to anyone looking for a new action RPG, survival game, or combination of the two. Despite several technical flaws, Outward comes through as a shiny hardcore beacon for those pining for a game returning to the true route of adventuring. A game like Outward often causes division in fans due to the lack of appeal and ease for casual fans who will call out their lack of convenience as an exclusion. But the world has room for many types and sub genres of games. What Outward represents is the days before fast travel, auto quest tracking, way-points, and the mind-numbing minutiae that is often disguised as the standard in modern action RPGs.
Outward does have flaws, but I truly hope that this game not only succeeds but manages to inspire games of a similar palette so that we can see what a truly refined version looks like. The community needs games of a harder nature too. And while you’ll find the most easily accessible games tend to be on the more popular end these days, there are still plenty of us out there who enjoy the immersion that games like Outward supply.