Outer Wilds Review

November 21, 2019
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Outer Wilds is one of the most astoundingly original adventure games I have ever played. You play as a cosmonaut who lives on a rustic planet in a bespoke Kokiri Forest-like village, and you have to set out and explore the mysteries of your solar system. Unfortunately, the sun at the centre of the galaxy goes supernova every twenty-two minutes. After each supernova, you wake up in the same place you started, and have to start your journey all over again. Hopefully, you’ll have gained a little bit of knowledge in the previous playthrough that you can use. 

The main focus of Outer Wilds is learning and exploration. It is a first-person adventure, and you get around your galaxy in a small ship. There is a robust spaceship physics system, and if you aren’t careful with your velocity and angles when landing you’ll easily destroy your ship.  You can also get sucked into a black hole or into the sun. You can also hoof it on foot in your spacesuit, which has a limited amount of oxygen and fuel that can be refilled in your ship or at a friendly cosmonaut’s campfire. 

There are five main planets, a comet, and several other stations and landing spots in the game. Each planet has its own properties and orbit around the sun, and you’ll need to manipulate these to solve most of the game’s puzzles and get to see its lore and secrets. The game is given some structure when you find out who caused the loop in the first place, and set off to discover how to stop it from happening again. You cannot do anything in the game to slow down or alter time, and there is nothing you can do to change the game from one life to the next. Everything - and I mean everything - resets to square one. It’s like a mix of Super Mario Galaxy, The Witness, Groundhog Day, and Her Story. 

Be sure to check the weather forecast on Giant’s Deep. 

The game is infatuated with science fiction and full of charming little short stories and writing and I found myself drawn into its imaginative world. The Nomai argue with one another in the glyphs you discover and casually speak of their tortured journey across the galaxy, and some of the writing is quite clever and funny, and serves to give personality and character to an otherwise lonely game. One of the tools the players can use to detect “quantum fluctuations” - that is, objects in the game that disappear when not being observed - makes the same awe-inspiring choral sound as the music from the monolith scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is also a nod to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Members of your astronaut team are marooned on each of the five planets, and they all play the same catchy folksy tune that you can track to find their location. Each is playing a different instrument, and when you use your scanner to align all of their signals, they all play together as a band. It’s a beautiful touch. The psychedelic black hole audio and visual effects astounded me the first time I barely escaped one’s gravitational pull. The planets are small, but visually diverse and distinguishable. 

The loop of the game (har har) is at first thrilling, and encouraged me to try to do everything I could as fast as I could right out of the gate. However, it can be a frustrating mechanic if you have already figured out the solution to a puzzle and begin a puzzle too late into a loop. It’s not fun having to start a life completely over again and again when you already know exactly what you have to do. To that point, the map and objective guides on your ship in the game are fairly vague and unhelpful. I would have liked some sort of timer on hand that measured each loop or some sort of function in the game to rest until a certain time in the loop. Most of what you’ll be doing in the game is seeking out hints from the Nomai and then finding different portals and tools to help you find more information about the universe. There are also low-grav jumping puzzles and segments where you have to figure out how to observe and change the behaviour of the aforementioned quantum objects.

Remember not to look directly into the sun!

There were some puzzles later in the game that required me to be very precise with when I showed up on a planet, and I would find myself just landing and waiting for the opportune moment in the loop, which would effectively prevent me from actually playing the game since I would instead be waiting for a certain amount of time to elapse. Some puzzles are fairly unforgiving with this. The load times - at least on a base PS4 - aren’t exactly quick, either. One puzzle which I absolutely hated required me to slowly navigate a maze-like forest of carnivorous giant anglerfish. Even after I knew what I had to do to avoid the devilish fish I still found myself dying constantly. The most annoying part about the puzzle I was having to navigate the same path leading up to the harder fish part each time, which took around 10 minutes every life. I’ve watched playthroughs online of this section and still cannot figure out what I did wrong. There were also quite a few bugs where I would get stuck on my ship leaving out of the bottom, especially if I landed too close to an obstruction. I would also get stuck inside planets or fall through them.

A little bit of intraplanetary travel thanks to a bug. 

If I found myself in a life where I knew I had effectively run out of oxygen, fuel, or time, I would have to keep using up my oxygen until I suffocated. I wish there was an instant reset button. As I played the game, I discovered some shortcuts that alleviated some of the ennui of restarting a life, but it wasn’t until later in the game. Majora’s Mask figured this out decades ago, Outer Wilds! I understand that the premise of the game is that everything returns to baseline, but it would feel more rewarding if there were specific things that the player could do in the world that would leave lasting effects or small material changes on the galaxy. 

Having said all that, I found the game fresh and enthralling. Few game worlds are designed as seductively as the clockwork galaxy in Outer Wilds, and I always felt compelled to fly to the next cosmic mystery.

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Outer Wilds is a meditative, slow, but ultimately rewarding sci-fi extravaganza that everyone looking for an adventure should play — but be prepared for some frustration and repetition.