One of the joys and gratitudes I have with working as a video games reviewer (I’m not so bold as to class myself as a journalist) is getting to play games that you normally wouldn’t pick up. We’re all guilty of this in all walks of life — we pick and buy what we know and are, perhaps, good at. Working within Jump Dash Roll has given me some ample opportunities to dive into worlds that are well outside my comfort zone, and my experiences as a gamer are all the richer for it. But it has also humbled me for I am constantly reminded that I have both a skill limit and a patience limit. Outward has tested the latter to such an extent that I’m sure I’ve developed a permanent twitch in my left eye.
Want to know why this review has taken so long to come out? Because every time I boot it up to play, when I inevitably get murdered by something a few times it’s usually followed by some variety of the sentence “*BLEEP this *BLEEPING game*”, and I have absolutely no desire to play it again. Despite its superb concept, it is just so devoid of charm and joy that I am now of the firm belief that this is a game made for masochists and masochists only.
Right, outburst done, let’s rewind a little bit and throw out some context. Outward is a roguelike and Souls-like RPG smashed together. You are a simple peasant (at first), with simple skills and a hodgepodge of improvised armour and weapons. You need food to eat, water to drink, clothes for warmth and safe places to rest your weary bones. In many respects, Outward treats adventuring as a very real experience — the world is deadly and one does not simply become a badass with a few axe swings, but from considered lessons and trial and error. Thankfully, Outward remembers it is still a game and you do respawn in a different area should (read: when) you fall afoul of blade or claw. You even get some small exposition on how you arrived at said respawn point, usually from the kindness of a stranger coming across your broken body, so it still feels quite realistic in that regard.
If that sounds like a superb concept for a game to you, you’re in good company! I truly believe that Outward as an idea is excellent. By sidestepping the tropes of any other RPG by eschewing traditional leveling up, pretending you’ve always been a master swordsman or eagle-eyed archer or born with innate arcane powers — you are giving players a delicious sense of freedom and accomplishment as they grind through over sixty hours of content. But, in a perverse twist, the game gets easier as you play through and get the gear, money and items needed to survive, making the first half just utter misery. Learning curve? Try a mountain.
To offset the hardship you’ll smash your head against, Outward encourages (dare I say, insists) you to play it through cooperatively. Playing with a friend is, no doubt, a far more palatable experience — it turns out there really is safety in numbers, whether its taking turns guarding your overnight camp or supporting one another in combat. Certainly, it feels like Outward is supposed to be a bit more of an open world multiplayer game given just how appallingly difficult it is to adventure through the world all by your lonesome. In fact in writing this I’m beginning to believe that maybe it was what developer Nine Dots wanted it to be during its inception but practical technological limitations kept it at bay.
Speaking of technical limitations, Outward just doesn’t look good as a whole. It has a strong odour of last-gen, and because it’s not especially stylised it just feels clunky. There are some great landscapes outside the standard fare one would expect (forests, caves, and so on) but the character models and animations are just bad. This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem if Outward wasn’t also flirting with being a Souls-like game, as well as a survival game. Vague hitboxes, non-specific area of effect attacks and a seemingly random damage mechanic makes combat a miserable experience. Overwhelming force or absolute stealth is the order of the day in order to guarantee (well, at least keep it in your favour) victory in the lands of Aurai — but even that is fairly joyless. It’s just no fun.
Conversely, though hard, I did very much appreciate the level of detail that has gone into just surviving out in the wild. Foraging for berries, hunting and cooking, crafting clothes and blankets and dealing with maladies is a surprisingly rewarding experience. It’s harsh, but consistently felt manageable and never particularly unfair — if you poison yourself, the remedies can be bought or found naturally through foraging within the local area you’re exploring.
Which is just as well because Nine Dots has, in a stroke of cruel genius, elected not to put any form of tutorial within the game. You have to actively find items and learn and craft accordingly, if you want to fight better (and by that I mean combos - not upgrade the ability to find an actual hitbox on a character model) you have to source out a mentor and so on and so on. I had to find this out by myself by talking to any and all townsfolk who would suffer my questions. Not that that helps when nothing is written down anywhere in the game to remind you what the information you’ve just gleaned is. Honestly, I busted out my Dungeons & Dragons campaign notepad to keep track of everything — it just reached that level of madness.
And this is where I’m sorely torn. Reading back I can see and admit with open hands that my problem with Outward, in large part, is my level of patience (or lack thereof) with it. There are some glaring technical issues that mar the whole experience and make it an ‘okay’ game in general — but I just find the whole experience incredibly charmless. That’s incredibly frustrating because on paper, Outward wants to be everything that I adore about Dungeons & Dragons. A freedom to craft a story and character from the very beginning — a real rags-to-riches adventure. Scouring through the internet has shown me a good few players thriving in the world of Aurai, but it’s a level of dedication, tenacity and patience that most players won’t endure. If Outward was more technically proficient and less buggy, then perhaps it would offset the frustration of dying, but as it is, most people will end up uninstalling it out of anger.
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