Outer Wilds review: this feels different

Outer Wilds is one of those games that was perpetually in my backlog. I knew I’d love it. I had that sort of gut feeling about it – the kind of feeling that goes beyond the tricky pull of every game’s coverage cycle. And yet, I stayed in the comfort zone of Destiny 2 and various other multiplayer games. But you just can’t mainline Destiny 2 forever, especially as a solo player.

At this point you can play Outer Wilds on every system except the Nintendo Switch (a port is in development). I’ve never had an experience quite like playing Mobius Digital’s ambitious blend of different genres, but I also know that some people would find themselves bored to death or frustrated by the game.

I don’t want to dive too deep into the inner workings of Outer Wilds. It’s a game where the less you know the better. The asking price is more than fair, and has great sales regardless of your platform. And while it just left Game Pass for the second time, I’d be willing to bet that it will return.

A quick warning

My opinion of Outer Wilds is glowing to say the least, but I admit that there are a few things that can be an instant turn off for certain players. The biggest one is that there is next to no hand holding in this game. Mobius Digital completely trusts the player in this sense. There were times when I completely hit a wall in terms of making progress. There’s always an alternative path to take, but it can still be incredibly frustrating.

This frustration is due to the fact that every time you wake up you’re on a timer. You’re allotted a certain amount of time until you die again due to an event in the game, and then wake up once more to do it all again. In essence, you’ll be chipping away at the mystery of the game within each cycle of the time loop presented.

There’s also a lot of reading. Reading is how you digest the worlds around you and piece together the narrative. Things can feel a little vague (until they don’t).

I think Outer Wilds is a game where if it clicks it really clicks. But I can also see how others could be bored or frustrated by the experience.

Comfy and a little out there

Tone is huge in our attachment to media. And Outer Wilds is ripe with an eclectic mix of warmth, doom, awe, and chaos. At its heart is mystery, and this extends to the way the game looks and sounds.

The trailer isn’t too spoilery so if you’re on the fence it’s a good depiction of the game’s feel

Outer Wilds takes place in a solar system that you are free to explore. I found the art style of the different planets, inhabitants, and spaces between to evoke a certain playfulness. There also seemed to be an unsettling or ethereal nature to everything just beneath the surface.

Between the visuals and the way the soundtrack complemented distinct settings, Outer Wild’s presentation made me feel both out of place and eager to push forward. Above all, things stylistically felt sincere in a way that I haven’t found much in games these days.

Complete freedom of direction

Red Dead Redemption 2 is as good as it gets when it comes to creating an organic feeling open world. But while it’s the cream of the crop, it still stays true to standard open world design. Breath of the Wild took the open world formula and shook things up. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, but it’s also shackled by the tropes of modern open worlds.

Outer Wilds forks off into its own path. You are free to play as you wish in Mobius Digital’s thoughtfully designed solar system. You’re told very little, sequence is up to you, and making sense of things feels like it’s you doing the detective’s work.

I never once felt like there was a brute force of what I should or shouldn’t be doing. Repetition comes by way of the time looped nature of the game, but it also never felt like I was encountering something more than I should have. While there is a central mystery core to the heart of Outer Wilds, I always felt able to explore in a way I intuited rather than an invisible guiding hand had in store for me.

There is some jank and framerate issues in Outer Wilds (playing on an Xbox Series X), but when accounting for the physics, art, sound, and overall design of the game, it’s incredible how simultaneously loose and refined everything felt. Admittedly, tapping into the ultra-indie market on PC is something I still need to do, but Outer Wilds is impressively open regardless.

It’s got feeling

Outer Wilds is very much a narrative game. It’s arguably it’s biggest strength, and it’s a miracle how well it plays out considering just how dynamic its gameplay systems are. As games like God of War: Ragnarok and The Last of Us: Part II try to emulate the cinematic experience, Outer Wilds, again, goes a separate path.

You’re an explorer in a solar system trying to make sense of a race of people before you, and all that surrounded them. I was deeply invested in solving the mysteries of all the planets, and their relationship with past visitors. For much of the game I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and I loved that. But more and more I found myself yearning for the heart of everything. Over time there’s the sense that you’re on to something incredible, and your preconceived notions are constantly challenged.

But as I said, Outer Wilds goes a separate path. This solar system is not littered with NPC’s. Much of the narrative comes by way of logs (reading). Your experience and the way you make sense of story will probably differ from someone else’s due to the sequential freedom. There are clear “story beats”, but they’re more like moments of discovery rather than a traditional cut scene.

More, please

I know Outer Wilds most likely borrows from predecessors I’ve never played. I can see its thin layer of jank and performance issues. But for me it offered an experience out of time.

It’s artistic vision and genuine direction are sorely missing from so many games these days. Above all, Outer Wilds made me feel that latent ball of emotions we all crave in games. So long as you have a tolerance for vague direction and reading, I’d recommend giving it a shot if you’re someone who thrives on interconnected mystery, narrative, and exploration.

Outer Wilds was truly beautiful in the way it challenged and rebuilt my notions of what was right up until the end, and I can’t wait to see what Mobius Digital pops out of the ether next.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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