Review – Outward
A common thing found in RPGs is using your character’s starting hometown to tie you emotionally to the world. From Candlekeep to Pallet Town, they’re the baseline for your adventures, the idyllic home you’re fighting to protect and return to at your journey’s end. Admittedly, some don’t last long and instead provide the fuel for your character’s epic quest of vengeance, but that emotional imprint is always there. As a sign of the kind of game it is, Outward takes a rather different approach to this popular trope.
After a brief prologue, the game begins with you waking up in your home, a lighthouse on the coast of a great sea. You are one of the few survivors of a disastrous shipwreck, but if you think some sympathy is coming, you’re in for a rude awakening. The very moment you leave your house an angry mob swarms. Some blame you for the shipwreck, others blame you for the death of “more honorable men”, and all demand you pay what you owe.
You see, your bloodline is cursed with what is called a “Blood Price”. Some ancestor did something to offend the clan and as punishment your entire bloodline has to pay a monthly fee until it is decided that the crime has been repaid. Sadly for you, your family’s entire fortune was on the ship and is currently at the bottom of the ocean. This doesn’t deter the mob however, as they simply demand your home instead. Right before you’re left homeless, the village elder intervenes. She declares a period of mourning and gives you five days to come up with the money or you will lose your home.
Things to begin to normalize here; a breath of fresh air at this point. You go through all the usual RPG preparation steps. Visit the blacksmith for some new weapons and gear, the alchemist for potions and ingredients, and the trainers to learn new skills. You can also chat with the townsfolk and learn more about the world, possibly picking up a few quests along the way. Then with your confidence restored that you are indeed the great RPG hero you knew yourself to be, you boldly head out into the wild only to be brutalized and ultimately imprisoned by the very first enemy you meet.
This game is unforgivably hard, no way around it. Not in a Dark Souls sense with difficulty focused around simply trying until you eventually succeed, but through the simple premise that stupid mistakes get you killed. The world is a dangerous place not to be taken lightly at any point. Enemies do not play games and feature of the best AI I’ve seen in a long while. On top of that, they hit just as hard as you do (sometimes harder), travel in packs for strength in numbers, and will use realistic tactics to take you down. From flanking to using tanks to protect squishy archers, they are a whole lot smarter than you would expect. The game demands that you be clever if you want to survive.
It’s not just the enemies you have to worry about either: you can’t neglect yourself. You have to manage your thirst and hunger or suffer debuffs while keeping track of the time, which can be a factor for current quests. That five day time limit to save your home is merely a taste of the stakes you’ll soon face. Outward was advertised as an adventuring sim, and that is exactly what it is. You really start to empathize with all of the crap your character is put through and begin to turn it into a desire to succeed, if only to spite all of those who stood in your way.
Combat and progression are two of the three pillars of any RPG and both are solid here, if done better elsewhere. Combat is essentially Dark Souls, if not as smooth. It’s easily the weakest part of the game, and even though the clunky feeling does go away as you get the hang of things, any mechanic that needs time to get used to is simply not a well designed mechanic. Still, it’s not bad by any means and you never feel held back by it. The skills and progression system do well to balance it out.
Progression in this game is suitably unique. Forgoing completely any level based system, skills are instead learned directly from trainers for money. There’s classes of skills for individual weapon types with some general skills tossed in for flavor. You have an unprecedented freedom to choose what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, and can pull from multiple groups with no penalty.
That’s not all, as in addition to your martial training there’s magic, a suitably complicated discipline to master. It’s very much worth the effort however, as the divide between an apprentice who just activated their mana and an archmage whose truly mastered the use of their craft is more than just bigger numbers, but rather represents actual learning. The game requires that you actually understand the mechanics and how they work, creating one of the best magic systems I’ve seen yet in a game.
The survival features are worth a special note as well. When I first saw hunger and thirst meters, I conjured up images of constantly depleting bars that require your undivided attention at all times. Fortunately this couldn’t be further from the case. Not only is the world generous with basic food items and clean water, but the bars deplete at an easily manageable rate. As long as you take the most basic preparations, you’re more than set. They’re there to add that splash of realism, but not so real that they distract from the true game.
Outward is a game that’s hard to describe because the playing experience is so much of the game. Reading about it, or looking it over, you see all the places where it shouldn’t work. Feature bloat, a high learning curve that never really stops curving, graphics that fail to impress by a wide margin, clunky looking mechanics, and a lack of anything defining to set it apart. Playing the game on the other hand, allows you to see firsthand how mechanics and features comes together effortlessly, how it allows the player to grow beyond number checks, and how everything that seemed so worn out is made new again.
While the landscape and effects are unimpressive at best, the character models are just plain bad. Interesting world and creature design helps, but this is simply not a good looking game.
Outward is a collection of a myriad of systems that seem clunky and ill-fitting at first, but come together cohesively. Combat is varied and progression meaningful.
The music is simply phenomenal. There’s both a large variety of tracks and perfect dynamic implementation to bring a dour world to life.
This is a game that truly tests you. Not just through combat difficulty, but through those things that only the best RPGS attempt. No matter how many times the game knocks you down, you always want to get back up.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Outward is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and Steam.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy of Outward was provided by the publisher.