Outward hit my radar around August last year, with screenshots and sweet words about deep, involving RPG mechanics, and a dangerous, fantastical world to explore. While this essentially remains true, it’s fair to say, at least for me, that what initially sounded so alluring with this third person RPG, in practice is something else entirely. That’s not to say that the game is bad (it isn’t), but there’s certainly one or two ‘catches’ to the design its hyped up, and while I’m sure many will (and do) love Outward, for some of us like myself the dream game is more of a nightmare.
Outward begins with your character being washed ashore after a shipwreck. There’s minimal explanation of the world or your quest, however just up the beach stands a character who gives brief context to your accident and offers transport to your hometown. Once you reach your hometown, you awake in your lovely home to an angry mob outside the front door. As part of the town’s culture, those who have done incredible wrongs have to pay a blood price. Essentially this is a debt that is passed down the generations of a family until it is fully payed off. Unfortunately for us, we belong to a family that has a blood price, and while not actually having done wrong ourselves, are needed to pay this otherwise you lose your house.
Before you start wondering, this isn’t the main quest, but the opening with a time limit of 5 in-game days. And yes, you do really lose your house if you don’t pay off the debt. Thankfully, you can also do a favour (which is much, much easier) and this will also release you of your blood price. Either way, once you’ve got this out of the way, the game opens up a bit more and allows you to learn about the world and, for the most part, start to enjoy it.
Outward is not a game that holds your hand in any way, and this even stretches to the story. You can talk to the people of your home town, and I would greatly recommend doing so if you want to know anything about the area and have context on the world, but even then the game doesn’t have a very linear or structured story. Whereas in RPGs like Skyrim you start off with a grand quest that you can follow on to completion, Outward just expects you to get on with it. There is a main quest, so to speak, but there’s very little prodding put in place to make you follow it. Some may find this refreshing, and others obnoxious, as while it gives you an element of freedom, it can also be difficult to really know what to do.
Outward is a challenging game in many ways, and because of this playing the tutorial is a must. You will likely be lost without it, and actually the developers have created an excellent tutorial where you can learn the mechanics and have the essential rules of the world properly explained to you. Outward is a game that cares a lot about the little details and micromanaging specific parts of your character in reaction to its world. This includes keeping on top of hunger and thirst levels, wearing appropriate clothing for the changing seasons, and of course optimising yourself for battle against quite a varied cast of enemies.
The combat itself is basic in essence, with animations being simplistic and no real combos or special attacks beyond light and heavy (and combining light and heavy), but there are some additional features that ensure this doesn’t become tedious. Aside from the fact that each encounter is a genuine life or death experience (at least earlier on in the game), there’s also opportunity to use traps and magic. Setting a trap with wire and spikes seems basic, but particularly against tougher enemies this is a genuinely useful strategy to avoid having to spend too much time up close with them. There are a fair few varieties of traps you can create, including those made with trip wires and pressure plates, and these can have multiple effects depending on what you apply to them – for example bleeding, incendiary, frost, poison, etc.
Magic can be used offensively or to buff yourself, though the process for this is a bit more complex. You don’t automatically start off with powers and magic, but have to discover this in another location in the game. You’re given a choice when you get there to accept more magic power, however this will be at a permanent cost of health and stamina – an important decision to consider. I must say I was a bit annoyed by this, not being able to enjoy a core mechanic without trading off in other areas, but even at a small level – if you don’t want to commit to being a magician and losing loads of health and stamina, having some magic has its uses. As for the powers themselves, you can cast damage dealing spells such as the basic spark (which shoots fire), summon magical weapons and even apply spells to rudimentary items such as your torch or lantern (with a spell called flamethrower, you can make these usually harmless items into deadly weapons).
As already mentioned, Outward is a game that cares about the details, and this most emphatically applies to the combat as well. Enemies are tough, and there’s no conventional levelling system that would see you gain power passively as you get experience. As a result of this, the onus really is on you to make sure you are acquiring better gear, making the best use of it and fighting sensibly. As a brief example of the last point, when you enter fights you can actually drop your rucksack to make you lighter. Not only does this let you move slightly faster, but it stops your bag from impeding on your dodge/roll.
Armour and weapons can be bought, crafted or found throughout the world. There’s an impressive variety of weapons and armours that you can get – some including rather flashy looking sets – and if you want to survive the game for very long, you’ll start gathering recipes to learn how to craft items and armour, and pay attention to their stats and attributes. There’s also alchemy to dabble in and many recipes for cooking, which can do anything from simply filling your stomach, to curing indigestion. I’m not going to go into all the details of crafting, potions, or weapon and armour types – you’d be better off looking at a wiki – but trust me when I say there’s a good variety.
Regarding the levelling, you can apply skill points that give you passives and practical skills. These are learned from a variety of trainers and can be specific to loadouts. For example, you can learn skills that improve your shield use, or skills for your sword. Again, this is an area where Outward delves deep, and while overwhelming at first, it provides great opportunity to create unique characters based around their skills and loadouts. The weapons, for example, you can focus on axes, swords, spears, bows and so on.
Inwardly, as we’ve established, Outward can seem quite complex, however outwardly (no puns intended for that awful excuse of a sentence) the game revels in its simplicity (or supposed simplicity – a point I’ll get onto in a bit). The game is at its heart an exploration focussed RPG. And while to me this seems like a phrase used to excuse a lack of quest writing, to those less cynical, it’s a more pure experience, allowing the player to travel out into the world and discover its various dungeons, enemies and characters. Initially this is overwhelming, however there’s no detectable randomisation to the core game, so in practice you eventually learn its areas – including what loot you can find and what enemies will be there.
The game reminds me in this way of the Gothic series – at least the earlier ones – and perhaps that comparison alone will allow you to decide on whether this game is going to be for you. But while this really doesn’t appeal to me, I can certainly appreciate a certain nostalgic value, and if you’re the sort of person that doesn’t mind sinking a deal of time into properly exploring and engaging in trial and error, then Outward could probably offer you quite a bit of fun. For example, there are many forts and bandit camps throughout the world, all begging to be explored. There’s dungeons, bosses, minor quests, and relating to the main questline there’s factions you can side with. There are a few biomes that you must trudge to the edge of the map to travel to, each with unique land and enemies – sort of like going from Skyrim to Morrowind, though on a much smaller scale – and underneath it all, there are decisions to make and events brewing that will change the game for you and its inhabitants.
But while this all sounds impressive and grand, there is a level of confrontation between some of the game’s mechanics and its ideals that, to be brutally honest, completely ruined the game for me. The developers have tried a bit too hard when leaning into its hard-core setting. I’m not talking about enemies – in fact, I think that while they are certainly difficult, they aren’t more so than anything on offer from the Souls series of games – I’m not even talking about weather effects or the potential for losing items if you die (a little like Mount and Blade, when you die you don’t restart from a previous save, but carry on, either waking up beaten in a random place, or if you’re unlucky can be imprisoned for a time or even enslaved), what I’m talking about are times quests, unexpected events, and a severe lack of proper explanation and forewarning as you progress through the game.
I don’t think that the ideas the developers implemented here are inherently bad things, but I do think that they diminish the ideal they had with this game as being an exploration focused RPG. Because, while it sounds great to be able to just go on your way and discover a fantastical world, in practice there are specific ways to play the game, and if you don’t adhere to this you will find yourself rushed at almost every step. Take the very first quest you are presented with: pay off your debt or lose your house. Now, while this can be very easily solved by doing a favour, there’s no direction to this, so unless you already know where to look, or make it lucky in your exploration, it is conceivable that you could lose your house and start the game at a major disadvantage.
Without spoiling later events too much, there are even timed quests that involve the risk of losing huge amounts if you aren’t properly prepared when you encounter them. Couple this with the already challenging environments and this can make initial playthroughs very stressful indeed. For all the effort they may have put in to planning and implementing these events, they simply aren’t conducive to a player that wants to take their time and enjoy exploring the world. From this, however, I’ve learned a couple of things about Outward that I didn’t quite expect – perhaps from my own nativity – and those are that, firstly, the game is clearly intended to be played multiple times, and secondly, regardless of what the developers may have intended, this is not a great single player experience, and is in fact catered far more to those who make use of its cooperative play.
On the one hand, for those wanting to get more bang for their buck, multiple playthroughs is a boon – you must commit to individual factions when the time comes in the game, so conceivably there is a playthrough for all four of them – and for a non MMO RPG, cooperative play can be rare in this broad genre. The idea that you can double up on the game’s tough enemies, work together to carry loot and prepare for fights is genuinely quite appealing, but for the single player gamer you will find the experience much more difficult and inevitably more tedious in the long run. Having to make multiple runs because you can’t carry enough gets tedious, there’s no fast travel, no indicator on the map to tell you where you are (so if you get lost you only have a compass to rely on), and if you get into a few tricky encounters and are unlucky, you can easily find yourself in a failure loop – dying over and over, losing gear, and failing quests.
In short, I found this game to be infuriating and certainly not something I, personally, would put more time into as a single player gamer. However, despite this it is hard to deny the game’s appeal and ambition. I don’t think it’s a bad game, and there is definitely an audience for it that will enjoy its impressive depth and intriguing world. For the first ten or so hours of the game, I did find it quite compelling, and there was excitement to discovering a dungeon and delving deeper into it to find what secrets it hides. But as things picked up, it became increasingly difficult to remain invested when you become more guarded and aware of how the game really works.
What I’d recommend for to those who want to give this a try, and particularly if the price drops (it is a little steep at the moment for my liking) I wouldn’t advice against that, is try playing this with a friend first, and definitely read a wiki, or else you might have a very bad time indeed. Otherwise though, Outward is a unique RPG with a decent amount of depth. Perhaps if there are future projects from the developer in the same style they would be better balanced and more refined, as the way it stands Outward has potential, but is marred by some frustrating and borderline pretentious design.
+ An interesting little world to explore
+ Option for coop play will appeal to many
- Increased challenge for the single player gamer
- Limited accessibility - no fast travel, limited map, etc.