Outward (Xbox One Review)
It’s almost a given that if an RPG states that your ‘hero’ comes from humble origins they’re most likely a farmer, or some kind of knave, that rises to fame. As far as fantasy tropes go, this would be the pinnacle. So, I thought I had Outward pegged as an unimaginative RPG when its main selling point is that you’re a nobody in a grandiose world. While that may be true, to an extent, Outward alters the facet of your nebbish stature somewhat providing a breath of fresh air that turns stale thanks to a lack of deviation from standard storytelling.
The foundation of our wayfaring hero’s story is laid when a voyage on the high seas goes wrong. Cut short by a sudden storm, you find yourself a sole survivor washed ashore and your hometown holds you responsible for the accident, demanding that you pay a ‘blood debt’. Thankfully it’s only blood in name, gold and silver will suffice, meaning you can complete a few minor quests and sell whatever belongings you have. After clearing your debt, Outward lets you off the leash to do what you want, including running away from the accursed town that demanded you pay for your own survival after a truly harrowing incident. It might not be clear from the opening thanks to its very linear route, but choice becomes imperative once you peer beyond the gates that confined you.
As emblematic for the genre as the story is, Outward does little to push the boundaries. Once the ‘tutorial’ – so to speak – is complete, you set off to find your way in the world. Branching quest lines and factions will spoil you for choice, but the motivation to go is intangible. Your plight for paying your debt is swiftly resolved and the only reason for you to seek adventure is because the game expects you to. There is no contextual storytelling or vague hints at a doomed world or destinies to be fulfilled, it’s a simple “why not?”. And that ethos forms Outward’s core. Why not to explore that cave and why not hunt that monster? It all comes back to a lack of storytelling and encouraging the player to just have fun within the boundaries of Outward’s mechanics. Everybody needs motivation of some sort and Outward is seriously lacking in all areas. There’s no plot, world building is finite, and general reason for being is absent, leaving players unresponsive to Outward’s charm. You’ll be left seeking greater depths than the combat and surviving to no avail.
If you do decide to stick with Outward for the long haul, you better buckle up because it’s a bumpy ride. Outward is a very ruthless game not simply because it has a high difficulty ceiling but because of its frigid controls and janky combat — if you’ve ever played games like Risen or Two Worlds then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Delayed inputs, sluggish animations, and larger than life hitboxes all come together to create a painstaking experience that is truly unforgiving, especially since death holds a high price. Dying in Outward can have one of two consequences; the first will see you transported to a safe zone with your gear intact and the other sees you awaken naked and beaten in captivity with your inventory scrapped or looted. The latter is particularly soul destroying since it can be a truly game breaking realisation that you have no crutch to lean on. No silver to buy equipment and no means to fight back, leaving you at the mercy of Outward’s randomly generated loot.
Basic recipes, items and everything else in Outward is presented in a random fashion, so each time you start the game you’ll get different goods from the cavities you search. Ultimately resulting in some playthroughs being completely barren of healing items or materials needed to craft. In the end, the only way to go about it is to start over and that’s never an easy ask after putting hours upon hours into a character.
There is no real way to combat the dangers that surround you to prevent such a loss of time and effort. For example, most RPG’s will have you level a character up to more readily combat creatures, but no such system exists in Outward. Instead you pay gold to learn skills that may come in handy depending on your playstyle, with vendors to teach you these skills in low supply it can be hard to get the ball rolling and see any real return on your investment — especially since skills are usually attached to specific weapon types. You won’t be carrying around a lot of weapons for versatility’s sake either. Inventory space is incredibly small. Backpacks can vary in size, but you’ll still be pressed for space since all items weigh you down. It’s important to keep in mind that Outward is also a survivalist RPG so eating, drinking and sleeping are all imperative to your survival, as well as crafting and temperature management, so your backpack will be filled with ways to remedy and offset any of these debilitations.
Sleeping has to be the most egregious part of this though. Taking a nap is the only way to fully restore your dilapidated health and fatigue — out with some rare potions — and as such has its own set of rules. Sleeping out in the open is the easiest method to recover lost vitality but leaves you open to a bandit ambush in the middle of the night. Staying guard, sleeping with one eye open, helps alleviate this somewhat, but doesn’t fully rest you and sees you sleeping longer than you may want. The worst part of all of this is it takes you to a loading screen each and every time your character needs to rest, making it a truly tiresome and wasteful process. Your max stamina depletes every hour of the game and the more you’re injured the less max HP you’ll have. In turn, resting becomes absolutely paramount after nearly every tussle. Thanks to a noticeable absence of healing items, most of my time was spent staring at loading screens sleeping than it is actually adventuring.
The constant pursuit of forty winks can be circumvented slightly when playing with another player; either split screen or online. Having a friend watch your back lessens the frantic nature of fight or flight scenarios, the less damage you take then the less you need to sleep and so on. Dying then becomes less severe as the loss of items can be quickly remedied by your charitable partner; unless they’re in the same predicament. Even though sharing the glory aids in the moment to moment experience it doesn’t mitigate many of Outward’s other issues, just lessens the impact of a few. Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you do play along with a another player if you can.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to enjoy Outward solo, in fact the world is always beautiful regardless of how you explore it. Colours are all very warm and nurturing whilst the palette is so vast that interiors and exteriors span a variety of different aesthetics, be it serene or encroaching, without compromising the overarching direction. Transitioning from a bright overcast vista into a dank and gloomy cave gives a sense of excitement, leaving behind a safe and knowing environments for the unknown trappings of a new one.
Outward promises a more realistic take on the typical fantasy RPG by adding the basics of survival simulators and then some. In theory this sounds incredibly immersing, but the ambition is heavily outweighed by its performance. Combat feels like you’re fighting Outward’s controls more so than its elements and enemies. Survival mechanics aren’t anything new to games, but balancing the character’s needs whilst also creating an engaging gameplay loop that harmonizes with the player is tricky business. Outward stumbles and staggers while trying to juggle all the different mechanics, ultimately dropping all of its promise. Fantasy should remain fantastical and realism should stick to reality, and never the two shall meet – at least for now.