I’m completely hooked on Outward right now, to the point I’ve neglected to join Clementine for the final chapter of The Walking Dead and poor Sekiro’s starting to wonder whether I even care about saving his master. It’s a challenging survival RPG from a passionate team of ten at developer Nine Dots Studio, led by a CEO that clearly cares for both his staff and the integrity of the art they make. Outward is their uncompromised vision of the ideal role-playing adventure, but all the drive in the world and the backing of a big publisher like Deep Silver aren’t quite enough to bring such an ambitious game to market without a few cracks.
How you make the 150 silver you owe, if indeed you choose to at all, is entirely up to you. You could run traditional errands for payment, fish and forage for goods to trade, or delve a dungeon in search of valuable loot. Whatever you opt for, as you venture into the untamed wilds and the rousing main theme kicks in (albeit too loudly, so you’ll want to mess with the audio sliders to fix that) it’s impossible not to feel like the wind is at your back and the world is at your feet.
As the sun shines on lush green pastures and birdsong fills the air, it’s hard not to get carried away, but you always have to remain vigilant in Outward. Much like in real life, the natural world is dangerous and indifferent to your presence. Maps don’t show your current location, so if you aren’t actively charting a journey by taking mental note of landmarks and compass readings, you can very quickly find yourself lost and alone in the dead of night.
As you venture into the untamed wilds and the rousing main theme kicks in, it’s impossible not to feel like the wind is at your back and the world is at your feet.
This is where the survival mechanics come into their own, as your maximum health and stamina deplete as you spend more time awake. You can camp and rest up almost anywhere, mostly dependant on the weather, though the weather's effects can be mitigated by first changing clothes or building a campfire (which can also be a doorway to cooking and alchemy, with the proper equipment). You’ll need to delegate rest hours between sleep, repairing gear and guarding against ambushes, with the longer you take making your character proportionally more hungry and thirsty.
These interacting survival elements aren’t so present as to be constant annoyances, merely needing babysitting now and again, as resources are abundant and the percentages indicating your needs are slow to degrade. That means that when they do rear their head and inflict debuffs at inopportune moments, skin-of-your-teeth emergent tales are told and your adventures are all the more memorable for it.
That being said, bountiful resources pose another problem, as you’re very limited in what you can carry. Pocket space is prime real estate (especially when even currency weighs you down), so you’ll need to carry a backpack of some description if you’re the item hoarding sort, only the bigger the rucksack - and therefore the carrying capacity - the more it’ll impede your movement. This means you’ll probably want to set it down before engaging in combat, then be faced with the daunting reality of being separated from it and the vital contents should you find yourself on the losing end.
It’s yet another tantalising risk vs. reward mechanic in a game full of them. Combat itself isn’t generally required outside of a few quest objectives, so you can sneak or sprint your way past most encounters without too much fear of missing out. That’s down to the fact that Outward doesn’t feature any kind of experience or traditional levelling systems. You’ll still be rewarded with loot for felling a foe, which, provided you can carry it, might help to craft better equipment or fetch some silver that can be put towards training in new skills.
This tweak feels incredibly refreshing, considering how small it is in reality, while further emphasising that coin is king in Outward. It makes it viable to play a sort of pacifist merchant, especially since different enemy classes will fight amongst one another and can reliably be manipulated into doing so, letting you swoop in like a vulture to claim the spoils and finish off the weakened victor. You can also lay traps and lead hostiles into those, rub elemental rags on your weapon to inflict damage over time while you play defence, or take potshots with a bow from higher ground.
If you’re more of a scholar than a rogue, Outward also has a bespoke magic system. You can’t start out as a mage, as gaining mana requires reaching a specific location and trading off health and stamina in proportion to how large of a pool you want to draw from. It’s a big decision as there’s no going back, especially since health and stamina are already limited and both absolutely precious, though, with a little experimentation, being well-versed in the arcane can really pay off.
Spells are pitiful in themselves, but placing and standing inside magic sigils whilst you cast offers massive buffs. Combining different spells and sigils will bring different results, so experimenting to see what works best is the name of the game.
Melee combat is more of a no-frills affair. Stringing light and heavy attacks into combinations with different weapon classes yields unique results, so there’s some experimentation to do in finding what best fits you here as well, but there’s no escaping the fact that combat in Outward feels far more stiff, cumbersome and unimpactful than something like Dark Souls or even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - though it boasts the dodge rolls and careful stamina use of the former, poise and staggering of the later, and the punishing difficulty of both.
I’ve found being more aggressive to be the best course of action. In time I got used to the tempo and came to find the learning curve quite satisfying, especially as I implemented new gear and active abilities into my growing arsenal, but for a long time I dreaded each combat encounter and so avoided enemies like the plague.
In time I got used to the tempo and came to find the learning curve quite satisfying, but for a long time I dreaded each combat encounter and avoided enemies like the plague.
Fortunately, many failed early skirmishes lead to some of the game’s greatest moments. You don’t die in Outward, rather fall unconscious and get thrust into a situation dependant on how and where that happened, which you’re filled in on via loading screen text.
Whether a passing stranger took pity and helped you out, or you awake in a prison with a fairly substantial quest to find one of several ways out, you’ll often find an emergent adventure inside your existing emergent adventure and that can take the sting out of failure. Of course, if your backpack isn’t brought along for the ride, you'll need to cannily retrieve it without its contents to help you along the way.
Having set out to create a wanderlust RPG, I have to commend the team at Nine Dots for a job very well done - they’ve nailed the liberated feeling of setting out on a perilous journey over and over again. The reliance on real orienteering skills and lack of fast travel in any form makes the game’s varied regions - from lush countryside to arid deserts and poisonous swamps - thoroughly memorable through necessity.
It’s reminiscent of cult classic Dragon’s Dogma in many ways, though I adore the auto-run feature which Outward boasts over that game, allowing you to continue making forward progress whilst map reading or managing your inventory. In fact, Outward shares similarities to last generation RPGs like Fable, Kingdoms of Amalur and many more, evoking a warm nostalgia for a breed of game long thought extinct. Less positively, it does unfortunately look and load like a last generation game as well, even whilst playing the enhanced Xbox One X version.
So, I’ve waxed lyrical on why I really do love Outward for long enough, but there are some objective shortfalls - even failures - to make you aware of. The game constantly autosaves to stop players pulling any save scum shenanigans, which is fine in itself and significantly ups the stakes, but when you combine that with a knack for getting irreparably stuck in the environment it’s frankly game breaking. There’s obviously no fast travel to get you out of there, there’s also no suicide or “I’m stuck” option to reset your position, so at that point your game is over.
This happened to me ‘just’ a few hours in, so I was in a position to restart, and, touch wood, whilst being exceptionally careful during descents, there haven’t even been any close calls on my second character. I’m so invested now that I’d definitely throw in the towel if it were to happen again, which would be incredibly unfortunate.
If you’re thinking that I could’ve just waited to starve, clever clogs, then here’s another issue for you - I did, for several hours, but when the survival meters fully deplete they just break and you lose the associated debuffs. (That’s a nifty trick in itself for anyone averse to the survival mechanics, though.)
Next up: Your map can break, failing to update when you transition to a new area and instead still displaying the previous one. This is easily fixed by restarting the game, but you really want to avoid doing that, at least outside of safe areas. There’s an incredibly damaging glitch, which only ever stuck me outside of main settlements, where quitting and returning to the game will delete a large portion of the hard-earned inventory from your backpack. It’s infuriating, though the workaround is to always get back to a city before you stop playing, or to very slowly move everything from your rucksack into your non-glitched pockets, which will make you massively over encumbered while sparing the loot.
Obviously you can’t do that if a crash happens to strike, which have been reported, but I haven’t suffered once across many hours of play. I did, however, have the Xbox OS inform me that Outward had become corrupt and needed to be reinstalled when trying to launch it at one point.
I’ve waxed lyrical on why I really do love Outward for long enough, but there are some objective shortfalls - even failures - to make you aware of.
Despite all that, Outward is so gratifying and immersive that I haven’t been put off. It realises its potential, then does so much to push you away, but I’m smitten to an extent that it really doesn’t matter. I’ll keep coming back for more because this is one of those rare, encompassing games that I can’t stop thinking about playing when I’m not playing.
For a title that runs so counter to AAA culture, ironically, the main takeaway is one that applies to many modern AAA games - Outward will eventually be worth anyone’s time. With updates to fix the outlined issues, Nine Dots’ miraculous effort can be held aloft, but, until then, it’s reserved for only the most hardcore of RPG fans. I’m certain they’ll find space in their hearts for Outward too, especially if they have a like-minded friend, since it’s playable in both local(!) and online co-op.