Outward by Nine Dots Studio
As I started my play-through of Outward by Nine Dots Studio, I had no idea what I was in for. I had played a number of these types of games in the past, ranging from Two Worlds to Gothic (two series that are flawed but enjoyable in many ways). I couldn’t help but think of these less popular open world RPGs when playing Outward.
But I soon found out that there is a lot more going on in this RPG than I come to expect from the genre.
Quest for Story
The game starts off fairly normally, allowing me to create a basic character and then placing me in an unfortunate predicament of unpaid debt. I was sent on my merry way without much guidance besides the very helpful main menu tutorial.
For the most part, Outward just dropped me into its world and forced me to learn on my own, so I talked to fellow villagers and took on some quests – you know, the standard familiar stuff you do in these games.
Quests in Outward are nothing to write home about; most characters in this game are pretty one-dimensional and don’t have a lot of dialogue to further develop them. Most involve going someone where to retrieve or kill something. There are factions you can join and even multiple narrative paths for your main quest, but it’s all what you come to expect for the genre, basically a mixed bag. It’s clear that quests and dialogue are not the game’s focus.
Survival Is All in the Details
What sets Outward apart is an emphasis on survival: I quickly found out that I had to hunt for food, sleep, manage my body’s temperature, light my lantern when entering a dark cave, and scavenge for crafting material found across the game’s vast map.
For example, to eat in this game I could kill an animal to collect meat, craft a campfire using wood I acquired from a nearby tree, then use a cooking pot over the campfire to cook the meat. And, if I wanted, I could manually combine items to experiment to create recipes or buy them from vendors found within big cities. The same went for crafting potions, weapons and armor.
Normally, a modern survival game will tend to rely on unreliable randomized variables that can either help or hinder your chances of survival. Since this game doesn’t hinge on randomization when it comes to finding crafting materials, the survival and crafting systems here then become reliable.
These mechanics are a big part of Outward, and they feel naturally woven into the game, giving the game’s world an absorbing experience similar to 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They didn’t feel like a nuisance or an annoying aspect that I had to constantly manage.
The Steel Remains
Unlike the aforementioned Zelda game, weapon durability isn’t a big issue in Outward’s combat, which relies a lot on the modern target lock one-on-one stamina management systems found in games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It requires patience and waiting for the right moment to attack. It requires you to attack intelligently; button-mashing will always lead to a quick death.
It’s also important to note that enemies can take you down in a handful of well-placed hits. Overall attacks, feel a little stiff and not as polished as I would have liked compared to modern action games, but it’s still functionally sound and responsive.
Outward’s combat is challenging, but it feels like it’s designed to make you take full advantage of everything in the game that can give you an advantage.
Placing traps, acquiring passive or active skills from trainers, modifying your weapon to do elemental damage, brewing potions that increase your stats…all help you succeed in combat. It reminded me of when I had to take potions before combat encounters in The Witcher 2 to get the upper hand. I felt like I had to put thought into many of the game’s combat encounters.
Combat not feeling like an afterthought means that exploring the world is equally thrilling and challenging. It’s one of the few open world RPG games where I legitimately feel a sense of dread when giddily entering a newly discovered cave.
The game also auto-saves your progress, which means that you can’t quick save or auto-save. This forces you to play smarter and immerse yourself in the game’s mechanics. This can be frustrating if you don’t have the patience for this, so be warned.
A large part of Outward’s focus is on exploring its large world. It was always fun to see what I would discover next. I often felt a sense of curious wonder trekking an unfamiliar, mysterious landscape.
The game forces you to acquaint yourself with its world by neither showing your location on the map nor allowing you to fast travel. This means that you’re going to spend a lot of your time getting from point A to B, which also means that Outward requires a lot of time investment and patience.
It forces you to learn maps and recognize landmarks while relying on your compass to find your way. This can make exploring the world a little challenging. Not being able to see myself on the map was a bummer, because I felt like half the time I didn’t know where the heck I was.
The Daily Grind
As you invest more time in this game, you can acquire better gear and items. I spent my first five hours just exploring areas around the first city and getting acquainted with the various gameplay systems.
It’s a game with slow progression where I felt like I was getting stronger little by little, and I have to admit that this type of progression and steep learning curve is not for everyone; it requires a lot of patience and grinding to get better stuff. Looting dead corpses, raiding caves, acquiring crafting materials, killing wildlife…all these systems are important if you want to get better.
Another curious feature in this game is the addition of online or split-screen multiplayer. Unfortunately, the co-op isn’t as fleshed-out as it could have been. The host player usually gets to do more, forcing the other player to act more as a bodyguard than anything else. It’s an ambitious feature but could have used more polish.
Adding to the game’s atmosphere is its fantastic use of music and sound, from the eerily quiet sounds of dark caves to the grand music that plays when out in the open landscape.
The sound design elevates many of the game’s locales as it punctuates thriving cities and deescalates abandoned ones. Various differentiating music tracks set mood really well. Some tracks feel like classic Medieval fantasy, while the lack of music combined with the sound of crickets at night creates a chilling scene.
Across the board, Outward’s sound design is superb.
Into the Great Wide Open
Visually the game looks great overall for how ambitious it is. Open world visuals are hard to nail, but Outward does them very well. There isn’t a lot of environmental geometry pop-in, and the frame-rate was very consistent running on my middle-of-the-road PC specs.
With plenty of varied locations to explore, the game is so massive that’s it’s impressive how much detail and care was put into the visuals, from the environmental storytelling found within caves to vast fields with grass swaying in the breeze.
Carrying a torch around a pitch black cave casts appropriate shadows, and thick nighttime fog shows such meticulous attention to detail. It doesn’t quite hit the visual mark for a modern open world game, but I still found it all to be really impressive.
Outward is a fantastic game that I’d recommend to players who have a lot of patience and don’t mind a challenge. The game can be unforgiving at times because it doesn’t hold your hand, it forces you to learn through trial and error.
With all the survival systems at play, Outward is a refreshing change to what we normally see within the genre.
The combat could be more polished and the quests could have been more engaging, but these minor issues don’t take away from the fact that I enjoyed every minute of this game. If you’re interested in an exploration-heavy open world RPG with survival elements that’s a little rough around the edges, you should definitely check this game out.
Outward is available via Steam.
Watch the official trailer for Outward below: