Outward is hard. Not just in the sense that enemies will knock large chunks of your health off easily – though that is the case here too – but in every single aspect of its approach to game design. From inventory management to combat, through navigating your way through the world and mission design and beyond, everything here is out to test you. I found my first few hours both confusing and, quite frankly, rubbish as I struggled to get to grips with its rules. But, dig in and there’s something about it that has had me coming back daily and starting to dig its odd, often baffling flow.
It starts off with your created character washing up on a beach after a ship wreck. You find what’s left of the crew and after a few brief interactions, tuck up in a bed roll to get some rest. Upon waking, you find you’ve been carried back to your home, but waiting outside is a crowd baying for your blood. Whatever mission you were on failed, and now not only do you have grieving families after you, but you also owe a load of money to the town for your blood debt – passed down through generations, any wrong doings of your ancestors are your burdens to bear. And just like that, you’re off. With just 5 in game days to raise the money, you need to gather any and all supplies to sell, or complete a mission for one of a few important characters in order to clear your debt.
How you proceed is up to you. And, unlike many games to claim that, it really is. Outward won’t take anything easy on you. From the moment you are granted control, every decision you make will have consequences on your journey. And I don’t mean just dialogue choices that will flavor the narrative one way or another – it will literally affect your ability to travel in the world, to survive fights and learn new abilities. Hell, just to survive at all. Survival mechanics are not a new thing to games, of course, but Outward has some of the most extreme in any game I’ve ever played. Hunger and thirst are the more common variety, but you must also manage tiredness, temperature and even keep your character from contracting illnesses.
Keeping a supply of decent food and water is a must, but things degrade over time, as well as potentially make you ill if not prepared properly. You’ll need a cooking pot with you too, as well as a decent tent, some weapons, clothes… the list goes on. Gathering supplies is a hard process too – oftentimes I barely managed to scrape together enough food to satisfy my hunger before needing to head out hunting again. The meters for each stat seem to go down a little too fast for my liking, and while I can see how it fits into what was trying to be achieved here, it can get quite grating when you just want to progress. Finding enough silver to buy items helps a little, but silver is even harder to gather in large amounts. Items sell for a pittance; while to buy things seems somewhat extortionate. Many of my opening hours were literally just trying to survive – needless to say, I didn’t pay my blood debt in time.
Off to a bad start then. My home repossessed as payment, I set off on the next quest line. Quests are handed out by various characters throughout the world, as is to be expected. But beware – you’ll need to pay close attention to what each giver is saying. Generally, once they’ve said their piece, it’s up to you to figure out. The actual quest descriptions are laughably vague, with not much to go on in terms of what is expected. Or even where to go. One early example had me looking for a shield in a nearby cave. I only half read the dialogue text – upon looking at my quest log I realized I had no idea what she said.
Speaking to her again yielded no repeated dialogue and no help what so ever. Vaguely remembering the instructions “to the left of the village” it took me far too long to find said cave. Longer still to find the item, and even longer to find my way out and back to the right person in the village. There are no waypoints or markers at all to help. The map you can bring up simply shows you locations of a few key places – but not where you are in it. It’s up to you to navigate based on your sight lines. Getting used to the large open world sections is tough, but also quite rewarding – it’s all too easy to follow a little diamond around, even if it does prevent you from going in circles.
Interiors fare worse unfortunately. Wandering in circles around a samey looking cave system for over an hour is hardly the most fun experience I’ve ever had. But be careful. It’s not just quest outcomes that are on the line when moving through the world. Various foes, from packs of hyenas to bandits and other – more fantastical creatures – inhabit these lands, most of which will dispatch you in seconds. It’s here another possibly unpopular, but somewhat admirable decision has been made. With just the one save slot, should you fall in combat you’ll see one of a few different outcomes. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rescued by a fellow traveler, placed in a safe location with some supplies and can be on your merry way.
However, should one of the various bandit groups knock you down… well, I wasn’t prepared to lose all my hard earned gear and be put to work in a prison! And things aren’t going to go easy for you. You’ll need to work hard to earn the favor of the guards in order to move about the place. Or you can try to fight them – not advisable, as you’re likely to end up in a worse of state. Or, perhaps there’s a secret exit you can find. No amount of reloading a save will help you here either. The game is constantly saving, so even if you quit just before you die, you’ll only end up back in the middle of a losing fight when you come back in.
The best plan is to avoid conflict if possible, but sometimes it’s inevitable. This wouldn’t be so bad, but the combat itself is not only hard, but quite muddied in its presentation. It’s never really clear whether you’re doing any damage, and your own health will drop seemingly out of the blue at times – many fights were lost when I went from full to no health seemingly at random. There’s very little in the way of readable feedback, attacks simply passing through models and animations are quite stiff. The visual presentation in general is reminiscent of an early 360 title, with some colorful, but generally bland landscapes and copious pop in, but with a combat system this hard, decent animation feedback would’ve gone a long way here.
Outward is a role playing game through and through. You must literally inhabit this character and constantly judge what is best for your survival. You don’t start out as some chosen savior or have latent abilities – you’re simply a person in this world. Magic is hidden away deep within a leyline, located inside a mountain that you must fight your way in to. But you can just as easily never bother getting it (it’s really hard!), instead focusing on crafting better gear and items to become a more traditional warrior. No path is easy, mind, but I do like just how free form everything is.
There are stat screens galore to manage health, thirst, hunger, status effects and the like, but outside of sleep and clean water for tiredness and thirst respectively, items are quite vague about what they will actually do. Trying to regain lost health is an art in itself – whereas other games will simply heal you upon eating or bandaging yourself up, here basic meals give you a paltry 0.3 healing per second. Finding or cooking better meals or elixirs will improve this, but these are expensive and/or hard to come by. You’ll need to prepare fully for adventure. As well as food and water, you’ll need to consider the climate, distance and a whole myriad of other details before setting out.
Your trusty backpack will allow you to carry supplies, but space runs out fast. Everything has a weight value – the further you go over the limit, the slower you run until you eventually come to a standstill. There’s a fine balancing act in what you choose to take, which is difficult to maintain once out on the road, so, it’s generally best to prepare in advance and top up as and when you need to. The backpack will itself also hinder you. In combat your defensive roll will be slowed, though you can drop it quickly with the tap of a button should you need to. Forget to pick it up again – or fall in combat – and you’ll need to return to its location to gather your gear. Which, of course, won’t be easy. At least it is actually highlighted to you on the compass – one slight concession to the modern day!
So, Outward is hard. If you’re used to more modern open worlds, with all the checkpoints you can eat and NPCs falling over themselves to help you, you’re gonna have a harsh reality check the first time you pass out from hunger, miles from home. Everything here is designed to test you, to break you, and to make you earn it. It won’t be for everyone, and you’ll need to devote multiple hours at a time in order to really get the most out of the game. But, there’s a certain kind of charm and satisfaction to knowing that you made it. Surviving a trip across the world, winning a 3 on 1 fight, or even just setting out with enough supplies are tasks that any other game would fall over itself to help you complete. Having just one save slot can be a little over-punishing at times, but it really forces you to think and prepare. Outward, if anything, wants you to know the true struggles of becoming a hero…
Outward’s harsh difficulty, its hands off structure, and its constant stat management wont be for everyone. This is one hell of a demanding RPG, and as such, it can feel less like an adventure and more like a full-time job. Still, the game deserves a lot of praise for its ambition, its depth, and for its choice-driven structure, but in the face of its poor design choices, its awkward combat, and its lack of visual polish, it’s hard to wholly recommend.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.