Outer Wilds Review: For The Explorers In All Of Us

The first true must-play of the year.
10
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • Open World
  • Puzzle
2019-05-30
Outer Wilds
Space exploration with a good, captivating story? Yes, please. Annapurna Interactive

(Review is as spoiler-free as possible, however, some of the photos and descriptions may reveal points later on in the story, depending on the routes you take).

There was a moment, during my playthrough of Outer Wilds where I found myself gliding towards a ball of light. My ship was destroyed, I was running low on oxygen, only a handful of  thrusts left in my fuel tank, and I had suffered heavy damage myself. I resigned myself to my fate, embracing this foggy abyss beset by monsters from all sides. As I drifted towards the light, a cavern came into focus. From out of the fog came some treetops. A few meters more, and I saw it – a campfire, in the mouth of the skeleton of a gigantic anglerfish, inside of a planetary wormhole deep in the middle of space.

It was this moment where I knew I was playing one of the best titles of the year.

And it’s very well deserved, too. Outer Wilds is a title roughly seven years in the making, starting out as a master thesis, undergoing various iterations until it finally ended up on Fig, where a successful backing from investors propelled it to players such as myself. It flew under many radars; I once mistook it for The Outer Worlds by Obsidian, and a Googling mistake lead me to one of its trailers. It hooked me with the early footage of the spaceship entering Giant’s Deep, and by the time the camping music kicked in, I knew this was something to look forward to.

What I didn’t expect, however, was how this motif of camping on various planets strewn across a compact, yet highly-detailed solar system is nothing but a smokescreen for what Outer Wilds truly is. At times, the game feels like an upbeat exploration title, filled with subtle humor and a calm atmosphere. Sometimes, it’s this melancholic puzzle mystery title, where each revelation shows another layer of tragedy to an extinct alien species. Surprisingly, it even works as a very good horror title at times, with this complete great unknown stretching out before you, and the silence deafening until you feel that existential dread. Also, don’t go to the Dark Bramble if you value your sanity.

It’s this moment-to-moment change in atmosphere that kept me thoroughly engaged with Outer Wilds’ many facets. Couple everything with a very intriguing Groundhog Day-style time loop mechanic and you’re looking at possibly one of the most creative titles you’ll ever get to play, an adventure thoroughly entertaining that you start to retroactively compare everything against it. Outer Wilds skirts different moods flawlessly to deliver a genre-defying adventure game to end all other adventure games, and it did with such finesse that I worry about ever getting to enjoy another title like this again.

Gameplay

Outer Wilds Gameplay
In Outer Wilds, you play as a rookie astronaut for an alien species in a solar system. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

In Outer Wilds, you play as an astronaut for a small, alien village, but you’re not tasked with anything in particular. The premise is somewhat similar to No Man’s Sky, but with a little more structure. In Outer Wilds, the sun in your solar system goes supernova, killing all forms of life on the planets within it.

However, due to an accident, you don’t just die out in the supernova; just like Bill Murray in the cult classic Groundhog Day, or even Tom Cruise in the much more recent Edge of Tomorrow, you find yourself at the start of a closed time loop every time you die. This translates to 20 minutes of real in-game time, and resets if you live to see the supernova cleanse the whole solar system again, or if you find yourself dying through various accidents.

Outer Wilds Supernova
Even your impending doom via a supernova is beautiful. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Given your very paradoxical situation, your given mission is to figure out what caused you to get stuck in the time loop, and, if possible, figure out a way to stop the supernova. Unlike other games, dying here is a mechanic that has incredible uses. Your character remembers everything you managed to discover within any given loop, and as such dying is more of a soft ‘reset’; the loops themselves play out as open-ended missions where you unravel threads about the cosmic nature of your situation. It’s a great way to introduce some depth into an open-world exploration game; players who want to just relax and see what the system has to offer may do so at their leisure, as after the first ‘death’ you have access to the launch codes needed for your ship. Once free exploration gets boring, however, you can start trying to piece together the mystery of the supernova and why you find yourself in the time loop, while opening up new and exciting areas to explore.

Gameplay-wise, it’s this loop that really makes Outer Wilds shine. Exploration of the game’s solar system is rewarding, but can get a bit monotonous for the players who rush through it. The 20-minute in-game reset timer, however, helps allow you to savor each moment. I was a bit skeptical of the length of time at first, thinking it’s too short to be able to enjoy everything. I was very glad to see that it doesn’t, only enhancing my playthrough by marking significant strides that I made with my discoveries.

Outer Wilds SS
The solar system of Outer Wilds. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

The solar system that you explore consists of just six main planets, four small space stations, three moons and a comet. Compared to other open-world experiences, this may seem pretty small, especially considering how the planets are tiny orbs, akin to something like Super Mario Galaxy. Outer Wilds more than makes up for it with the level of detail for each planet. Exploration isn’t reserved for the surface level, as each planet has its own trove of secrets just waiting to be discovered. There are caves, temples, shipwrecks, towers, deserts, ancient cities and so much more. There’s also the included bonus of other spacefarers to meet, camping peacefully along with roasted marshmallows and a campfire.

If there’s any game that can make you feel like Indiana Jones on an adventure that may possibly have ramifications for the entire universe, then Outer Wilds is the game for you. There’s also quite the variety in the star system, and you’ll never feel like you’re in the same place. Indeed, some of the planets are quirky enough that you’ll instantly remember them just going by the clues of the various puzzles you end up discovering.

There’s your home planet, Timber Hearth, which is filled with forests, greeneries and geysers that lead into a vast underground cave network system. There’s the gas giant Giant’s Deep, which looks incredibly large from space. Breaking through the atmosphere of Giant’s Deep reveals a small planet covered almost entirely by sea, except for some islands. The sea itself is beset by vicious storms and cyclones that throw the islands off into space every now and then, which is quite a sight to see from outer space.

Outer Wilds Giants Deep
Giant's Deep is plagued by cyclones. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

I could go on and on about the different planets, but that would  do them a disservice. In the almost 15 hours that I’ve played, I’ve managed to find something to love about all of them, whether it’s their really weird nature or their mysterious, almost creepy aura. Outer Wilds is a love letter to explorers, whose love for discovering new things is only matched by the hardships of the journeys they make to reach them. And make no mistake, some of the journeys you make in Outer Wilds are perilous, and most of them hold a danger that no one should ever underestimate. The biggest one to watch out for is gravity, as each planet’s gravity works differently. You may encounter planets where gravity is low, allowing you to safely jump heights without fear of dying, but there are some where gravity is higher than normal, limiting your ability to traverse easily.

In your travels, you are accompanied by tools and equipment that ultimately help you figure out the mysteries of this solar system. Exploration on other planets requires the use of a spacesuit, which is equipped with a jetpack to boost your way in low-gravity environments. The suit is equipped with a HUD that lets you see how much oxygen, fuel and health you have. You also have the Signalscope, a device that lets you track frequencies through long distances, and is very helpful in finding artifacts that give off weird signals. It’s also pretty handy if you want to hear some nice, soothing tunes. Then you have the Scout Launcher, which lets you launch a small probe capable of taking an unlimited number of pictures. Finally, you also have a translator, which allows you to translate alien languages in order to learn more about your goals.

Your spaceship is equipped to handle any kind of atmosphere, except of course a direct trip to the sun. It comes with an autopilot, has unlimited fuel, and can be repaired an indefinite amount of time with no materials required, save for requiring a trip outside to fix the broken modules. It also comes with its own Signalscope and Scout Launcher, for when you need to use those while in outer space.

Outer Wilds Puzzles
Outer Wilds features a variety of puzzles, like these writings that can be translated. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Exploration aside, a core gameplay mechanic of Outer Wilds is puzzle-solving, oftentimes requiring elegant and complicated solutions. These puzzles offers a lot of variety, most of which have an incredible ‘wow’ factor once you solve them. The great thing about puzzles in Outer Wilds is their ability to really let you feel how far you’ve come along in you journey, while in reality you’re less than 20 minutes in. The game also does a fine job of weaving the exploration part with the puzzle-solving part, often giving you incentive to check everything out in order to fully appreciate and solve the problems laid before you.

There’s also a lot of variety when it comes to difficulty; a good chunk of the game relies on you setting up missions for yourself, learning to prioritize which planets to explore first, and noting which locations to save for later. There are more than a couple of locations on planets that are only accessible at certain points in the loop, due to the ever-shifting nature of some of them. For instance, you’ll find that the Ash Twin of the Hourglass Twins is only accessible halfway through the loop, due to the fact that it’s covered by sand at first, which it slowly dumps – like an hourglass – to the Ember Twin, which in turn is completely inaccessible for the other half of the loop. Certain design choices like this will certainly influence your playthroughs, and adds a layer of intricacy and depth to puzzle-solving and exploration in Outer Wilds.

Story, setting and themes

Outer Wilds Story
Much of the story is told through context, which can be explored by interacting with characters or puzzles. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Most of the story of Outer Wilds is told through contextual worldbuilding, with your character a rookie astronaut on his first ever launch day. You also belong to a humanoid alien species which live on a single village located in Timber Hearth, an Earth-like planet. The game starts with you waking up next to a campfire, while one of the old-timers roasts a marshmallow. He informs you that it’s time to for your first launch day, and tasks you with getting the launch codes from the observatory. However, along the way, you encounter a statue artifact that opens its eyes to you, which in turn records your memories and traps you in a time loop. Of course, you only get to know it’s a time loop after the sun goes supernova, or once you die during your exploration.

Outer Wilds’ story plays out on two fronts: the first is in your present, which you piece together by exploring various planets and talking to the other astronauts from Timber Hearth. They are characterized by their own instruments, which you can hear over the airwaves with the Signalscope. Each one has his or her own story to tell, particularly with regards to the planet they are on and their motivations for being there. The other front plays out in terms of what you discover from the ruins and the alien race that was responsible for them: the Nomai, an ancient alien civilization that existed in the system thousands of years before. The Nomai left behind artifacts and writings for you to discover, which will ultimately help you figure out what caused them to die out and how they’re related to the supernova that ultimately kills the whole system.

Story-wise, Outer Wilds is really, really tight. It’s the kind of story that isn’t forced down your throat purely by exposition. In most cases, the tale’s various threads reveal themselves to you just by exploring. There’s no actual voice acting involved; Outer Wilds relies on a subtitle system for all its characters.

There’s also a kind of charm and personality to be found with the Nomai and your co-astronauts as you start to figure out more about them. The game often places some very subtle and well-done humor to infuse a kind of soulful feel to the overarching narrative. The Nomai’s writings are separated into these dialog branches where the speaker is always noted; most of them play out in these conversations that instill a sense of life into their character, despite the Nomai ceasing to exist a long time ago.

When Outer Wilds isn’t flooring you with its intriguing tale of the Nomai or the charming, sometimes somber backstories of the other astronauts, it immerses you with small, yet poignant, interactions between the Nomai. It’s kind of funny how it all plays out in the end, in that such an advanced and intelligent species still erred and made mistakes. It’s this lesson of ‘history repeats itself,’ ingrained deep within the narrative choices of this genre-spanning story, that makes Outer Wilds feel and play like something new and fresh, one that you’d remember past its contemporaries.

Art and Level Design

Outer Wilds Level Design
Outer Wilds' art and level design are easily some of the best highlights, featuring sceneries that are almost all screenshot-worthy. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Outer Wilds features a very quirky and charming art design, which is compounded by how at home it feels in the bigger scope of the galaxy. There’s enough variety in the design choices to let you know which planet is which from a glance, which helps tone down the tedium one can expect in an exploration title. The graphics are crisp, and the animations are seamless. There’re also these subtle changes made the further you make it into each loop, which you can see from the sun changing its color, to some of the environments growing more unstable.

I could also make the case that of all the games I’ve played this year, Outer Wilds boasts one of the best and most varied level designs. Seriously, the amount of work put into crafting each celestial body to make it stand out against its peers is commendable, and is one of the game’s primary strengths. It’s one of those things where less is definitely more; you could, in theory, make a game with a scale as vast as the entire universe itself, with procedurally-generated environments and whatnot, but it would still be inferior to what Outer Wilds has to offer. The reason for this is pretty simple: as vast as an open-universe sandbox may be, it lacks the human touch to make every single one of the planets unique. As impressive as powerful procedurally-generated engines may be, the planets still share fundamental similarities that make their differences only visible at a surface level.

In Outer Wilds, exploring a temple on Giant’s Deep is a vastly different experience from exploring one on Brittle Hollow. The laws of physics that forced you to adapt on the Ash Twin is something you cannot rely on while inside the Dark Bramble. It’s these small things that you learn to appreciate in Outer Wilds, one that you certainly won’t find in any other open-world title. A lot of developers choose to focus on making the map bigger, when they should have been more focused on giving it more detail and depth; the system of Outer Wilds is a joy to explore, lending to the fact that it probably has one of the deepest open-world maps I have ever seen in a video game.

Music and Sound Design

Outer Wilds Music
Your co-astronauts also play their own instruments, which is one of the game's musical highlights. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

The music of Outer Wilds is also a standout, thanks to tunes inspired by camping and the great outdoors. It also plays out as nice little cues for when you manage to discover something new, with the music swelling up to fuel your sense of adventure. Likewise, some foreboding and dark areas that bore witness to tragic happenings in the past will also play this moody tune, helping to establish a melancholic atmosphere. For the rest of the game, there’s a soft, general ambience that establishes the vast peacefulness of the system, which plays on until the supernova happens. There’s a general sense of moment-to-moment charm with Outer Wilds, combining audio cues with visuals that create such an impact that you can remember specific loops you made in your playthrough.

Outer Wilds would not be the game it is, if it weren’t for the other astronauts and their instruments. From the northernmost part of the moon of Timber Hearth, you can pull out your Signalscope and search for other astronauts by trailing the specific instruments they play while on other planets. It’s a rather amusing and quirky addition to Outer Wilds that really gives it so much soul. Add this to the fact that you can basically plop down next to their campfires and eat some roasted marshmallows, while you listen to their instrument drown out the pain and existential dread that comes from the end of the universe.

Technical aspects, game length and replayability

I played Outer Wilds on PC, and I have to say that it’s one of the most well-optimized titles I’ve played in a while, right up there with A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game runs really smooth, with plenty of options available to either amp up the performance or tone it down for use on lower-end systems. There are basically no bugs as well, just my stupidity acting up in some cases where I autopilot directly into the sun. If you manage to encounter something like this while playing yourself, it’s not a bug; your ship’s autopilot steers you in the direction of the location of your choice without accounting for other planets you may hit, so be sure to put plenty of empty space between you and your target.

As of this writing, I am about 90 percent finished with Outer Wilds, and I have to admit that this review was delayed by the fact that I can’t stop playing. That said, I’ll put the game length at a number between 8 and 15 hours, depending of course on how good you are with contextual puzzles and maneuvering the ship. You can, however, expect time to fly right past you as you’re playing, much like the Interloper comet, which eluded me for most of the game.

Overall

Outer Wilds Overall
Outer Wilds is a joy to play, and is easily the best I've played this year. Photo: Annapurna Interactive

In a sea of uninspired, rehashed and boring games released this year, Outer Wilds is a testament to how far creativity can go when you really push it. It’s one of the few titles I played that will stay with me due to how well-made and unique it is. Solid exploration of a hand-crafted, detailed compact universe, creatively unique puzzles, contextual world-building and storytelling, and a big, big heart to boot – these are the things that made Outer Wilds such a joy to play through. If you give it a chance, you’ll find that Outer Wilds just may be the best open-world exploration game you’ll play this year.

If I ever find myself in my own closed time-loop, I’d wish for me to play the Outer Wilds, but with the added bonus of forgetting about it, just so I can experience it all over again. It’s that good, and the first true title that I could say is a 'must-play' for 2019.

(Review copy provided by Annapurna Interactive; review of the game is based on 14 hours of gameplay).

REVIEW SUMMARY
Outer Wilds
10
Outer Wilds Review - For The Explorers In All Of Us
Somehow, Outer Wilds manages to blow other space exploration-based titles away for a mere $10. It's a game where the vastness may be limited, but the depth is not; a testament to the never-ending drive for creativity, fueled by enthusiasm and passion. Much like exploration in real-life, each encounter brings something new. something impactful and meaningful; if a slice of life is but a game, then Outer Wild would have captured its very essence. The first true must-play of 2019.
  • -A solid exploration title, with a ton of surprises lurking in every nook and cranny.
  • -Amazing story framed in a very interesting and unique narrative.
  • -Unique and intriguing time loop mechanic that works surprisingly well, playing to the game's strengths.
  • -Colorful characters within a hand-crafted and well-detailed world.
  • -Great use of music, camping motifs and soulful aesthetic.
  • -You can't live in a time loop where you forget that you played this, in order to enjoy it from the start all over again.
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