Review: Outer Wilds is a Bold, Memorable Space Game That’s Flawed to its Core

Launching my rickety rocket ship through my home planet’s atmosphere, I’m filled with a sense of wonder as I adjust to the beautiful calmness of zero gravity and infinite stars. Surrounded by sparkles of light, orbiting planets and complete stillness, I feel as if I can go everywhere and find anything.

Shortly after, I die. For a silly reason, at the worst possible time. Sometimes it’s my fault. More than it should be, it’s the game’s doing. Because I’m caught in a time loop, it’s back to my planet to launch again. Then another time. Rinse and repeat, until I’ve lost count. My once awe-inspiring moment of vaulting into the vast unknown degrades into a minor inconvenience then a frustrating hindrance to my adventure, as I start to worry more about getting back to the place where I died than exploring other parts of the solar system.

This, a constant cycle of curiosity and misery, is Outer Wilds. Allow me to explain.

The latest title from Mobius Digital is a first-person space exploration game, and is often quite good. It broaches topics rarely seen in games, from existentialism, cosmology and quantum physics to the ultimate fate of stars and the universe at large. Heavy, frightening ideas for an otherwise playful medium. I adored its plot, where the player controls a member of a four-eyed alien race called Hearthians who are obsessed with discovering more about their galaxy. In particular, learning more about a super intelligent ancient species called the Nomai.

The player, affectionately called the Hatchling by some, is readying for their (the Hearthians use “they” as their general pronoun) first launch under the Outer Wilds Ventures space program. As the game begins, I wake up confused. Poking around a village on home planet Timber Hearth reveals I’m a new astronaut in the program founded by older Hearthians, most of which are visiting other locations in the solar system. One of them is missing. There’s characters to chat up, a museum to visit and a weird rock that disappears when it’s not in view. Most importantly, there’s a creepy statue that looks like the majestic, three-eyed Nomai ancestors. As I walk past, it stares into my soul and seems to collect memories of everything I had done up until that point.

I searched as much as I could to get an indication of a goal or objective before I left. Outer Wilds offers no such thing. One Hearthian said I could find the other astronauts. All of them indicate that the species as a whole is really interested in the Nomai. Someone else hints that the thrill of space travel is never knowing what you might find! While I understand it’s a game purely about the wonders of exploration, since there’s no combat and barely any conflict, a byproduct of this limited framework is it can feel too meandering, the story is way too difficult to follow and, most importantly, leads to many cases where the player feels like their time is being wasted. More on this later.

It’s now time for liftoff. The glorious moment I described in the intro takes place. It’s really cool. The game does well to capture the beauty of the cosmos, between sound design and visual pizazz. Less than a half hour into my maiden journey, as I was desperately trying to gather anything I could from a character living on Timber Hearth’s moon, the sun explodes. Talk about baptism by fire!

Miraculously, the Hatchling wakes up. Back on Timber Hearth, in the exact spot where the game started. Not on the moon, which would make logical sense and save the time and frustration of having to navigate back, since I wasn’t done trying to coax information from my moon buddy Esker about just what the heck I should do next. Nope. In order to continue what I was doing, I have to spend precious time stumbling my way back.

When this cycle of death and resurrection starts to happen constantly, we gradually discover we’re caught in a time loop. One that lasts 22 minutes to be exact, after which the sun goes supernova. This is the game’s conceit, and it’s the driving force of the story while also being the single most frustrating thing about it. Even the revelation of why it’s happening is overshadowed by the fact that it’s been limiting my enjoyment the whole time. And I’m normally into games that play with the concept of time.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

I wish the respawn location was more flexible. Or at least allow for more fast travel points, via warping technology that already exists in the game world. When small discoveries open doors to much larger ones, missing out on a crucial piece of documentation because of the time loop is unfortunate. What’s even more disheartening is not having an easy way to navigate a return trip.

Learning of its infinite time quandary highlights my main complaints, and these things permeate all of Outer Wilds. The game lacks fundamental quality of life features, seemingly for effect. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s like Mobius’ decisions are at odds with one another. It wants to be about exploring, then sets arbitrary limitations that hinder the player’s ability to do so.

Another huge, noticeable flaw right away is infuriating controls. Namely while flying the ship. These are not totally responsive nor intuitive. I found myself going in random directions, flying into the sun for no reason or crash landing to my death. Sure it’s funny once. It’s agonizing the twentieth time. When autopilot is a savior, you know the controls are poor. In terms of the space suit, boosting is useful though rules and functionality change based on gravity. Outside of the suit is the worst, with an abysmal jump button that requires holding the button. Luckily all of these became more tolerable as I learned them, though I still never felt truly in control especially in space.

It’s a case like Shadow of the Colossus or even the original Dark Souls. Games with so much going for them that I never want to play again because of frustrating inputs, whether unresponsive, laggy or inflexible. I often talk “game feel,” and I lump Outer Wilds in this group of titles held back from greatness because interacting with them just doesn’t feel great.

Turning towards narrative and pacing, Outer Wilds is vague, at best, in communicating any sort of goals plus opaque in its trail of breadcrumbs. Story is conveyed through environmental observation, conversations with fellow travelers or translation of Nomai text found throughout the solar system. All of which the Hatchling documents in a jumbled ship log, which is supposed to be used as a reference though ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. A jumbled diagram of pictures, text and connecting lines, it’s borderline unreadable. Reminiscent of the meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie has cue cards behind him connected in every which way. It’s a series of scattered notes seemingly scribbled by a mad person, attempting to offer structure when really it shows just how muddled the story is.

It’s way too inconsistent in its puzzles and progression. Sometimes there’s just enough hints where it makes sense, where it feels great to figure it out. Others are so unclear that it’s near random. Especially as higher level concepts of physics and cosmology are introduced. It induces a feeling of inadequacy, or prompts a quick internet search which immediately breaks any sense of immersion.

Now I’m not one to use guides, especially when writing reviews. I’d like to experience a game and fail on my own, because I believe it speaks to core design. There were multiple points in Outer Wilds where I became exasperated. I wasn’t sure what to do. Sure, it’s the nature of an open exploration game. Though it also reveals how poorly it communicates direction. Especially towards the end. I kept failing to progress when I knew exactly how to do so. Turns out I was doing the right things, just not in the proper order, which I discovered via a walk-through rather than through context clues.

I’d hate for everyone to get the wrong impression, since I’ve been very critical of Outer Wilds throughout this piece. There are actually so many things to love about it, which makes it that much more painful to fumble through its flaws.

It’s hard to describe just how substantial the game feels in its subject matter. Mainly through Nomai writing and their impromptu settlements, we learn much about their background and intentions. They were seeking a place called the Eye of the Universe, for reasons that would be spoilers. The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

The location design and artwork is stellar (get it?). Each planet has its own aesthetic and rules. Brittle Hollow, where its fiery moon is raining down meteorites that break up the exterior to reveal that the center is a foreboding black hole. The Hourglass Twins, a pair of smaller celestial bodies that are named as such because sand flows from one to another which acts as a genius palette for environmental tricks. Then there’s the mysterious Dark Bramble, where dangerous monsters lurk amidst space that isn’t always what it seems. Exploring each of them was breathtaking. The first few visits, at least.

So much of the game is about observation, which is why I’ve dwelt on describing moments of discovery rather than interactions or mechanics. (Well, it’s also that the mechanics aren’t great.) The attention to detail in certain features is exquisite. Take the Nomai script. Adults draw smooth lines, while children have sloppy writing. Kudos to the designer that came up with this and other seemingly minor touches that add up when witnessed consistently. Nomai have distinct names and personalities. Relationships exist between characters I’ll never actually meet.

Though yet again, within this system is another quality of life issue. Written text from the Nomai language has to be learned during each time loop. Why? Especially when the clock is always ticking. Wasting precious moments determining if I’ve read a certain text before is unacceptable in a game where I already feel rushed.

The game proposes major questions about the nature of being and how memories are what makes up the self rather than anything physical. It’s a commentary on the finite nature of life and time itself, and how the Nomai were seeking something that could somehow stave off extinction. Even a couple days after finishing, I’m still feeling the effects of its amazing ending.

There’s a breakthrough that I’d say starts the “third act,” even though the timeline isn’t clearly delineated. I’m going to spoil part of it because I thought it was clever. It’s related to the game’s interpretation and use of quantum mechanics as part of gameplay, which is so unique that it could be a game in itself. Effectively, the player learns to leverage in-game photography capabilities to solve environmental puzzles. A true moment of clarity, that changes everything from then on out. I love how it’s bold enough to surprise the player, even though getting to that point is taxing.

I’d be remiss to forget that Outer Wilds also features great music, melodically and practically. It’s blended into the world as a means of identifying where other characters are, as each of them play different parts of the theme music and the player has a tool that can detect frequencies through space. There’s even an achievement for finding a spot where all of them coalesce into a beautiful harmony.

A word of warning from a technical standpoint. The game runs mostly well on Xbox One X, except for random staggers when loading into an area. A forgivable, mild annoyance. What’s not acceptable is I’ve heard multiple reports of frame dips on the other models of Xbox One. It also hard crashed on me multiple times in my last couple hours of play. In a game where discovery is essential, losing progress is a gut punch.

It’s obvious that I’m conflicted overall on Outer Wilds, about as much as I have been about any game this year other than BioWare’s Anthem. As a publisher, Annapurna Interactive has been impressive in its partnerships. This game isn’t a misstep, just more of a flawed experience than games of similar caliber and team size.

Mobius Digital went big here, as big as gets really, tackling topics that are more suited for college philosophy courses or quantum physics papers than video games. Which is why it’s so special, yet so disappointing that I didn’t like everything about it. I’m excited that studios are bold enough to try something like Outer Wilds, to propel gaming forward and prove it can ponder the largest of questions, even if I believe this one in particular didn’t completely stick the landing.

Title: Outer Wilds

Release Date: May 29, 2019

Developer: Mobius Digital

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PC

Recommendation: Between its plot and subject matter, it had the potential to be one of my favorite games of 2019 if not the generation. It nearly gets there. I rate it as a mostly good game that will stick with me just as much for its flaws as its amazing, bold efforts. Its failed execution in certain areas is unfortunate, however I still recommend trying it especially if you like space adventure games, subscribe to Xbox Game Pass or both.

Sources: Annapurna Interactive, Xbox One X Screenshots.

-Dom

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