RPGs are continually evolving and changing in weird and wonderful ways, from becoming “lite” to being solely online. Even the staple JRPG turn based combat system that defined more than one generation of games has started to be replaced with more action oriented mechanics. One of the most intriguing branches of the genre is survival where there’s a much bigger focus on keeping the player character nourished and healthy alongside being able to fight. These games have typically centred around looting, scavenging and avoiding encounters, and have produced mixed results. Outward is ambitious in its scale and scope, and feels like it wants to bring the survival RPG to a new batch of players, but does it manage to succeed where others have failed?
Set in the vast and varied world of Aurai, Outward follows an adventurer that’s setting sail from their home town of Cierzo only to be immediately shipwrecked because someone had forgotten to keep the lighthouse running. Barely surviving the ordeal, they awake to find themselves recovering at home as if nothing has happened… but things won’t be the same again. See, the reason for heading off to sea was to pay off the blood debt bestowed on the adventurer’s family, and now that’s not taking place the town is demanding payment or things are going to get ugly. With 5 days to pay up 150 silver coins or lose the family home, there’s not much choice except to grab a backpack, shield and sturdy weapon and head off into the wilds of Chersonese to see what can be pilfered. Here starts a long and dangerous journey defined by hardship and running through vast swathes of enemy filled landscapes.
Outward might begin in typical fashion with a few fetch quests and exploratory missions, but very early on it teaches the importance of the survival elements. Sleep, thirst, hunger and a whole host of other real world considerations all have to managed alongside not getting stabbed, skewered and impaled by whatever is roaming the lands outside the cities. These might be fairly common things to keep on top of in most games, but there’s temperature as an environmental factor here too that brings a new dimension to the mix. Selecting the right clothing, time and day and even how close the bedroll is to a campfire can mean the difference between life and death. Even if the adventurer survives the weather, it’ll have an impact on how well they can fight, or how much stamina and strength is available at any one time. It’s more than a balancing act keeping things going, this is full on plate spinning with a 24 piece china dinner service. That’s before you end up in the arid deserts and frozen mountains and have to start crafting new outfits.
Even managing the inventory is tough because the amount carried is dictated by the weight rather than the number of slots in the pack. Everything has mass and taking the rucksack over the limit doesn’t have an over-encumbering effect straight away; movement just gradually gets slower over time. It’s actually quite a nice way to deal with item management because it forces real thinking around what’s useful and what’s junk, and that you might be prepared to move fractionally slower to carry a bit more water. However, the downside is that in the early stages there’s really no room and there’s a lot to be carried, and the feeling of being woefully under prepared is a hard one to shake. A safe house in each city will contain a stash to offload everything that’s not serving a current purpose, and upgrading to bigger packs alleviates the burden for a short while, but forget the dream of carrying a useful mix of weapons and all the bits needed to last on the journeys around the world. Of course, selling items is a good way of clearing space and earning coins, and it’ll need to be done regularly because currency is hard to come by, and the skills and upgrades are disproportionately high in the world economy.
There’s no typical XP levelling system in Outward, it’s more about selecting a specialisation with a weapon or magic and paying for training to improve the skills. It’s refreshing in that it removes a necessary combat grind for XP, but with the aforementioned cost it replaces it with a… well… necessary combat grind for loot. Completing quests usually pays out decent silver, but it won’t remove the need to take on the biggest and nastiest beasts in the realm, and they are intent on staying alive as well. Locking on to an enemy then using combinations of blocking and swiping makes the swordplay all seem fairly familiar, but it’s a bit loose and inconsistent, and awkward too when there’s more than one beast to deal with. Having chance to scope out the enemy and set up an ambush instead of charging in is one of the best methods of attack, because although the AI isn’t very clever, it is vicious. Magic works pretty well depending on which ones are learnt and picked against the right foes, though it is possible to avoid that ability early on if certain missions are skipped.
That’s probably one of the more interesting elements of Outward – the level of choice that’s given to the player. Which weapons are built up, at what speed the land is traversed, what faction gets the allegiance, how far down the crafting rabbit hole you go, and which regions are explored in what order. Of course, all of this means that it’s harder to make progress in the early stages, so it’s fortunate there’s no death. When you lose a fight, and that will happen quite often, you’re relocated to somewhere nearby with all your items intact and a full bill of health. There are a couple of screens of exposition that explain what’s happened and then you’re free to resume the adventure. It reduces the frustration of the harsh world somewhat and lets you reconsider taking on whatever has knocked you down in the first place. Of course, if you’ve a co-op partner on hand (split-screen or online) then things are a little easier, but only a little.
So, there are a few interesting mechanics at play and the survival aspect is really the core of the game, and it’s pretty smooth in the way it works, but there’s a price. Graphically it doesn’t set the world on fire, and arguably there are points that don’t really outperform games from a couple of generations ago. The voice acting is OK if very limited with only certain snippets of text spoken aloud, and at strangely loud volumes too. Then there are standard quality of life issues like no direction markers to objectives on the compass, maps with bare bones detail that are tricky to navigate (and don’t have a “you are here” marker), and quests that don’t log fully so you’re left struggling to remember what the full objective is. Without fast travel it’s a slog to get anywhere and really puts you off heading back to previous locations for clean up or further exploration. Moving to a new area has a lengthy loading time, as does death and heading between interiors and exteriors. It’s fair to say it needs a few tweaks and a bit of optimisation to make it a more user friendly experience.
My time with Outward was foreshadowed by the experience I had in the tutorial section. This is a separate mode from the main game where you can follow the path and learn all the lessons, or you can skip around a freeform area and review what you don’t already know. There’s a bit that teaches about antidotes and is in a small cave, and it’s all innocuous when you head over to a table to pick up a draught of potion. Then, with no warning, a floor trap erupts and kills you. There’s been no mention of traps, no guidance on them, and nothing to indicate you’d need to watch out in this supposedly safe training area – which also reloads the entire thing again with no saved progress and screws up the AI of the combat practice too. I was drawn in by the focus on keeping Jim (my character) alive and learning how best to do that, only to be arbitrarily killed by something I couldn’t predict and had to struggle back through the same stuff over again. The game continued in much the same way and whilst the initial parts were enjoyable it moved quickly into a test of attrition rather than skill, and it started to lose me there. I can look beyond the rough graphical edges and the ropey audio to what it’s trying to let us experience, but it lacks a gameplay hook or frequent enough rewards to really make the hardship side worthwhile.
Outward is available now on PC via Steam, PS4 and Xbox one for around £35, and a PS4 copy of the game was provided by Deep Silver’s PR team for this review.