Sprawling landscapes of forests, parched deserts, and demon-infested marshes are by far Outward’s strongest feature.
Outward is an RPG built around combat, exploration, travel, and the grind to stay alive within the rules of its survival mechanics. This fantasy world isn’t particularly pretty or well designed, with graphics that compare to older games like Gothic 3 or Mount and Blade: Warband and invisible walls that render its “open” world more restrictive than it may appear at first glance. That said, the sprawling landscapes of forests, snowy mountain passes, parched deserts, and demon-infested marshes are by far Outward’s strongest feature. There are secrets to discover, sights to see, and interesting enemies to meet. It’s expansive, and while walking the length of its four regions over and over and over again just to get to the next step of a given quest was tedious, time-consuming, and boring (especially due to the lack of mounts or fast-travel of any kind), the times where I actually got to delve into the wilderness and find something off the beaten path were by far Outward’s best. Feeling like an explorer carving my own path into the unknown in search of adventure just over the horizon is arguably the magic of any open-world experience; if the rest of the mechanics surrounding that core were better, Outward could have been a diamond in the rough.
One of Outward’s biggest features is the ability to play alongside a friend, remotely or locally in split-screen (even on PC!). With a simple password, a buddy can easily drop into your world and help you with its challenges. Practically, this is considerably helpful – an extra sword arm and scavenger makes combat, especially in the early going, orders of magnitude easier (though not necessarily more exciting). Tag-teaming enemies is easier than fighting alone, even with them being more powerful than they are when playing solo, and Outward feels like it’s more appropriately balanced with two people, but co-op combat usually just consisted of forming a pincer and whacking away while the baddie confuses itself over who to attack. Most importantly, the companionship, laughs, and groans of our shared failures and exploits added considerably to my experience. I had the most fun with Outward in co-op, but that doesn’t make it a good game. After all, you can laugh at a bad movie with friends and have a good time, but that doesn’t mean you’re watching a good movie.
Complex spell-casting that rewards practice and preparation like this is something more RPGs should try.
The magic system, at least, is downright cool. Deciding to go all the way up the runic magic tree required some serious grinding and investment and unbalanced my build, which led to some headaches, but it was the best decision I made in Outward. Magic injected some badly needed variety into battles. By learning four runes and casting them in specific combinations you can pull off a dozen useful spells, and after taking a skill that allowed me to leave my runic lexicon (or spell book) at home I could cast them at will. Remembering the runic combinations was always a little challenging, especially in the heat of battle, but I’d have liked to see even more runes and even more combinations. Busting out a spectral lantern in a dark cave after my torches had burned out or letting loose a runic lightning blast against a staggered manticore to finish it off made me feel something like a wizard – enough so that even the screw-ups in casting my spells actually added to my immersion with learning to use magic. There is a more standard magic system, with some rote spells to learn, but these too have a combination component – you have to cast Spark with a Fire Sigil to make a fireball, for example. Complex spell-casting that rewards practice and preparation like this is something more RPGs should try.
I grapple enough with wasting a third of my life in a bed in my day to day; I don’t need it from an RPG.
I also spent entirely too much of my time in Outward sleeping. When you’re out of potions and regenerative food items it’s the only means you have of regaining maximum health and stamina, and there’s no downside to it other than it being a boring activity. I slept after fights I won, after fights I lost, to turn day to night and night to day when a quest required me to do something at a specific time, and often to simply pass time because quest-givers seemed to share a universal rule that no new task may be given until precisely 72 hours after the last one was completed. The only action my character performed as often as swinging his weapon or moving his feet was setting up and tearing down his tent. I grapple enough with wasting a third of my life in a bed in my day to day; I don’t need it from an RPG.
Sometimes glitches worked in my favor and enemies spontaneously combusted.
The technical performance of Outward is also, unfortunately, extremely uneven. Twice, my gear evaporated for no reason. Enemies would sometimes hit me even when I was standing behind them and they were swinging their weapon away from me. I clipped through cave walls and sand dunes, and I experienced a half dozen full-on crashes. More than once, I had to use the debug menu to undo the effects of a bug, or backtrack my way out of a quest trigger that had broken. As if to apologize, sometimes those glitches worked in my favor: enemies spontaneously combusted, occasionally bugged out and disappeared, and sometimes paused mid-fight, as if confused, to give me a couple free hits.
After a very rough start, I met Outward on its terms, finishing several quests and exploring each of its expansive regions from top to bottom. In doing so, I saw some cool sights, fought some worthy opponents, and cast a lot of cool spells with its impressive magic system. I spent more time, however, slogging through long, boring battles with an otherwise poor combat system, working around major bugs, scrounging berries to eat, sleeping in tents, and just walking the same roads, back and forth, from one familiar town to the other and back again. These flaws didn’t just crop up regularly – they defined the experience. There is the seed of a better RPG here, but it’s buried under too much rough terrain. At its best, Outward can offer novel experiences, a good challenge, and a fun way to play with friends. It spends more time at its worst, though, and that’s boring and tedious.
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