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Outer Wilds Review – Groundhog Universe

Gaming article by Richard Costa on June 25, 2019 at 11:00 AM
Review

There is something deeply human about the thrill of exploration. Space exploration, in particular, speaks to our innermost nature, as creatures who exist in tiny bubbles of liveable conditions. What is out there? How far can we go into the black? What is our place in the universe? Outer Wilds doesn’t really try to answer those ponderous questions, but it casts you in a role where you'll sit in awe at possible answers. And that awe is part of what makes us human, even if you’re an alien.

The Outer Wilds space program of Timber Hearth, your home planet, may not seem the safest or most realistic. Your spaceship is literally a patchwork of wood and metal. Your fuel tank sits exposed to the elements. It’s a death trap, as you tell one of your Hearthian comrades. Yes, he says, but a very powerful death trap, and maybe that’s what you need to brave the solar system. It's a microcosm where a handful of planets orbit around a sun, a few kilometers from each other. Soon, you'll discover the system is trapped in a seemingly endless time loop as the sun keeps going supernova.

 

Outer Wilds Review
The sun's got the blues.

Live. Die. Repeat. Chasing The Edge of Tomorrow in Outer Wilds

If you liked Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, you’ll probably like Outer Wilds. Obviously, it’s a totally different medium, but the principle is the same. You will die, over and over, but you’ll also accumulate experience that will finally allow you to beat the loop. Until then, just relax. Learn how to stop worrying and love the loop. It’s a beautiful solar system, full of delightful vistas and amazing planets to explore. Land on each one of them, see how far you can go, and just enjoy the view. When you die, well, I hope you learned something.

Before that, however, explore your own home planet as thoroughly as you can. See everything there is to see in it, both in your village and outside it. Talk to all your fellow Hearthians. Familiarize yourself with some concepts and try to understand the logic and the physics of this universe. All of this will be useful later on. This is part of what makes Outer Wilds particularly brilliant. It sets down some ground rules early on and sticks to them throughout the whole game. The realism may seem feeble by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a method to the madness.

 

Outer Wilds Review
I'm here, but my ship is 11.9km away. Interesting, huh?

Ground Control to Space Control - Logistics in Outer Wilds

While there is no combat or proper action gameplay, you'll often require some deft maneuvering to fly your spaceship. The game advises you to use a controller rather than a keyboard and mouse precisely because of that. Being the madman PC gamer that I am, I still went with the keyboard and mouse. It took a while to get used to the controls, and it often felt frustrating, but it wasn’t that bad. Still, unless you’re used to gaming like this, I don’t recommend it. I think Outer Wilds is probably much more enjoyable on the couch with a controller and a big TV.

Spacefaring is actually a small part of the gameplay overall, as you’ll often be out of your spaceship, walking about and exploring a planet. Flying the ship and landing it safely is definitely useful, but so is defying the variations of gravity in your spacesuit. Obviously, each planet has a different atmosphere and gravity, and controlling the thrust of your suit properly is often a matter of life and death. When you run out of jetpack fuel, it will start using your air to thrust (very feebly though). So the controls definitely matter beyond flying the spaceship, and mastering them for different environments and situations can be really fun.

 

Outer Wilds Review
Nomai art mural.

Outer Wilds Presents A Puzzle As Big As The Universe

The real challenge of Outer Wilds is putting the pieces together as you begin to make sense of this universe and the story behind it. As a Hearthian astronaut, you grew up learning about the Nomai, an elder alien race that left its traces all over the solar system. You’ll learn much more about them as you explore the planets and follow the tracks of other Hearthian astronauts. It’s a long, convoluted history that you’ll unravel bit by bit as you translate their writings and explore their settlements. This is where the game begins to fill you with awe and wonder, which is what makes it so memorable.

Unlike a lot of games dealing with space and aliens, Outer Wilds doesn’t wallow in the same old tropes and themes. The best comparison I can come up with for how it portrays the Nomai aliens is the movie Arrival, where humans simply have no idea about the aliens’ intentions, and communication with them is a very complicated process. And that’s part of the awe you feel in both Outer Wilds and Arrival. Awe in the sense of near-terror before the unknown. Even if the Nomai have some human-like traits, there’s still a lingering sense of dread whenever you explore their settlements and their technology.

Your mileage may vary, but unraveling the entire mystery of the Nomai on your own will probably take a lot of time and patience. If you love piecing together elaborate overarching puzzles with a lot of pieces and loose threads, Outer Wilds will make you very happy. In that sense, it’s not a casual adventure that anyone can play through and make sense of. Even if you’re a seasoned adventure gamer, it will often make you scratch your head trying to figure out what to do and where to go. The ship log helps in that sense, as it gives you a sense of what’s missing, but still, it’s a demanding game if you want to understand the full story.

Outer Wilds Review
You could always just lie back and enjoy all the ends of the world.

 

A Fine Line Between Casual And Hardcore in Outer Wilds

Sure, you can still play Outer Wilds casually if you just enjoy exploring, much like you can still enjoy a roguelike without ever beating it. Outer Wilds isn't a roguelike itself, though it does draw from a similar pacing with the looping gameplay. It’s more of a cyclical exploration adventure game where you don’t require quick reflexes as much as a capacity to oversee the big picture. If you’re okay with not knowing the full story, or if you just want to fly around on your spaceship, it’s still a very enjoyable game. In that sense, it will probably keep you busy for a couple of months, though it’s not quite as versatile as Subnautica and its robust crafting and base building system.

A couple of puzzles in Outer Wilds border on moon logic. If you want to complete it, be prepared to either think way outside the box or seek some hints online. I very much doubt I would have connected some of the dots if not for a few hints. I pity reviewers who had to finish it in time for the release, that must have been extremely stressful. Unless you’re a major brainiac with a lot of time in your hands, Outer Wilds should keep you busy for quite some time, even if you’re not a completionist. A leisurely playthrough might take you a couple of months, and that’s a lot of exploring. The “physical” puzzles themselves are mostly easy to complete, but connecting the dots between certain puzzles can be very hard.

Outer Wilds Review
You can even explore that comet if you try hard enough.

Outer Wilds Review | A Wild Universe Awaits

I wish I had more time to explore the universe of Outer Wilds on my first playthrough. Having to rush through certain parts often felt like I was missing the point of the game. It’s such a beautiful, deep experience, and I envy those who will play through it at a slow pace. Although the graphics are far from photorealistic, the art direction is often mesmerizing in space. When you meet the Hearthians, the character design is just cartoonish enough to feel cute, while it becomes more intricate in visuals and worldbuilding with the Nomai. The soundtrack is also adorable, with a wistful tonality.

Outer Wilds is a triumphant debut in the PC and console market by Mobius Digital, who previously developed only two mobile games, Beacon 38 and Terra Chroma. Hopefully, we’ll see other games in the universe of Outer Wilds. Even if you manage to unravel the loop, there is still plenty of interesting things in the lore of this universe that would be worth seeing. Either way, this is a game that leaves us wanting to see more of it, though the final stretch can feel exhausting. Prepare for impact. You’ll often crash and burn, but you’ll also witness the elegant beauty of the universe in all its simulated glory.


TechRaptor reviewed Outer Wilds on PC via Epic Games Store with a code provided by the publisher.

Review Summary

9.0

Outer Wilds is a triumphant first-person exploration adventure with innovative (quantum) physics puzzles. More than that, it's a microcosm in itself that pleads to be explored and untangled in its minutiae.

Pros

  • Complex World To Explore & Unravel
  • Beautiful Visual Design
  • The Loop Adds Challenge
  • Many Clever Puzzles

Cons

  • PC Controls Not Optimal
  • Some Moon Logic Puzzles

About the Author

Richard Costa

Richard Costa

Staff Writer

Hack for hire, indentured egghead, maverick thoughtcriminal. Mainly interested in Western RPGs, first-person immersion, turn-based tactics, point-and-clickers, and card jousting.