Embrace the Expanse: Outer Wilds Review

Uncover a galactic mystery, piece by piece

Outer Wilds
Release Date: 2019
Developer: Mobius Digital
Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Review By: Brandon Wright
Review Date: July 18, 2018

I want to give a quick warning – I won’t be discussing any actual spoilers in this review, only what can be seen in marketing materials. If you want to go into Outer Wilds completely blind, however, (which is not a bad idea) then I’d recommend you just go start playing it and skip this review for now :).

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Outer Wilds is a very unassuming game. You wake up with no equipment to speak of aside from your handy Signalscope (a glorified radio), and a flashlight. After a brief tutorial sequence touring the charming village on the planet of Timber Hearth, and a curious trip to the museum, you’re given the codes for your very first ship launch. You board your ship, don your suit, and blast off into the black expanse of space.

From the get-go, you’re given very few instructions, and the game never holds your hand. You’re given a free pass to go explore the various astral bodies orbiting around your solar system. After some grappling with the flying controls, you’ll discover that soon, however, the big ol’ Sun will blow up in your face. And you’ll die, waking up seemingly right back where you were at the start of the game. Thus, your stellar Groundhog Day begins, and you set off to figure out what the heck is going on.

If you think I’m spoiling things for you, this time loop mechanic is advertised as part of the game’s marketing, and is revealed very early on to you. It creates a Majora’s Mask-esque gameplay loop of exploring and adventuring until the Sun blows up and you’re sent back to the beginning again. Thankfully, this really never becomes annoying, and part of the game’s challenge is timing your expeditions around the status of the time loop.

As you explore the various astral entities of Outer Wilds, you’ll find an amazing variety of interesting locations packed with things to learn and discover. The only progression in Outer Wilds is knowledge. You’ll encounter many inscriptions across the solar system left by an ancient civilization known as the Nomai. These inscriptions will begin to unpack a grand mystery that, for myself, grabbed my attention and never let go until I saw the credits roll.

Your ship log will populate as you discover various areas and translate Nomai runes, but all of this knowledge also needs to be parsed and connected by the player. As I discovered new information, I constantly theorized as to how this new discovery pieced into the bigger puzzle. Aside from advancing your understanding of the lore, information gathered in one area often will help you solve puzzles in another area.

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Each planet is a sophisticated puzzle box, that can only be navigated with knowledge, deduction, player dexterity, and a keen understanding of time and place. Different events occur at different times in the time loop across several planets. I’m being intentionally vague as I don’t want to spoil the various interesting elements of each planet, but just know that exploring them will require both an understanding of movement in-game and how the planet behaves at different points in the loop.

Aside from gaining and connecting knowledge, the major gameplay mechanic is player movement. At first, player and ship movement can feel awkward. You have three-dimensional control of your thrusters – up and down, left and right, forward and back. On foot, you also have a limited supply of fuel combined with a temporary “nitrus” boost to give you more vertical movement. These factors also combine with the game’s gravitational mechanics.

In space, you’ll have zero Gs – once you start moving in a direction, you won’t stop moving unless you thrust in the opposite direction. On or in orbit around astral bodies, however, gravity is applied, and you must work with it to both land and traverse the planet. It’s actually quite fascinating, as each astral body has different amounts of gravitational pull. My overall opinion of movement is that though it’s clunky at first, once you get used to it, it feels pretty good moving around in space and on foot. You will die a bunch accidentally crashing, flying into the Sun, or accidentally falling off a cliff, however. It’s all part of trial-and-error.

This trial-and-error design is one of the few elements of the game that bothered me at times. As it’s very easy to accidentally kill yourself, imprecise or guessed movement attempts can easily result in your death, sending you back to the beginning. It’s usually quite fast to get back to where you were, but a difficult movement challenge can become all the more frustrating when you know one false step will lead to a few minutes of retracing your steps.

The general gameplay loop of exploring planets, piecing together the fascinating story, and deducting a way forward through the game’s many puzzles makes for a very satisfying experience. You truly feel that you’re beginning to get a grasp on what is going on, and each planet’s various mechanics.

That being said, some puzzles in the game can be quite obtuse without extensive investigation, or even with it. This combined with the game’s trial-and-error design will turn off a portion of players. I recommend persisting through these challenges, and carefully looking up tips if you’ve really hit a brick wall, as it’s 100% worth playing through and beating the game. One final puzzle in particular is extremely vague, and I needed to look it up, though the developers have said they plan on addressing it in a future patch.

Lastly, I played on an Xbox One S, and encountered some frame rate and hitching issues. It was never enough to significantly detract from my experience, however.

At the end of the day, I can’t recommend Outer Wilds highly enough. I say that knowing there will be a significant portion of gamers who might not find a game like this engaging. It’s a true ‘adventure’ game – exploration, puzzles, and deduction rule the day, instead of combat or pixel-perfect platforming. But I encourage you to at least give the game a chance, as you won’t find more interesting lore, or as mind-blowing of a mystery, anywhere else.

Verdict

Superb

  • Pros
  • Brilliant narrative
  • Satisfying puzzles
  • Creative world design
  • Appealing exploration and discovery loop
  • Very unique
  • Memorable and immersive soundtrack
  • Emotional appeal
  • Cons
  • Some minor performance hitches on console
  • Ship controls can be a little janky sometimes
  • One or two puzzles are a bit obscure
  • Preference-dependent
  • Decent amount of reading and not much of a focus on action
  • Player must figure out nearly everything for themselves

Jan 2021 Post-Script

From Brandon: In hindsight, this is one of those few games that has stuck around in my memory in the months and years since I originally played it. At first, I believed the game might only appeal to “patient” gamers and might not draw those who preferred action games. However since then, I’ve gotten both my brother and a good friend to play the game, both of whom generally have more of a taste for action games  than exploration- or mystery-based ones. They both ended up really enjoying Outer Wilds, which speaks to the game’s appeal regardless of its gameplay genre.

I stand by everything I wrote in my review, although I admit I was often more descriptive than opinionated in it. This is largely due to attempting to avoid spoilers, as discovery is the core of the game. I think in the end, Outer Wilds is a game that transcends the sum of its parts. The creativity in design and core gameplay mechanics are solid, but are they are primarily there to provide an immersive conduit to the game’s core loop of exploration, discovery, and puzzle-solving. Using these mechanics to uncover the lore and piece the mystery together creates a unique and memorable experience that is difficult to define with a score or rating, or even a review. Outer Wilds may be a 4.5-star game in my opinion from a pure video game perspective, but it’s a 5-star experience and one of my favorite video games ever made. It’s worth experiencing for yourself.

Other helpful reviews:

Kotaku (Jason Schreier)
Polygon (Jeff Ramos)

Thanks for reading!

– Brandon

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