Game

Review: Outer Wilds is Small Scale Space Exploration with Big Heart

Screenshot: Outer Wilds

Very mild spoilers ahead:

I love space exploration games. I’ve put thousands of hours into Elite Dangerous, hundreds in No Man’s Sky, and even pledged towards the forever-in-development Star Citizen. Science fiction is great, and I love most sci-fi, whether it’s Star Trek or Star Wars, or most anything in-between.

Outer Wilds is a first person space exploration game. In the story it’s your first day as an astronaut. But you’re not human: you’re a pointy-eared spacefaring being that has access to technology that looks like it has no business leaving any planetary atmosphere. Vessels look like they’re made by children in their basements, constructed from wood and other slapped together objects.

Space is huge, and with its vastness there is potential for so many amazing, weird, or scary stories whose only limitations are often the cleverness of the writers. I admit, despite the buzz it was generating, I didn’t know much about Outer Wilds before I got my hands on it, but it has turned into one of my favorite space exploration games. On top of this, it’s one of my favorites despite how “small” it is: instead of exploring the vastness of space, you are limited to exploring one system and its few planetoids—all of which you can land on and fully explore.

There aren’t exactly missions and waypoints in Outer Wilds. The beginning of the game has you running around in a sort of tutorial with the ultimate goal of getting your launch codes. But after that, what you do and how you approach it is up to you. Even solving the apparent mystery of your circumstances is left to the discretion of the player. There’s a story to be found, if you dig around to find it.

Screenshot: Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds takes the “doesn’t hold your hand” approach and puts it up almost to its full intensity. There is a mystery to solve at the heart of the game, but even the nature of that mystery is not revealed to you without serious searching. Your ship retains the logs of the various places you’ve encountered, as well as keeping the clues of the places you haven’t yet found. In fact, that’s the only thing that’s really persistent for each time loop. Oh yeah, did I mention you’re stuck in a time loop?

Outer Wilds isn’t a linear game. It’s more like a sci-fi Groundhog’s Day. You die, and things get reset. You wake back up in your sleeping bag on your home planetoid of Hearthstone to live through the cycle again—unless you die prematurely, that is. And there are so many ways to die in Outer Wilds.

I’ve flown my ship into the system’s star so many times, or ran out of oxygen while doing some sort of extra vehicular activity on so many occasions that it feels like I wouldn’t have been a great space explorer without the time loop. Everything out there is trying to kill you: from large angler-type fish that will swallow your ship whole to falling sand and lava.

Screenshot: Outer Wilds

There are wondrous things to see and explore. One planet has perpetual storms, while another planet dumps the contents of its sandy surface onto another planet, filling it up with sand. This resets with the time loop—as everything else does—so you can see these impressive feats over and over again as you try to dig through the mysteries of whatever planetoid you may currently be on.

Space is incomprehensibly vast. The space that Outer Wilds occupies is significantly smaller, and ironically, this allows for a more hand crafted experience than larger space exploration games (like Elite Dangerous), allowing the player to interact with things in a more meaningful way. The planets themselves are super small: almost Little Prince small. The system itself, instead of being hundreds of thousands (or millions) of kilometers, is only tens of kilometers. Despite the tiny planetoids, most are jammed full of things to discover and mysteries to ruminate on.

Screenshot: Outer Wilds

Space exploration in video games teeters between the more realistic simulation type games, like Kerbal Space Program or Elite Dangerous to the more arcade-like experiences ala’ No Man’s Sky. Outer Wilds looks and feels like it’s of the No Man’s Sky variety, but in practice it’s more Kerbal Space Program. Your ship has an autopilot that helps a lot early on (and remains ever-useful) but if you find yourself over shooting targets, flying into the sun, or crash landing—it’s all part of the learning curve of moving around with semi-realistic space physics.

Besides your trusty ship, you don’t have much more than your space suit. Your suit has a jetpack with finite fuel, and it is has finite O2. Your probe launcher can send a camera into areas that you may not be able to immediately access (or access at all), and it provides light to illuminate the darker areas. It also shows the hidden pockets of ghost matter—invisible to the naked eye, you will die in moments if you stand in it. You are also equipped with a device that allows you to home in on other adventurers, as well as certain other points of interest.  There aren’t any guns or other weaponry to speak of: your exploration is purely peaceful, even if the angler fish want to take a bite out of you.

There isn’t much I don’t like about Outer Wilds. If this is your type of game, it’s nearly perfect. Go in without spoilers, as there is a deep mystery to uncover–and it doesn’t hold your hand while doing it. If you’re a fan of Dark Souls style environmental storytelling, Outer Wilds is a real treat.

Screenshot: Outer Wilds

There is some controversy surrounding its move to the Epic Games Store, but Outer Wilds is something that’s special, and shouldn’t be ignored because of the storefront it’s on. But if you are disappointed, there is a Steam release planned for some time in the future.

 

Outer Wilds is available now on Windows and Xbox One.

 

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