What makes Outward unique, however, is that it supports split screen cooperative play and is arguably even more demanding than the games that inspired it.
Outward is an ambitious, open world RPG from Nine Dots Studio and publisher Deep Silver. It draws upon the Soulsborne style of combat and takes place in a medieval-fantasy themed world that is not dissimilar in feel to the likes of Skyrim and other high fantasy role players. What makes Outward unique, however, is that it supports split screen cooperative play and is arguably even more demanding than the games that inspired it.
Where Outward is concerned, ambition is a word that I chose very specifically. As you might already have guessed, this is because even though Outward sets very lofty goals for itself, it often fails to execute against them in even the most fundamental way. Your first impression will almost certainly be poor at best, but if you can persevere past the first ten or so hours, you might start to see the positive elements shining through.
Outward opens without much of a story. Our customisable hero is a nobody — a fallen member of their society that is badly in debt and in need of fortune. Sadly, as is often the case in the world of Outward, fortune is not with us. We learn very early in the game that a ship we had hoped would take us to fame and fortune has capsized, leaving us alone and unequipped on an uncharted island.
A lucky or skillful player will experience this island as a kind of in-game tutorial (there is an actual tutorial that’s fairly in depth too) and will be able to equip themselves, find some loot and experience features like combat, hunting, cooking and generally surviving. Most players, however, will simply die. When that happens, you’ll awaken back at home with a mere five days to recover a staggering amount of money or lose your home. I lost my home, and to be honest it felt like an impossible task to overcome.
Outward features a save system that is essentially what you would call “hardcore” in any other game. There’s just one save file and the game chooses when to save, so it’s not possible to make numerous attempts at the same goal. You simply succeed or you fail. Death in Outward has some interesting and unusual consequences because much as on this first island (which is predetermined) you’ll often be whisked away to somewhere you weren’t expecting when you die.
If you are fortunate, you won’t be that far away from where you died. Perhaps the NPC that finds you will even give you some food and water to help you get back into the game. On other occasions, you might wake up as a prisoner or as a slave. This could be a long way from where you last were and on one occasion, I never actually found my way back to where I had last been.
Combat in Outward is as near to Dark Souls as you could imagine a game could be, except that it is slower and more cumbersome. The controls are essentially the same, with light and heavy attacks being possible, and much of the interest from a serious players perspective being to do with stats and min-maxing. There’s a dodge roll and a block, and stamina takes an ungodly amount of time to recover when used.
The real problem with combat in Outward is how unpredictable the range of each attack is, as well as how slow even the fast attacks are. This kind of leads to a feeling that being hit is inevitable, even though you know that your hero isn’t exactly capable of taking a lot of punishment. Thankfully, stupid AI and a fairly solid block mechanism means that combat can be won through grinding — it just isn’t much fun. Add a second player into the mix and things become a lot more enjoyable, thanks to the ability to bait and flank.
When it comes to presentation, Outward is a mixed bag, really. The visuals don’t look too bad on the whole, but this is another area where a creative team has clearly imagined a world that they have not then been able to fully realise. Outward’s world features everything from sandy beaches and lush grassland to otherworldly constructions covered in martian plants — not to mention the typical range of forests, mountains and deserts in between.
The problem is that a lot of the environments look a little dated and even so, performance can still suffer — I tested the game on an Xbox One X. There are other issues with the presentation as well. Remember what I said about first impressions? Well in Outward, the first conversations that you’ll have with NPC’s are a jarring mixture of random spoken phrases and poorly written text. Often what an NPC says on screen will differ to what is spoken, and the decisions about what is and isn’t spoken jar from one conversation to the next.
Whilst combat can frustrate and the voice acted elements of the presentation are poor, Outward has music and sound effects that could raise the bar in a more polished game, just as the split screen aspect could, if used in say, The Witcher 3, or another stellar RPG. The scoring in Outward is unusual, edgy and often soaring in a way that can really add to the impact of some of the more impressive regions. Combat sound effects aren’t bad, either.
In addition to the local multiplayer aspects which are every bit as good as they sound (and don’t cause performance to suffer) Outward has some other neat ideas. The need to consume food and water isn’t new, but it’s rare to see it in this kind of RPG and it is implemented well. Sickness, bleeding, poison and various cures such as potions, bandages and antivenoms all exist and can be crafted, as can a plethora of armour and weapons.
Magic is another interesting inclusion, albeit one which I think pushes the envelope a little too far. In general, magic is seen as a powerful force in the world of Outward, so the game limits its use primarily by making it hard to cast effectively. Spells require steps to be followed in order to maximise their power, which can include consuming certain potions, then casting a base spell, then a more powerful one to combine with it. These effects can be achieved cooperatively during a multiplayer game, which is perhaps a feat that few will achieve, impressive as it is.
Overall, I have to return to one of my opening comments when summing up my time with Outward. This is a game which aspires to do something very unusual and very commendable, but ultimately, it falls short. It is by no means a bad game, but it isn’t the amazing game it could have been and I think for that reason, it will struggle to hold the attention of the average gamer.
If you are a hardcore RPG fan looking to recapture the challenge of the very first The Witcher and can overlook that Outward has less charm, next to no story and a much lower standard of execution, then it might be worth a look. Dark Souls fans looking for something even more challenging could also find solace here. Ultimately, a flawed but ambitious effort that should have cut loose some of its peripheral ideas in favour of delivering on its core capabilities.