Outer Wilds is a game that’s been on the periphery for years. After an alpha release in 2015 the title became the first to be funded via Fig, then was bought by Annapurna, and then four years passed. The team behind the game continued regularly updating backers of Outer Wilds, but the industry admittedly has a short memory.
When Outer Wilds popped up for review all I knew about it was that it’s a space game. I vaguely remembered the Fig thing, but it’s hard to keep track of all the crowdfunding stuff. I like space, though, so I figured I’d find Outer Wilds interesting. I didn’t have any expectations going in, and maybe that’s what made the experience so enjoyable. Outer Wilds is one of the best-designed games I’ve ever played.
Outer Wilds Review | Space, The Final Frontier
You take the role of a rookie astronaut from the planet Timber Hearth, located in the titular Outer Wilds star system. The Hearthians have recently developed the ability to travel through space and have discovered that a race called the Nomai previously inhabited the system, but have disappeared. Your task is to explore the Outer Wilds system and attempt to find out more about the Nomai.
When you first start the game, you don’t really get any hints other than the locations of a few fellow astronauts that are scattered throughout the system. You grab the launch codes (after being stared at by a weird Nomai statue with glowing eyes), thrust yourself into space, and pick a direction. More than likely, you’ll die learning the basics. If not, then you’ll see the main hook of the game first hand as the sun explodes into a supernova and wipes out all the entire Outer Wilds system.
Regardless of how you die, you’ll find yourself right back at the elevator to your spaceship. Congratulations, you’re stuck in a time loop. When the statue stared at you, it linked to your consciousness. Now, no matter what kills you, you’ll awaken staring at the sky 20 minutes before the sun goes supernova.
It’s your job to find out the why of everything. What’s causing the supernova? What’s causing the explosion you see when you awaken after each loop? Where are the Nomai? All of these lead to more questions and more exploration as you uncover the past of the Outer Wilds.
Outer Wilds Review | In space no one can hear you scream.
Besides a giant supernova, a lot of other things will be trying to kill you in Outer Wilds. The art style is pastel and exaggerated, which belies the fact that every environment you face is incredibly hostile.
Space in Outer Wilds, like space in real life, will kill you without the protection of your environmental suit. There are no reminders of this, so if you get in a rush like me, you’ll jump out of your ship in a vacuum and quickly die. Outside of your ship, your supply of oxygen and jetpack fuel is limited.
Your limited resources force you to think on your feet. You can’t just trundle out of your spaceship and take the scenic route. You have to mentally map the surfaces of the various worlds you’ll visit and memorize which ways are safe and which are hazardous. You’ll often find that central locations have shortcuts that can shave off the time needed to get there, but they contain more perils or aren’t readily apparent.
Each of the six main planets is vastly different from the next, which keeps exploring interesting. Your home, Timber Hearth, is the most Earth-like, and it’s covered with trees, grass, and oxygen. It stands in contrast to Brittle Hollow, which has a rocky shell surrounding an energetic black hole. Each planet has its own unique mechanics and environments that you have to learn to work around if you want to solve the mysteries of the Nomai.
Outer Wilds Review | A puzzle spanning eons.
As I stated above, Outer Wilds has some of the best design I’ve seen in a game. For one, it’s open world. I didn’t realize this until about 15 hours of play time, but you’re not shoehorned into any course of action at all. You can go anywhere you want right off the bat.
The reason Outer Wilds doesn’t feel open world is because it’s all one big puzzle, and you need the clues from one place to know what to do somewhere else. The cool thing is that you’re totally free to logic out things on your own. The solution to each quandary you face is eventually spelled out for you if you look hard enough, but you can also come to a lot of the conclusions on your own by observation and experimentation. This gives you the option to play the game in a fairly linear fashion, moving from clue to clue, or “sequence break” and bypass swathes of exploration needed to find these clues.
I liked the fact that you weren’t tied to an arbitrary progression system. You don’t have to read a particular log or observe an event to proceed in the game. The Outer Wilds goes exactly at your pace. That might be boring if it weren’t for the time loop that gives a frantic feel to each moment of your journey.
The time loop is more than just a timer. It’s a sequence of events that happen all over the solar system like clockwork. Over 20 minutes you’ll see planets collapse and be transformed. This adds another dynamic to the overall puzzle. You’re only able to access some areas later in the time loop. Alternatively, you’ll find locations you could freely travel to when the loop starts wholly blocked off by the time it ends.
Depending on how you tackle the game, this can lead to some frustration. Several times I found myself just waiting around on an event to occur so I could test a theory only to find that I was wrong, and I had wasted 20 minutes. A few of the puzzles, especially towards the end game, are obtuse enough that even with the clues provided you’ll have to make a logical leap to figure them out. I loved how much Outer Wilds tested my ability to bring the clues provided together in the right way. Several times I came to an epiphany of what I was supposed to do in a situation and was amazed at how it all meshed.
Outer Wilds Review | Putting on your thinking cap.
Outer Wilds prizes observation more than almost any game I’ve played. Besides activating switches and other minor interactions, you can’t influence your environment. You can’t force your way into or out of a situation. Instead, you have to use your wit to bring the pieces needed to overcome an obstacle together.
Looking at the game as a whole, it’s incredible just how much stuff is happening in 20 minutes. It took me around 20 hours to beat Outer Wilds going at a reasonably leisurely pace. It’s easy to get sidetracked since you’ll usually get several clues at once to follow up on. It’s also not hard to misinterpret one and end up trying to progress in the wrong direction. Fortunately, even if one clue stumps you, you get multiple that point you in the right direction.
There aren’t any enemies out to zap you, so your only real tasks to stay alive are to not run into anything going too fast, keep your suit intact, and make sure you don’t run out of oxygen. However, this isn’t an easy game, even though you’re only directly competing against the clock. There aren’t waypoints on your HUD for the next objective, and if you don’t like retracing your steps and sometimes getting stumped, then Outer Wilds will likely frustrate you.
I loved the stark loneliness of exploring the Nomai ruins, and it was one of the most satisfying adventures I’ve had this year. Outer Wilds gives that same feeling I get when playing one of those really unforgiving SCUMMVM or Sierra adventure games. The most unfortunate thing about this title is the lack of replay value. Once you finish it, there’s not much left to do. However, the first trip is so good that replay value isn’t something to worry too much about.
Outer Wilds Review | Mystery of the year.
I love Outer Wilds, and I hope we see more games like it in the future. It takes the fairly common trope of the time loop and forges it into a fantastic game experience. The whole thing could have come off as gimmicky, but it gives a frantic feeling to the exploration that gives the Outer Worlds system the extra edge it needs to really drive its mystery home.
As someone who loves adventure and puzzle games, Outer Wilds was a match made in heaven. It’s not action-packed, and there’s not crafting or deep survival mechanics like most space games have. Instead, it delivers an engaging mystery that isn’t spoon fed to you. It offers its own unique challenge that I highly recommend to anyone that loves video games or space.