Outward Offers Unusual RPG Challenges

In Outward, you aren’t the chosen one. You’re really not special, or anyone of any particular note at all outside of the copious debt hanging over your head that kick starts the story.

The impetus of the Outward is gathering money to pay off an arbitrary debt, so taking random jobs in town and killing monsters or finding items in caves is your best bet to pay it off in the time limit. It’s highly recommended that players partake of the tutorial before actually sitting down to play Outward, because the game tries its best to not explain anything and have you pick up important information via context or by talking to random NPCs.

Playing the tutorial to get a feel for the combat will help players more than trying to learn organically before venturing onward and outward into the world. Once you accomplish some small jobs for cash in order to be free of the prologue and its time limit, you can talk to several notable characters and receive information on three places – going to one of these places will lock you into a faction and story route. Each faction can yield small passive bonuses, so you can choose for roleplaying reasons, or just pick whichever one has the bonus you find most effective for how you’re going to play the game.

So, savvy readers will notice that not a lot was said about the story of the game, and that’s largely because… there isn’t a whole lot of it. Characters will talk at length about lore, so this is fantastic for lore hounds, but those wanting to experience a story will pretty much just discover you’re saddled with debt, and you’re given a choice of one of several ways to resolve the debt, go have fun. Story, of course, isn’t the only reason to play a WRPG- there’s exploration, combat, crafting, tons of other systems available to the player in Outward. Talking to NPCs, completing quests, gathering, crafting, and selling items, all of these help you acquire money, to acquire gear, to complete harder quests and get through the game. Money can also be spent on skills that you can use in combat, as well as ordering special armor sets and weapons from specific blacksmith vendors, and more.

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Combat in Outward is not really like many other games that fancy themselves as RPGs. It is likely closer to playing an Elder Scrolls mod in third person than it ever could be compared to something like Dark Souls. Combat has little weight behind it- animations are stilted and clunky, and hit stun is practically nonexistent with certain weapon types, which is where a fair amount of the challenge comes from in Outward. Fighting requires careful maintenance of health, stamina, as well as a white bar that determines whether or not you can be staggered by attacks. The meter in question basically gives super armor to both players and enemies on all of their attacks until it gets halfway depleted (super armor means that you can’t be interrupted while attacking). At 50 percent or less, opposing attacks can interrupt you, and at zero percent, you fall onto the ground helpless for a couple seconds and cannot defend yourself during that time. The goal of combat, especially in the mid and late game, will be to empty this bar on your opponents as quickly as possible, otherwise every time you attack the enemy, they’ll stab you right in the middle of your attack repeatedly (and for a good portion of the beginning, they will deal way more damage, too).

In the beginning of Outward, combat will seem punishing, almost overbearingly so, because your choice of weapon may deal okay health damage but pitiful impact damage, which is what depletes the white bar the fastest. If you chose just a regular sword to fight with, odds are you’re going to be depleting enemy health bars long before their white stun gauge could empty, even playing aggressively. So, at the beginning of the game, your entire time in combat is simply bating out enemy attack, jabbing them once, and then moving out of the way of the next attack- because there is no hit stun and enemies will deal way more health damage than you, you won’t be using combos or anything all because the white stun meter will basically never hit half even against cannon fodder enemies. This is, of course, until you find a weapon with decent impact damage, try it out for kicks, and begin to trivialize combat for the next 20 hours of play time. Combat in Outward can go from overly difficult to completely lacking in challenge in almost the snap of a finger. It’s a bizarre design choice, to say the least, since you go from almost every combat encounter being a huge source of stress to killing almost every enemy in two or at most three hits (high impact weapons are clearly the way to go, notwithstanding how good magic like runic trap can be).

Outward’s combat tries to be a lot more than it actually is- AI will try to exploit its most common flaw (not staggering when hit, so they oftentimes will wait for you to attack), but the AI will also just single-mindedly chase after you. If you prepare traps or other items, you can just keep dropping pressure traps while kiting the enemies and win in that manner. If you’re invested even a little into magic, though, spamming runic traps while walking backwards seems to work on almost every foe in the game with very little effort. Sure, you can avoid high impact melee weapons and firearms, you can avoid using traps and magic, but if you’re avoiding all of that just to make the combat have a semblance of challenge again, you can’t really call that well designed or a game with substantial depth. There are, of course, skills that you can learn by buying them from various NPCs throughout the world, and while some of them have incredible effects, some of them seem to randomly miss a stationary locked on target for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and some of them are quite powerful but have insanely long cooldown times (Enrage lasts for 240 seconds with a 500 second cooldown, for example. That’s over eight minutes for a cooldown), so you won’t be getting to use them more than once per combat encounter.

Outside of combat, there are also the survival elements that Outward is very proud of- your characters must eat, drink, and stay within proper climates to avoid diseases or other debuffs. As for example, being in a chilly area for too long without a torch/campfire or winter clothes can give you a cold, which hurts you stamina regeneration. There are likely dozens of other examples similar to this. Food items are also perishable, so you need to cook or consume them within certain time frames. Running out of food or water can leave your character to get sick or die. Dying in or out of combat can have a whole host of really amusing circumstances- sometimes you may wind up in the care of a Good Samaritan who will leave you a healthy drink, other times you may wind up in a random dungeon or captured by someone on the other side of the map and you’ll have to escape captivity, bribe somebody, the list really goes on as it can create some of the more interesting tales to tell in Outward.

The largest issue with Outward is that the environments are large and spacious, but there’s little life in any of it. In towns, for example, characters sitting at a bar will be completely still in their “sitting” animations- eyes forward, no blinking or so much as turning their heads. This is reminiscent of games on the Dreamcast, but somehow even more stilted and lifeless. Areas outside of towns basically have nothing to do unless you stumble across a spot to collect an item, something that wants to kill you (which, almost everything outside of towns wants to kill you if it isn’t an item), or the entrance to a cave which, coincidentally, will also be filled with things that want to kill you. There is a map in the game, but it’s not as if you have a pointer telling you which direction you’re facing- you’ll need to figure out where you are based off of topography and your compass, which isn’t quite as difficult as it sounds given the lack of meaningful locations in Outward.

Outward is a type of game that, should the player have copious amounts of patience, you will (eventually) be rewarded. Certain decisions seem content with hiding away content for players to actively find and enjoy after- such as how you may stumble upon a cave that unlocks a gameplay element (you unlock mana, and thereby spellcasting as a whole, from a seemingly random unmarked cave in the middle of the first area). Legendary weapons can be found or crafted with materials gathered from all over the world, and finding out that you have the stuff to make one can be a really thrilling experience as well. Weapons and armor also rapidly improve your ability to survive in combat and you’ll find your first few upgrades within short order of leaving the first town and completing a few quests, the most important of which should be a weapon that deals reasonable impact damage. Players are also able to mostly tailor the game to their own experiences, but not everything in Outward is created equal- so if you want to be a one-handed short sword user who doesn’t use traps, guns, or bows, you better find or craft a very good sword (don’t throw away that sword hilt you find on top of a mountain) because without any of the aforementioned items, you’ll need the power of god and anime on your side.

There’s also co-operative play for people on the same couch, and for those online as well. This can dramatically ease combat and make engaging an enemy much easier because two people can fill up an enemy’s white meter much faster than one person could alone, though not much time was spent with this for the purpose of the review, but it is a good thing to note in the event someone was needing a game to play with a friend. Not many games, especially ones with 3D interfaces, offer this kind of cooperative play, so Outward can be commended for that.

All that said, Outward is a bad looking game. It’s very reminiscent of early Xbox 360 titles, and this isn’t being stated lightly. Graphics don’t mean everything, of course, but this is one of the first times in a long while there has been a game that made me pause and actually look at the man eating soup outside of the tavern in the first town- his animation was so stiff and rigid, and then he just stared, unblinkingly, at the bowl he was unnaturally holding away from his body that it actually made me look more closely at the animations and modeling of almost everything in the game. No texture, no character models, no animation found was up to reasonable standards for a realistic-looking game released in the last 13 years. The poor visuals would be forgiven if it actually ran at a reasonable frame rate, but the frame rate is almost always 20fps, texture pop in is constant; it’s just not a visually pleasing game (though this is on a standard PS4, not a PS4 Pro). The music, however, is phenomenal and easily one of the best parts of the game- nothing in particular you may find yourself humming after shutting the game off, but the soundtrack is absolutely pleasant and fits the adventuring feel of Outward to a tee.

Overall, Outward is… fairly average. The game tries to be realistic and challenging, but is easily cheesed by the very same components that make it stand out from the competition (specifically the use of traps and impact weapons to induce stagger via a meter that tends to trivialize a lot of competing weapons). The beginning five to 10 hours are easily the hardest hours of the game, because after that everything will click, you’ll find some decent gear, and you will be well on your way to solve any and all the problems of one of the three factions you join up with throughout the course of the story.

Outward isn’t a bad game by any means- it’s a very ambitious one that couldn’t completely implement all of their ideas. People who have played and enjoyed games like Gothic or Age of Decadence will likely find something to appreciate in Outward, though the game has a tremendous lack of polish in its mechanics, visuals, and animations for NPCs and in combat. Players who don’t like tougher RPGs would likely do well to stay far, far away from Outward.

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