Available on: Xbox One & PC
Played on: Xbox One X
Outer Wilds is No Man’s Sky meets Groundhog Day. That’s all you really need to know in order to grasp its simple and yet endearing premise. You play as an alien pilot, waking by the campfire on the eve of your launch into your small, fully explorable solar system. After roasting a marshmallow on the fire, you set about saying your goodbyes to your fellow villagers – most encounters acting as brief tutorials for Outer Wilds’ core mechanics – before following in the footsteps of the space adventurers who came before you. Your mission? Simply to explore.
However, exploration is not quite that simple in Outer Wilds. Before embarking on your maiden voyage, you encounter a statue of the an ancient and mysterious forerunner alien race known as the Nomai. It’s this statue that is seemingly the cause of Outer Wilds’ defining mechanic, and which in turn drives your exploration across the solar system; one that is seemingly doomed to be wiped out when the sun goes supernova after 22 minutes. However, thanks to the statue, each time you die (be it by supernova, or your own reckless actions) you wake again on your home planet, ready to take to the stars and explore again. And whilst most of those around you have no idea of what is going on, you are gifted with remembering everything from your previous journeys into the unknown, with everything handily stored within your ship computer.
I haven’t played enough of Outer Wilds to call this a review, but from what I have played I know I already love this charming game. The central mechanic – of the sun going supernova every 22 minutes – means you can play for hours if you wish, or you can just as easily play a single 22 minute run. The clock doesn’t add a lot of pressure, as everything you have found is stored ready for your next run, and so it only really causes an issue if you’re unlucky enough to be discovering something right at the precise moment when things go boom. I think the ability to play in bite-size 22 minutes chunks is brilliant as I’m often busy, only having time for a quick gaming session every other evening (if I’m lucky).
These 22 minute resets create a unique flow for Outer Wilds that combines with its quirky solar system to deliver a game that’s not quite like anything else. Outer Wilds’ sandbox solar system is small, but fully explorable, and there are secrets aplenty to discover at every turn. Compare this with No Man’s Sky – at least when it initially launched – and Outer Wilds feels like a lesson in why bigger isn’t necessarily better. This compact little solar system has just as much adventure to offer as a procedurally generated universe, with the added bonus that each 22 minute journey acts as a joyous roll of the dice; you may spend your time travelling to a new planet and finding nothing of note, or you may just as easily stumble across something of profound interest. Or you might do what I did on my maiden space voyage; decide to land on a comet, over-shoot it, and fly head first into the sun. Don’t worry if you do, however, as you simply wake up at the camp fire, marshmallow at the ready, prepped to start your next 22 minute session.
It’s not just this Groundhog Day inspired time loop that makes Outer Wilds such a charming experience though. There’s a certain clumsiness to navigating in your ship and space suit that lends credence to the game’s conceit that you’re a new pilot in an infantile space program. Everything in the game also feels handmade; like your ship and equipment were cobbled together from everyday items re-purposed for space exploration. Even the planets feel tactile, maintaining that cobbled together feel as if they’re balls of plasticine that have been rolled through a toy box. It’s a wonderful feeling, reminiscent of the original Star Wars trilogies handmade models, and not the CGI heavy prequels.
There are some drawbacks to the Outer Wilds experience, however, that I should mention. Firstly on Xbox One X the frame rate often takes a sharp dive and I’ve even encountered instances where the game completely locks up for a number of seconds. At first I thought my console had frozen, but eventually the game comes back to life. Secondly, there isn’t any hand-holding when it comes to your ship’s computer. It handily stores everything you’ve come across, acting as your ‘mind palace’, with rumours helping to direct your exploration. However, even in the early game it can be difficult to follow the threads and I imagine that this will only get harder as I explore more. The system itself works really well for tracking your discoveries on each 22 minute session, but a tutorial for this mechanic would have been welcome (perhaps there is one, and I just missed it?)
None of these things are enough to significantly detract from the Outer Wilds experience, however. It’s a wonderful game; the sort that you think about when you’re not actually playing it. With the game available on Xbox Games Pass it’s also super easy to give it a go yourself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 22 minutes to go until my sun explodes, and I have a lot of exploring to do.
All images from http://www.mobiusdigitalgames.com/press.html