Out There is one of the most engrossing and enjoyable games I’ve played on iOS. The game puts you in the role of an astronaut in the 22nd century, sent out on an exploratory mission to save Earth from it dwindling resources. While engaged in cryo-sleep, a malfunction sends the ship hurtling through the cosmos and into uncharted space, turning the mission into a quest for survival. The long journey home is no walk in the park as fuel, oxygen and hull integrity must be constantly managed and maintained in the face of growing celestial adversity.
The gameplay loop of Out There is easy enough to grasp. Getting to Earth requires forging a path home by hopping across dozens of individual star systems, collecting life saving resources and coping with a laundry list of obstacles along the way. Collecting resources is accomplished by visiting the game’s three planet types. Metallic planets are as the primary source for materials to repair the ship and craft new technology. Gas planets yield both Hydrogen and Helium, both of which will fill your fuel tanks. Planets with a breathable atmosphere will automatically replenish Oxygen levels and allow a moment to interact with the locals. Planets do not contain an infinite amount of resources and continuous mining will offer diminishing returns until they have been depleted. Obtained items and technology are held within a grid-based cargo bay where space is an absolute premium. Deciding what to take and leave behind is often difficult and fitting given the game’s harsh, survivalist tone.
The planetary makeup of each star system is purposefully left unknown. There is technology available to identify the contents of a system, though you’ll be flying blind until it can be crafted. You might come across a star system comprised of multiple planets or none at all. Some systems will even hold unique surprises such as alien space stations that will top off fuel or oxygen tanks or completely repair the ship. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you may even find an abandoned starship ripe for the plucking or a black hole that will warp you to other previously discovered singularities – assuming you have the right piece of equipment to do so.
Randomness and chance are what drive Out There. The return trip to Earth is marked by a series of unpredictable onscreen events and prompts that can positively and negatively affect the game. Rewards can range from instant ship repairs, learning new technology and understanding an alien language. New technology can open up additional flight and mining benefits as well as make space travel require less fuel. Technology can even give bring dead planets back to life through terraforming or kill it using a device called the Death Seed. Random events combined with repeated interactions with alien civilizations will slowly translate the game’s alien language. The benefit of uncovering the meaning behind words affords better chances to have pleasant conversations that leave you with the precious and extremely useful Omega element.
The negative consequences of Out There’s random events range from innocuous to outrageously reprehensible. Ship technology is susceptible to getting damaged and can easily halt progress. Most technology can be repaired by throwing a few pieces of Iron at the problem while more advanced systems require additional minerals and ores. If you haven’t been dutifully collecting these ores, the penalties are severe. For example, if the interstellar engine cannot be repaired, your ship cannot move between planets. Should the Space Folder break, travelling between systems is impossible. Lacking the necessary resources to repair damaged ship components there is the option of cannibalizing functional equipment, destroying one to bring life to another. Dismantling equipment should always be a last resort, given one nefarious setback: the forgetting of technology. It pays to be certain that the knowledge to craft tech has been properly retained before breaking anything down. There is nothing worse than destroying Probe tech to repair the engines only to discover that the outcome of a previous event took away your ability to craft the Probe again, removing the primary means to collect fuel. With all options exhausted, the only thing left to do is quit and start over.
When the game is lost – and it will happen often – starting over means going back to the very beginning. As with any roguelike, nothing gets carried over from previous games. Technology must be relearned and the alien language retaught. To make things even more interesting, the star map is reshuffled, making any attempt to memorize advantageous star systems an exercise in futility. Difficult and slightly unfair it may be, such inconveniences are what make roguelikes so compelling and interesting. Out There is testing your ability to react to crippling situations without warning. Learning how to cope with them and juggling resources to accommodate such events is more thrilling than it sounds.
Though set in the cold, empty void of space, Out There is anything but boring. The odds of getting back to Earth are stacked decidedly against the player, which makes any accomplishment, be it getting farther than any previous session or actually reach the end of the game, feel well deserved. The unique and grim tone of Out There is backed by a tasteful visual comic book-style design that’s somewhat reminiscent of Dave Gibbons’ work on the Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars re-release. The cartoonish visuals do not get in the way of the harrowing and near depressing story of one astronaut’s desperate attempt to live long enough to see Earth.
Simple to grasp and difficult to master, Out There is a dark but richly entertaining story of survival. It surprised me by combining two of my favorite things, Mass Effect 2’s space faring and mining components (yes, I did like it) and Choose Your Adventures. I’ve played the game dozens of times and while I have yet to reach Earth (I came really close a few times), I am determined to do so. Each loss suffered, each quit game is an education, a suggestion that a different approach might be enough to get me back home.