I was intrigued by the notion of Outward, which has been tagged on Steam and in various reviews as Souls-like survival. As a fan of both FromSoftware and various survival/crafting games, I was expecting unforgiving and highly precise combat coupled with a wide open environment to explore and master. The reality is a little different. Outward looks and plays like a decade or more old game and its combat is fairly awful, about as distant from the tuned combat ballet of Dark Souls as imaginable.
But Outward does have a very singular gameplay concept and it sticks to it. You play a “normal” person, tasked to physically survive and complete tasks for a variety of people and factions, all the while negotiating an open world that is harsh, to say the least. It’s a game of the most mundane, everyday survival tasks like eating, drinking and resting, suffused with the constant tension that comes from existing in a world where just about everything is hostile, from the weather to the water to the beasts that roam the land. The night is very dark and you are very vulnerable. Can you sleep with one eye open? Very gradually you will come to have a degree of comfort or safety, but never complacency.
It could be argued that Outward is a refreshing and oblique take on the powerful mages and walking tanks so common to medieval fantasy games, because both magic and effective weapons take forever to learn or craft, and it’s just as common to die from infection from a wolf bite than being cut down by a mighty warrior. Although there is no permanent death in Outward, there is a single save slot per character and all decisions are final. There is failure, lots of it, and it means awakening with nothing — and an old-school corpse run — or worse yet, reviving in the den of whatever bandit or sharp-tooth critter felled you to begin with. Outward is not a story-heavy game, though there are NPCs with tales to tell and quests to assign and who give you specific tasks to complete out in the big, bad world. Primarily, Outward is a game of exploration, making and using tools that bring a little more protection from the environment, which is both fun and perilous to experience.
It’s easy to respect, if not enjoy, the decisions and gameplay mechanics that underscore Outward, but it’s unfortunately pretty hard not to be dismayed by its low-rent graphics, janky controls, bugs, and bargain bin combat. The lighting engine manages to pull off some nice moments but the character models are uniformly awful and movement is floaty and imprecise. A lush and varied musical score is a welcome bit of excellence but the overall environmental and weapon sound design is pallid.
However, there is a saving grace to Outward, which is the ability to play the game in split screen co-op mode. This renders so many situations — from combat to exploration to resource gathering — much less frustrating and I think is probably the way the game should be played.
Outward is a game of disappointments and intriguing potential. While its dated-looking graphics and unsatisfying combat are off-putting, it stands alone as an RPG of particularly human scale. We may not need to be reminded that humans are frail and fragile creatures in a scary world, but Outward takes a conceptual chance and sees it through to the end.