Thanks to PR for the review code for this one!

Looking Outward

I've always been a fan of games which try something different, from the epic difficulty and rote-mastery of the *Soulsborne series to the story-driven and immersive world of Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Soul's games require a certain mastery of the combat system, and Witcher games give you meaningful dialogue peppered with the monster slaying and choices which truly do matter.

What I haven't really seen up until now is a game where you just play an ordinary person who does amazing things, but remains for the most part: ordinary. Not the child of some great prophesy or the daughter of a famous bloodline, just a regular person who has to make do with a general level of skill and a passable understanding of how to survive in a dangerous world.

Welcome to Outward and its land of Aurai, split into different regions which all have their own unique biomes and mechanics.

Outward is made by a team of 10 folks from Nine Dots, and whilst it has a few rough edges, the mix of mechanics and gameplay provide a compelling game which reminds me of the very early days when I encountered the Gothic series.

I recommend that you dive into the tutorial upon starting the game, since there's a lot of diverse and interesting mechanics to take into account and this tutorial series will show you them in the game and how they work.

The tutorial can be played solo or with a friend online or split-screen couch co-op style.

I'll cover the co-op a bit later on.

The Backdrop

You are the son or daughter of a bloodline who owes a lot of money in the tribe you're part of. The Blood Price on your head, thanks to an over-zealous and wastrel of a relative is in the thousands but your first obstacle after you start the game is stumping up the 150 silver in just five days.

It's not an easy task and for some it might appear quite daunting.

That's Outward in a nutshell, not an easy task, appears quite daunting and doesn't hold your hand in the slightest.

There is a story, but I'm going to let you discover the main beats and choices in that yourself.

Battling beyond the Walls

The regions of Outward are designed to challenge the most seasoned of RPG players. The first region isn't too bad, populated by a mix of hyenas, pearlbirds, bandits and a few other monsters which are tough but manageable once you get the hang of the combat system. Like Souls games before it, Outward will punish you in combat if you over-extend or you fail to balance your attack with defence.

You'll need to keep a close eye on your stamina and your balance meter, because if your balance meter is depleted you can be knocked on your backside and the enemy will get some major hits and damage in. Stamina depletion just means you'll be winded and unable to battle as effectively.

The same goes for enemies though, and in addition to doing damage to their health, you can do damage to their balance too ... knocking them over and letting you hit them hard and get a few sneaky thwacks in.

There's a range of weapons and even skills for you to unlock, with long cooldowns and meaningful uses in combat. This means you can't just spam your abilities, you need to be clever with when and how you use them.

Defeated enemies have loot and it's wise to scavenge stuff from the bodies.

Survival of the Fittest

Outward adds survival style elements to the game, and has some neat takes on the various systems at play in other games of its kind. You have to balance your adventuring lifestyle with the needs of your body.

So, food and drink for starters, atop this your body temperature is also important. Get too cold and you'll run the risk of catching a cold and that'll hamper your stamina regeneration over time. Several debilitations can happen as you venture further into the world and you're going to want to know how to deal with them effectively.

You're going to bleed too, since some enemies can cut you badly and you'll start to lose health over time until the bleed effect goes away.

Fortunately Outward has a bunch of systems in place which let you sort out these problems.

You have a really clever and robust crafting system which lets you tear your unused clothing into cloth, two of these cloths can make a bandage and that's your bleeding and healing sorted. You can also make new weapons, armour, and more using it. There are recipes which you can buy or learn, and they're added to your list once you discover them.

Hunger, well, you could eat things raw, but that's not a good idea unless you really want to get sick.

So you can grab 3 bits of wood from a tree, then make a campfire and use that to cook up berries and bits of meat you can get from hunting critters and certain monsters. You can cook simple meals on this, or use a waterskin to get salt water and boil it. This gives you clean water and salt (used in the preservation of foods).

A fishing pole will let you gather fish from fishing spots.

You can buy a cooking pot and an alchemy kit. The former is great for mixing together ingredients for various dishes. You could put two chunks of cooked meat and two salt together and get jerky for example, so that recipe is free for you from this review, save that 25 silver!

Have you caught a cold? Throw some seaweed and clean water into a cooking pot to make a soothing tea which will help.

Alchemy kits are used to make life potions and other alchemical substances.

Your stamina and health are not infinite either, and portions of those will be burnt over time and these dark segments cannot be recovered unless by certain foods and potions. So you'll need to look at other means.

Remember I said you had things to track, such as food and drink?

Well, Outward also requires you keep an eye on how tired you are. Sleep is important or you're going to suffer for it. You can't just tromp around the wilderness as though you own it.

You either need to rest in a bed at home, in an inn, or set up a little camp outside town where you can recuperate and rest.

You can buy a bed roll to sleep on, or you can get a few different styles of tents.

Camping isn't just a case of deploying a fire and a tent either; you need to take care of things when you camp.

Sleep, Guard, Repair: The menu will show you how much time you allocate to each one and the chances of an ambush if you're not camped in a safe place (denoted by butterflies in the area).

Repair is important since clothing, armour, weapons, and a few other things require their durability restored or they become less effective over time.

Only equipped items will be repaired, so you might need to spend a couple of camp rests doing more than one repair.

These systems combine effectively to make a pretty compelling experience, where you can spend days out in the wild and as long as you're prepared you'll be just fine and free from any kind of complications. They're systems which work for you as the player, not against you. Even getting a cold can be cured with soothing tea and enough rest as long as you're prepared.

An Example of Play

I remember it being winter, since there are seasons in Outward, and I was outside the main city you begin the game at. I'd paid off the Blood Price and I was on about the 20th Day of the game with a few side quests underway and a main quest to follow. I was scavenging from dead hyenas when I was caught by a couple of bandits - it was cold, and I'd just caught a proper cold, so my stamina was down too...

I killed the one, but the other hit me hard enough to flatten me on my back. I managed to take him down, but not before I was bleeding half to death. I quickly looted both of them as my health was starting to take a turn for the worse. My stamina was recovering, but much slower.

The guy had a hood... so I ripped that and his boots up to make linen cloth. Two linen cloth strips later and I had a bandage. It didn't sort me out fully, but it stopped the blood loss and brought me back up. I was hungry, thirsty, and I had this damn cold...

So I went back to an area by the hill and setup a small fire, my tent, and sorted myself out. I'd got meat from the hyena and a few berries from the bandit's pockets. My pockets were overflowing and I was starting to get heavy in terms of encumbrance, since the game has weight limits on your character's personal pockets as well as their backpack.

It was also getting dark.

See, Outward comes to life in moments like this, and because I have a large-ish 50lb backpack stuffed to the brim with essentials like my cooking pot and alchemy kit, I can't carry around a Skyrim's worth of loot to trade in at the nearby city. I have to manage my personal inventory and backpack.

Plus, I can't fight in that backpack, so I have to drop it when I'm in combat or I can't dodge roll as effectively ... it slows my dodge roll a lot.

I feel like a proper adventurer. The wind is howling, the snow is falling, and now I'm sitting here with a stupid cold and thinking, "Well, Aragorn never had to deal with shit like this!"

My tent looks inviting and I check my pack, it's got soothing tea in there since I'd been on the beach an hour or two earlier looking for seaweed. I'd got two waterskins, losing some weight there since the water in the skin counts for the weight as well. I drank the tea and set up my little tent close by to the fire.

It dropped darker still and fortunately I'd set my camp up near a safe spot, so the chances of ambush were nil. I set aside 5 hours for repair and because of the cold I reckoned ten hours for sleep.

This is what makes Outward so special, so immersive, and so impressive for such a small studio.

Sure, there are some issues with the AI and the pathfinding of certain characters. There's some clunkiness here and there, but when you have compelling mechanics like this, it doesn't matter if the game doesn't quite shine with a high level of polish.

It delivers the feeling of adventure fantasy, where you're just this guy or gal trying to get by with what you have.

You don't start off as a chosen one; you don't even have magic until you find out where you can get it from. Even then, Outward doesn't let you off easy, nope, you have to pay for that magic and you do so by allocating lost health and stamina to power your mana.

Being a mage in Outward actually means something special.

Finding your Way

There are no quest markers to follow, or map markers telling you where you are. You have to navigate by landmarks and directions. It's very refreshing actually, and makes me long for more of these games from now on. It gives you a marker to your dropped backpack, but that's about it. The map shows important things so you can kind of find your way.

The Narrative of Defeat

Outward is hard, it's really hard until you get the hang of a few things and buy some skills with your hard-won silver. Even then, like Souls, it can punish you for over-extending and cocking up your run.

So you're going to take damage, you're going to succumb to poisons or other elements; you're going to die...

Well, actually, you're not going to die. Since there's no death in Outward as we look at character death in RPGs usually.

What happens is that the game triggers a 'Defeat Scenario' and it creates a deeply personal narrative in that regard.

Let me tell you a story of my first defeat.

I had ventured out of the city the day after clearing my debts, and I was high on life. This guy was going to be all badass and monster slaying. I was going to make a name for myself by clearing out a burrow I'd heard about and being all Geralt-y about it.

First mistake...

Second mistake happened down the road; I saw a hyena wandering around and decided to attack it. I could use the meat and it might have crafting materials too. I was able to sneak up on it, get a few hits in and what I hadn't seen were the three other hyenas just out of sight waiting to ambush me. They brought me down fast, and I wasn't able to react quickly enough.

I went down.

It went black.

I was dragged to their lair and left inside to die.

So now I had to recover my wits and get back on my feet. I got my gear, I got my healing potion (life potion) and I scavenged what I could from inside the little bastards' lair.

I snuck out and I was able to kill one of the hyena's who'd strayed from the group.

The rest of them closed in, and I was low on stamina after the fight, so I ran for it.

I got hit a couple of times, killed another one, and managed to put some distance between me and them until they gave up. All except one annoying bugger who I decided to attack.

I didn't do so well though, and once again, I fell.

A kindly ranger type saw me, and brought me back according to the loading screen, I woke up by a fire and I was alive. My pack was nearby and the stranger had gone.

Wait, you cry, just reload the save right?

There's only one save, and it auto-saves regularly, so you can't save scum and reload.

Imagine this scenario if you could though, I'd have missed out on that character's narrative moments if I'd been able to reload. The fact I now had a grudge against the whole hyena pack up there was important... it was a story and narrative moment not written in any forced cut-scene or script.

It was marvellous.

Old School Co-op

There's co-op in this game, and it's old-school style. You can join in on a friend's game, or randoms, or you can play couch co-op in split-screen.

Things get harder with two people. But you can trade stuff, you can choose who does what when you camp out in the wild and you can share the burden. If you trust your buddy enough, they can bring along a huge pack and carry all the loot whilst you have a light pack and do a lot of the grunt work when it comes to fighting.

One of you can cast a fire sigil on the ground and the other can use it to beef up their spells.

You cooperate and that's an important thing here.

You bring your own character in, but your quest progress isn't affected and there's a bug with the backpacks if you're not careful. Many people like to put all their new loot into their pockets before they log out and that seems to fix it.

Hopefully the bug'll be squashed fairly soon.

The main thing is that the game features this level of cooperation and it's fun to play with a friend as you explore the many locations the game has to offer.

Large Open World

Outward is a large open world, you need to travel to new locations and you need to craft travel rations to do so. You can adventure solo or with a friend in the same big area and you can do your own thing if you desire. There's no tether holding you back as long as you're in the same region of the game world.

Charming Adventure

I have to say that I am digging the graphics in the game, they're not top-top quality, but they're not the worst I've seen. The animations are pretty good and there's a lot of immersion and interactivity with the various objects you can use as a player. The combat looks good, and the effects look cool for magic.

The voice work is a little rough, but nothing compared to Two Worlds. There's a mix of voice and written text. You'll get some of the voice, and then you'll need to read the rest.

The music is good stuff, sweeping and lulling at times, with a great mix of location independent scores.

The sound work is excellent, and the environments are brought to life in a solid way.

Life Goes On

Outward is best described as a 'Adventurer Simulator' which simulates the lifestyle of a normal person, thrust into a life of outdoors survival and daily needs, where the silver they earn means something and the food they cook keeps them alive. The systems at play in the game are truly impressive, and again, for such a small studio - the team have done wonders with this game.

It's not quite a gem, because it requires polish, but it's one I'd recommend to fans of harder and more rewarding games.

Death is never on the cards in Outward, but defeat can lead to consequences and problems which you'll need to overcome.

Aurai awaits!