Outward Preview – when life (constantly) gives you lemons

Make bitter lemon?

Real life kind of sucks sometimes, so it’s no surprise that video games are there as an escape where you can go to essentially be the centre of that world. Almost every game is created around the power fantasy of the players, but I’ve always been fascinated by games that skirt the god complex in favour of something far less forgiving.

Outward, a cooperative survival RPG releasing later this month, is designed around this core concept of the world owing you nothing. You start washed up after the wreckage of a ship and must find your way to safety. Shortly after waking, you find the only other surviving member of the boat who offers to take you back to your home town of Cierzo, but once there you are told you owe money and if you do not pay within five days, you will lose your home.

This is a pretty consistent theme in Outward. The world certainly doesn’t revolve around you and there isn’t really anyone looking to protect or guide you. You can work to pay off that debt or simply skip town, the choice is really up to you. While the open-ended gameplay was quite enjoyable at first, I found myself craving some form of direction. After some digging around I managed to find a few branching quest paths that would take me in three different directions.

This is when I started battling with Outward’s incredibly punishing difficulty and unusual approach to death. Rather than having the ability to reload a previous save, players must face whatever the game throws at them in a number of randomly generated scenarios. You may find yourself respawning back at Cierzo, but you could also find yourself incarcerated or taken as a slave. It reminded me of the system seen in the Mount & Blade series, which itself borrowed from numerous tabletop RPGs.

It’s a system that I like in theory, but Outward’s delivery can sometimes feel a bit too unfair. With a combat system that mimics combat seen in Soulsborne titles, but without the same level of finish or balance, death can sometimes feel incredibly unfair. Where Souls games punish genuine mistakes with a reasonable forfeit for death, Outward will strip you of all your belongings and place you in an environment that’s annoyingly difficult to escape. After losing a lot of progress on more than a few occasions, I found myself pining for a save and reload system that would make engaging in Outward’s unusual death system optional.

There are a surprising number of weapons in the game, ranging from swords, daggers and axes, to bows, crossbows and even guns. There’s also a fairly in depth magic system for those that enjoy the role of mage. The game’s systems, items and the general level of customisation are incredibly deep, but it’s just a shame that the combat isn’t more enjoyable. With a bit more polish it could be great, but it feels overly rigid and at times a bit janky.

Outward’s survival elements create a constant feeling of urgency during gameplay as you are always having to balance the thirst and hunger of your character. Monsters and enemies in the world can also inflict illnesses, which require specific items to heal, although I found that sleeping tended to cure most ailments.

I think Outward’s greatest strength is also its biggest flaw; in a game with so many different ideas, it’s really hard to excel in any single one of them. That’s not to say I think Outward is bad, as there is a lot of clever and innovative game design to be found here. The ability to take off your character’s bag during battle to improve agility is a really clever touch, and while it needs to be balanced, the death mechanic is a great touch too.

Outward releases later this month on 26th March, so I look forward to seeing what version 1.0 will bring with it. I think Outward will really resonate with one specific niche of the gaming community, but I believe its commitment to providing an unforgiving, and often brutal experience may prove too much for some.

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