Outer Wilds Review

A space archaeology game where the only way you progress is by discovering more secrets about the universe you inhabit

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Written by Josh Humphriss

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Posted: 20 Jan, 2023

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Modified: 22 Jan, 2023

Outer Wilds

A game about uncovering a mystery set in space

16 Masterpiece
Rank: #1
Tech Score: -0

Awards: Most Innovative Exploration

It Nearly Got: Best Soundtrack

DLC

DLC are reviewed separately and do not affect the game's rating.

DLC Score Tech
Echoes of the Eye
15
-0
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20 hours

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March 2021

Introduction

I've always heard great things about Outer Wilds, so I went into it with extremely high expectations. And somehow, this game managed to exceed them. The more time that passes after having played Outer Wilds, the more I realise how special this game is.

What makes Outer Wilds so special? There's many reasons, but the main reason I love outer wilds so much is the progression system. In Outer Wilds, you don't gain any upgrades, you don't (particularly) gain more skill, instead the entire progression system is based around knowledge. The whole game is based around discovering clues and uncovering a mystery. If you like exploring and piecing together a mystery, you'll love this game.

However, since the entire progression system is built around your understanding of the world, it goes without saying that you should be really wary of spoilers! As in, even more so than any other game. In this review I will not be spoiling anything major but if you want to play through the game completely blind then stop reading and play it now - You won't regret it!

But Where Do I Go?

As you load into your save you will wake up next to a campfire. You will then spend a short while on the ground before you're able to blast off into space, and go anywhere. Yes, I mean absolutely anywhere. From right at the beginning of the game, you are able to go anywhere you want. Want to skip right to the scary looking planet? Go for it! Part of the genius of Outer Wilds is that whichever order you explore in, it still works. It also means that you're playthrough will be completely different from anyone else's - and that's pretty cool.

However, when I first realised this I was a bit startled. I'm so used to games telling me where to go and what to do that I didn't know what I should visit first. I like doing things in the order the developer intends as it generally gives a better experience so I kept asking different NPCs for an answer, but there's nothing. "Just explore!", the game says. So I did.

Also, if you think exploration in games is just a side activity where you find out some lore behind the game consisting of nothing particularly interesting - Think again! In case I haven't convinced you already, yes outer wilds is very different.

A Mystery to Uncover

Now you've picked a random planet and you've flown straight into it landed safely on it, what do you do? Why, explore of course! This might seem like it would feel aimless, but it won't be long before you've found a clue which leads to two more clues which leads you to discover an important area that helps piece together part of the puzzle.

In my playthrough I sometimes wondered if something was just part of the game, or if it actually had some in-game meaning connected to the mystery. Every single time there was an explanation there to be discovered. When I refer to the 'mystery', I'm not just referring to one specific question, but any question really that you'd ask right now, such as "Why am I here?", "Why does the universe exist?" or "Why do I respawn when I die?".

Or maybe you've heard something mentioned or can see something through a window but can't see how to get there. There is always a way to get there - just keep going! They could have so easily missed out some things but I was consistently impressed at how there was always a way to get somewhere, even if it doesn't initially seem possible.

Never has a game before had me so intrinsically motivated by exploration because I simply want to find out more about the world. Outer Wilds allows you to discover things about the solar system in a way that you wouldn't be able to in real life (or easily, at least). Outer Wilds perfectly captures the satisfaction in the pursuit of knowledge which is so cool in real life.

The Time Loop

The central mechanic of the game is the time loop, and it is through this time loop that the game manages to achieve so many great things.

1. It Complements Exploration

I have never felt like I ended a loop without achieving anything at all. The end of a loop provides an opportunity to reflect on everything you discovered in the past loop, check your ship log and decide what to pursue next. This makes exploration so much more satisfying than if there was no clear end point.

2. It Doesn't Matter if you Die!

Well, it might be slightly annoying in the short-term, but you can easily go right back to where you were and pick up where you left off. This is so integral to how the rest of the game is designed, allowing the creation of a much more hostile environment without it feeling frustrating.

For example, if you get out of your ship without putting a space suit on, you last about 5 seconds and then just die. In any other game, this would be really frustrating, but in Outer Wilds it's just a fun experience and then you can start another loop.

3. It Facilitates the Dynamic Environment

Needless to say, without the time loop it would simply not be possible to have such a dynamic environment. I have discussed the dynamic environment further below.

4. Enticing but not Addictive

I have heard differing opinions regarding this. Some people would argue that Outer Wilds is very addictive, and they always wanted to go for just one more loop. I actually think the opposite. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Outer Wilds, but a big advantage of the game is that I always felt satisfied after playing a few loops. I felt I could boot up the game, play for an hour or so and then stop playing while feeling like I have accomplished something. This made it a great break in between doing other things.

5. It's Integral to the Mystery!

Yes, there's an in-game exploration for this too! Usually in games you just respawn with no real explanation behind it, but in Outer Wilds there is a real explanation for you to discover!

A Dynamic Environment

Did you know that Alex Beachum originally created Outer Wilds as a university project to demonstrate changing environments in video games? All of the unique planets change in a different yet predictable way throughout the loop. This makes the world feel so alive but also doesn't prevent you from exploring anything, as there's always another loop!

Did I say "unique planets"? Wow, these planets are cool. I don't want to spoil them but they are all so unique and definitely worth exploring for yourself. There are big ones, small ones, one with a black hole in the middle, one that's constantly filling up with sand and even one where space doesn't quite work in the way you'd expect...

Puzzles? Slightly...

You might hear people refer to this being a puzzle game, or there being puzzles in Outer Wilds. While there are puzzles, none of them take the form of a traditional puzzle, where you go to a location and have various clues in front of you and solve something. Everything in Outer Wilds is distributed throughout the world, so you won't be able to solve everything by staying in one place. All of the planets are interconnected and it is essential that you explore around to discover more. You may be randomly exploring in a different planet and suddenly remember something you found on a previous planet and you now know how to get to. Outer Wilds is such a brilliant example of a nonlinear adventure done right.

This also means that the 'puzzles' are never particularly difficult. Outer Wilds is not an intellectually demanding game. You don't have to think too hard about anything, instead you progress by discovering stuff on different planets and piecing together different clues. This is another great thing about Outer Wilds - It gives you the immense satisfaction of solving puzzles, without actually having to think really hard!

S P A C E

So far, I've mostly talked about the exploration aspects of the game, but it doesn't stop here! The other aspects of the game are really what take this from an amazing game to a truly outstanding one. Nothing about Outer Wilds feels like it is lacking, it all feels very polished.

Wow, this game just 'gets' space.

Take No Man's Sky for example. In that game you can fly around in a spaceship to different planets and different solar systems, but it never really 'feels' like space (not that I know what it feels like to be in space...). You can push forward to move as if you were still in an atmosphere, you can hold space to travel super fast and you can't get out of your ship while in space.

Accurate Physics

Compare this to Outer Wilds. Outer Wilds has proper Newtonian physics, meaning the force you exert on the ship is directly proportional to your acceleration, not your velocity! This is exactly how it would be in real life, which really accentuates the feeling of being in space. This also makes the ship very hard to control initially so beware - it will get easier!

Outer Wilds actually simulates everything as the time loop goes on. You can even manage to knock a planet off course if you manage to bash into it enough times! It's this that makes the world just feel so real and so alive.

But Which Way is North?

Another thing that makes space all the more terrifying is the lack of any fixed point of reference. In Outer Wilds, the co-ordinates are actually based around the player. The player is always at (0, 0, 0), and whenever you jump, instead of you moving up, the whole solar system actually moves down. This is reflective of the fact that there simply isn't any fixed point as there would be on Earth. You're just drifting through space, with no idea of up or down

A Hostile Environment

Space is not a place made for humans to be in. No game communicates this as well as Outer Wilds does.

Imaging you're slowly drifting through space with only the sound of your own breathing. With no ship, and a limited amount of oxygen and fuel, you only have moments to live. It's this kind of scenario that communicates just how hostile and unforgiving space is. The environment was not made for you - you are the intruder.

Soundtrack

I couldn't write a review without at least briefly mentioning the soundtrack. I do think that a soundtrack can never truly be detached from a game - a good soundtrack makes a game better and a good game makes the soundtrack better. However, the soundtrack of Outer Wilds fits so perfectly with the theme of the game and I regularly find myself coming back to listen to it again.

The most iconic track for Outer Wilds is the travelers theme. In the game, there are various characters around the world who each have their own instrument, playing their own part in the same song. It's a song that just becomes so intrinsically tied to the rest of the game that whenever it plays it brings back so many memories.

Performance & Bugs

For a game that would be ruined by having even a few bugs, I'm glad to say that there are very very few bugs in Outer Wilds. This is a game where you see something weird and start investigating it further. Could you imagine if it turned out the thing you'd been exploring for ages was just a bug? This is why it is so critical that Outer Wilds has no significant bugs, and why I'm so happy to report that I didn't encounter any noticeable bugs in my playthrough.

Performance is also great, it consistently ran well and I don't remember having any stuttering

Disclaimer: I'm just saying what happened in my playthrough. If you need a more in-depth analysis, check out another review.

Weaknesses

While the rest of the article may have implied this game is completely perfect, I do have to point out a few drawbacks of this game.

Replay Value

None. You cannot play this game again. Unfortunately, this issue is just inherent to the design of the whole game and not something that can be avoided. Outer Wilds is a super special game but you can only ever play it once, because once you've played it you know all the answers!

Controlling the Ship

Controlling the ship with proper physics is actually quite difficult to get used to at first. I crashed into planets multiple times because I was going too fast. However, there is an autopilot feature which can help and this is also something you'll just get used to.

I'm Stuck!

While I would highly recommend not looking anything up during your playthrough of Outer Wilds, there were a few occasions where I was a bit stuck and simply didn't know what to do. If you really are stuck and don't know what to do next, and you've tried looking on all the other planets, it can be worth having a peek at a walkthrough to get you back on track.

In Conclusion - Should you pick up this game?

In conclusion, yes. While some people have described Outer Wilds as quite niche, I disagree. I genuinely struggle to think of anyone who would not enjoy this game. Outer Wilds is such an innocent game about just discovering stuff, and who doesn't like a good mystery? The only thing I would say is that if you do want a completely brain-off experience then this isn't it, but that doesn't mean it's hard either. Equally, if you're looking for an action-focused game, then you've probably stopped reading this review ages ago anyway because you're not going to find that here.

Outer Wilds is such a refreshing experience as it gives you a world and just says "explore". There are no objectives or map markers, just an interesting world full of stuff to discover. In Outer Wilds, your curiosity alone is what drives the game forwards, and is ultimately why Outer Wilds is such a special game to me. It is an absolute must-play for anyone, and easily my new favourite game of all time.

P.S. Stop reading reviews and just play it.

What to know before jumping in

So you've decided to buy the game. Anything you should know?

1. Don't Look Things Up

Outer Wilds is a game about discovering things. If you look anything up you will ruin the satisfaction of discovering things yourself.

Having said this, if you are completely stuck and have no idea what to do, and you've tried looking on all the other planets, then you may wish to have a peek at a walkthrough to get you back on the right track.

2. It Gets Better...

I don't like having to say this, but I found the first few hours quite frustrating. I didn't know what to do, where to go, and I didn't feel like I was discovering anything meaningful. Don't worry, this doesn't last long. My advice would be to choose one planet and stick to it for a few loops rather than hopping between lots of different planets, and you'll hopefully discover something interesting.

In fact, it keeps getting better even after you've finished it. When I finished Outer Wilds, I thought "that was a pretty cool game". But the more time that passes, the more you will realise that nothing else is quite like it. As I have reflected on all the different aspects of Outer Wilds, I've realised just how well executed every part of the game is, which is why it has risen to the top spot on my favourite games of all time

Other Reviews

Not pursuaded by my review? Check out some others!

Skill Up - Game of the Year 2019

While Skill Up hasn't actually done a review of Outer Wilds (it's quite a hard game to review without spoiling anything...), it's a running joke that every year Outer Wilds is his game of the year. Watch the video.

Bricky - "One of the Best Sci-Fi Games Ever Made"

A great video that goes into more depth around what the game is actually about, which I have tried to avoid. You may want to avoid this video however as it will slightly spoil some aspects of the game, and it is best to go in completely blind. Watch the video.

Jacob Geller - Death, Inveitability and Ray Bradbury

Jacob Geller is always great, and this video is no exception. While not strictly a review, this reflects on some of the aspects of the game and links it to a book by Ray Bradbury. This is also slightly spoilery so it may be more appropriate after you have finished the game. Watch the video.

NoClip Documentary - The Making of Outer Wilds

This is a brilliant video that documents the development process behind the game. Most of the video does delve into spoilers, however the bit at the start is safe to watch. Watch the video.

UpIsNotJump - "Outer Wilds is a Nightmare"

This is quite a funny video, but it does also include quite a few spoilers. I would only recommend watching this if you have already played the game. Watch the video.