Think not how the world fits you, but how you fit the world.
In Outward, Nine Dots Studio and Deep Silver have designed a survival RPG that can’t be beaten with just a few downward hacks of a Greatsword. In fact, you’re lucky if you find a Greatsword at all.
While clearly taking inspiration from the likes of WoW, Zelda and Skyrim, this RPG removes the items you take for granted in similar fantasy worlds. Nothing but the essentials are waiting for you in the scant chests located around the map. Want some armor? You’ll have to graft for it. Want a better weapon? You’ll have to fight for it. Want to walk for ages back to the nearest safe town to get some sleep? Too bad it’s snowing and now you’ve frozen to death. Its closest comparison in terms of mechanics is definitely Breath of the Wild, but there are far fewer safe places to rest your head in Aurai than Hyrule.
You’d imagine that this steep difficulty level would put me off but, and you can call me a masochist, the grind became its own kind of fun as I went along. The survival management system is the phrase ‘don’t get too cocky’ embodied, with any risky decision more likely to end with you in a dungeon with no clothes, than with triumph.
When the story begins, you wake as your custom character in the surf of a beach. Your ship was destroyed due to a lazy lighthouse keeper just as you were about to head out on a noble voyage. Now, you’re back at the shore of your hometown with some pretty angry townspeople waiting for you. In this world, tribes matter more than individuals, and as it is your family’s responsibility to look after the lighthouse, you must pay the Blood Price for the lives that have been lost in the tragedy.
Thus, the emphasis from the beginning is on your role as part of a collective. This is also reflected in how the world itself works, as the player must consider the rhythms of their environment before embarking upon their own goals. Rush into an interesting location at your peril, enemies are a-plenty and they aren’t always clearly indicated as hostile.
In addition to this, your character is not conceived with a pre-packaged destiny to fall back on, they’re definitely not special here. You’ll need to look after them as you would any regular human; they need clothes, food, sleep and to get the hell out of the rain just as much as anyone else. This is also reflected in the skills your character learns, which aren’t given as rewards in the form of levelling up but instead must often be bought or gained from helping NPCs around you. Everything in this world must be earned.
Even death comes with a hefty price. An empty health bar through combat or taking a tumble off a high ledge (I definitely didn’t do this in one of the main cities, not at all) renders the player unconscious. According to where you are and what killed you, you are often dragged off into a new location with a bit of narrative to explain what happened to you. Depending on how lucky you get, you’ll probably wake up with your loot missing, or worse, your warm winter coat pinched.
The overarching narrative has the usual main quest, side quest, fetch-and-carry quest hierarchy, but mostly the player is free to explore and grind as they see fit. This leaves the potential for every playthrough to be different. In mine, for example, I completely missed the location that allowed me to access the magic system, instead concentrating on hunting and surviving. If you don’t actively seek out information, it’s pretty easy to miss things.
This is an RPG in its purest form, leaving plenty of space for the player’s imagination to run wild. Yet, the game’s lack of handholding can also come with its own frustrations. Those familiar with RPG mechanics will largely be able to work out what the game wants from them, but the lack of guides may leave others a little stumped. The map system also borders on crude, with no player placemarker to let you know which direction you’re heading in, or a wider world map to show you how different regions connect. Initially, this really held my experience back but eventually being able to work out where I was via specific landmarks on a map alone? That made me feel pretty accomplished.
Satisfaction comes then, not via large battles, but with these small learning experiences. Every aspect of Outward requires a level of patience and thought from players that can be quite rare these days. The world is beautifully brutal, and while I know I can’t beat it, I definitely want to spend more time getting to know it.
Kate has been gaming since she could control a mouse. In addition to having a penchant for indie games, Kate had a World of Warcraft account when she was far too young, and has a weakness for any game with ‘RPG’ in the description.