Weak combat and rampant bugs snuff out the rewarding magic of this co-op RPG.
My experience with Outward essentially unfolded in two distinct acts. In the first, I spent the majority of my time in this open-world fantasy RPG getting killed by nearly every enemy I encountered, running between the only two cities I knew the way to (after getting locked out of a third) to find gear and salvage crafting materials and baubles so I could sell them. I was also contending with bugs and design failures that first caused my co-op partners to abandon me and, at their apex, left me broke, nude, and alone in a snowbank, dying of exposure. Determined to not let Outward beat me, I used the debug menu to break the obnoxious autosave feature to retrieve my stolen gear and money (a last resort when reviewing a game) and set out on the second act, eventually upgrading enough to grind through the aggravating combat and complete the story. It still wasn’t much fun, but after I’d gotten my hands on the kind of material wealth that turned the tide for me, I got a clearer idea of what Outward is supposed to be.
Outward’s fairly large and interesting world is populated with a pretty even mix of tough-but-fair challenges and buggy, wacky ones. After a total of 60 hours with it, I finished the central quest line I was on, being alternatingly aided and thwarted by bugs and instability along the way. Eventually, I came to respect many of its challenges and saw some of the charm that lurks beneath the surface, but I wish those moments weren’t surrounded by a wasteland of drudgery.
Sprawling landscapes of forests, parched deserts, and demon-infested marshes are by far Outward’s strongest feature.
Outward is an RPG built around combat, exploration, travel, and the grind to stay alive within the rules of its survival mechanics. This fantasy world isn’t particularly pretty or well designed, with graphics that compare to older games like Gothic 3 or Mount and Blade: Warband and invisible walls that render its “open” world more restrictive than it may appear at first glance. That said, the sprawling landscapes of forests, snowy mountain passes, parched deserts, and demon-infested marshes are by far Outward’s strongest feature. There are secrets to discover, sights to see, and interesting enemies to meet. It’s expansive, and while walking the length of its four regions over and over and over again just to get to the next step of a given quest was tedious, time-consuming, and boring (especially due to the lack of mounts or fast-travel of any kind), the times where I actually got to delve into the wilderness and find something off the beaten path were by far Outward’s best. Feeling like an explorer carving my own path into the unknown in search of adventure just over the horizon is arguably the magic of any open-world experience; if the rest of the mechanics surrounding that core were better, Outward could have been a diamond in the rough.
The combat started out poor and barely improved once I’d learned the ropes and become respectable at it. While you’d expect to start out underpowered in a game about a random peasant who strikes out into the world to pick between one of three factions and do things for them (Outward’s story is pretty thin), the early hours feel poorly balanced relative to most RPGs, creating an inverted difficulty curve where the beginning is significantly more difficult than the end. My experience was essentially a long montage of deaths and cheesy wins. Countless times I’d get disposed of by some scourge beast or bandit because it did inordinate amounts of damage, its hitboxes made absolutely no sense (causing me to take attacks that seemed like they shouldn’t hit), and because it sniffed out any attempts to sneak past it. Adding insult to injury, Outward’s stingy stamina meter depletes to empty with any sustained offense longer than a few seconds and takes half a minute – if not an in-game night’s sleep – to fully recover, forcing you to ration swings of your weapons in long fights. These disadvantages remain in effect as you advance, but naturally, earning better armor, weapons, skills, traps, and magic mitigate them considerably. Getting enough silver to put good armor on my avatar, finally getting a top-shelf weapon after a long and arduous side quest, and learning some useful skills, both passive (thank you, extra stamina!) and active (thank you, rune magic!) finally let me stand toe-to-toe with some of the hostiles without feeling like I needed to exploit the AI, such as backpedaling while a foe cycled through their entire moveset before they left the one opening I could safely hit.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t fix the actual fighting. It’s still floaty and imprecise, with long delays between pressing attack and getting one off that make timing difficult and dodging an inconsistent method of avoiding damage, and the stamina meter is still a pain throughout. In order to keep myself alive against some of Outward’s fiercest enemies I had to adopt a fighting style so defensive that I was doing virtually nothing. The toughest boss I fought felt like he took forever to kill because, halfway through his health meter, I only had the stamina and time to hit him once before resuming my defensive tactics to wait for another opportunity. In too many confrontations the tension evaporated after my mana was spent and my stamina started to trickle. Circle, block, hit, repeat. Yawn. More skills, more responsive combat, and more fragile enemies would have gone a long way here: In my book, high-lethality enemies are only a flaw when a combat system is so one-sided as to destroy pace, and that’s what happened here.
Complex spell-casting that rewards practice and preparation like this is something more RPGs should try.
The magic system, at least, is downright cool. Deciding to go all the way up the runic magic tree required some serious grinding and investment and unbalanced my build, which led to some headaches, but it was the best decision I made in Outward. Magic injected some badly needed variety into battles. By learning four runes and casting them in specific combinations you can pull off a dozen useful spells, and after taking a skill that allowed me to leave my runic lexicon (or spell book) at home I could cast them at will. Remembering the runic combinations was always a little challenging, especially in the heat of battle, but I’d have liked to see even more runes and even more combinations. Busting out a spectral lantern in a dark cave after my torches had burned out or letting loose a runic lightning blast against a staggered manticore to finish it off made me feel something like a wizard – enough so that even the screw-ups in casting my spells actually added to my immersion with learning to use magic. There is a more standard magic system, with some rote spells to learn, but these too have a combination component – you have to cast Spark with a Fire Sigil to make a fireball, for example. Complex spell-casting that rewards practice and preparation like this is something more RPGs should try.
The ever-present survival mechanics in Outward aren’t so impressive, though. While having to eat and drink to stay alive adds a lot to some games, like The Long Dark, here the decisions are so routine and basic that they cast the grimy pall of a grind across the whole thing. You spend maybe up to three quarters of your time walking from place to place, and all the while you’re getting hungry, thirsty, and injured. You can resolve the first two with a button, and that’s all there is to it. Managing thirst is never any more complicated than taking a drink from the waterskin, and when you run out, finding fresh water to boil or topping up at a city. The only thirst related tension I ever experienced came from a bug causing my backpack to vanish or forgetting to boil river water. Ordinarily it’s too forgiving to be meaningful – when a couple full waterskins gives you enough hydration to trek from one end of the world to another, the mechanic becomes superfluous.
Eating better food affords some sparse bonuses, and learning crafting recipes to cook some nicer dishes pays off, but I always had more important things to spend my money on than food so I was limited to what I could scavenge. Increased health regeneration following a good meal was nice, but never as an impediment to saving up enough for a new skill or a better sword.
Food isn’t the only thing you can create, and the rest of the crafting felt more immediately relevant and satisfying. Crafting potions, weapons, traps, and armor led to dramatic power swings, potent healing and mana restoration, easier fights, and some other interesting effects. That, at least, made it worth keeping a pile of ingredients around, though when it was time to make room for heavier salvage that I could sell, crafting materials and food ingredients were usually the first thing that I jettisoned.
I grapple enough with wasting a third of my life in a bed in my day to day; I don’t need it from an RPG.
I also spent entirely too much of my time in Outward sleeping. When you’re out of potions and regenerative food items it’s the only means you have of regaining maximum health and stamina, and there’s no downside to it other than it being a boring activity. I slept after fights I won, after fights I lost, to turn day to night and night to day when a quest required me to do something at a specific time, and often to simply pass time because quest-givers seemed to share a universal rule that no new task may be given until precisely 72 hours after the last one was completed. The only action my character performed as often as swinging his weapon or moving his feet was setting up and tearing down his tent. I grapple enough with wasting a third of my life in a bed in my day to day; I don’t need it from an RPG.
I wanted less meandering, janky fights with random bandits and ostrich-Chocobo things and more epic duels with powerful wizards and alpha monsters. I wanted more hills to crest and mysteries to chase down, more mysterious spires looming in the distance that I could reach and plumb, more time spent finding rewards off the beaten path and less running the length of entire regions to get to the same four cities to get a paragraph of dialogue giving me something new to do. I wanted more potions and poisons tipping the scales in battle and less scavenging for berries or water to fulfill tedious, needy thirst and hunger icons. Some may embrace the grind, but I simply didn’t find that any of that stuff fun.
Sometimes glitches worked in my favor and enemies spontaneously combusted.
The technical performance of Outward is also, unfortunately, extremely uneven. Twice, my gear evaporated for no reason. Enemies would sometimes hit me even when I was standing behind them and they were swinging their weapon away from me. I clipped through cave walls and sand dunes, and I experienced a half dozen full-on crashes. More than once, I had to use the debug menu to undo the effects of a bug, or backtrack my way out of a quest trigger that had broken. As if to apologize, sometimes those glitches worked in my favor: enemies spontaneously combusted, occasionally bugged out and disappeared, and sometimes paused mid-fight, as if confused, to give me a couple free hits.