Originally I remember Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds being a bit of an enigma after being announced at Xbox’s E3 2018 presentation. For those who watched on Mixer it was bundled in as a gift that for many sat in a preordered state on their console’s hard drive for a year before finally becoming available. That long wait seems to have paid off because it’s remained one of the most talked about games of 2019… and not because we all get the names crossed with Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds.
Warning: a few spoilers ahead! The nature of this game makes it really hard to not talk about it without mentioning key mechanics. If you want to avoid any of the story being given away skip right to the end.
At first it’s hard to know what you are about to experience when you first play. Waking up to a campfire your companion advises you that you need to get your ship’s launch codes before you can use the elevator and take off. This forces you to explore your current surrounds i he beginning and learn the controls in what is effectively a tutorial level for the game. One that you will visit a lot it turns out…
My first time in the game involved learning the basics, especially of zero-g flight which is tricker than it sounds and follows Newtonian mechanics, and seeing what the world was like from orbit. Once off the ground you see the solar system in all its glory. The planets seem small once you’re off the ground (their diameters aren’t huge) but there’s plenty to see and do on them and they have their own unique locales and characteristics. Their movement around the sun is accelerated so day/night cycles come and go quickly and it’s easy to look up from a planet and see them orbiting past. This helps make travel between them a fairly quick process. In my first run I travelled to a moon, a broken planet and fell through a black hole (!) only to be deposited at an observatory which was inevitably destroyed…
… and then my character awoke back at the beginning and that’s when it begins to dawn on you that you’re stuck in a loop (think Groundhog Day, Majora’s Mask, Happy Death Day, etc) destined to repeat the same 22 minutes leading up to your star going supernova and destroying that solar system. Despite the end there’s a couple of things in your favour in that you and your ship will keep track of your discoveries on each attempt which allows you to slowly build up enough information to understand what is happening. Through all of this you’ll discover a rich variety of locations as you piece together the truth and also a fairly robust variety of ways to die as well. Space is not a friendly place to be.
Once you’ve played enough times you’ll recognise the music building up to let you know the end is nigh and sometimes I have to admit to just sitting back to take in those final seconds as the sun’s shockwave hits you. Moments of being fatalistic can happen often as you rush to get those last pieces of data and realise there’s no more you can do this cycle but even then you can still feel a tinge of sadness in knowing that no matter how much you accomplished you can’t beat the passage of time. I’ve been surprised with how each failure has effected me but with those losses I’ve still been able to make progress. One thing the game teaches you quickly is to make every second count so you find yourself quickly deciding on your next destination in your search for clues. If a death nets you another bit of information then it was worth it.
Visually the game is quite pretty with a cartoonish quality that mixes in nicely with the chosen art style that mixes alien architectures and flowing languages with space ships that look like a child’s cubby house with their mixture of metal and wood (yes, wood!) structures. Nothing at the start explains how such vessels might be spaceworthy but you quickly accept them for what they are and the design of your own vessel actually makes some sense in the grand scheme of things. Especially once it is in flight.
The audio worked well for me but it was the music that is the real star. If you’ve watched Firefly it’s got that same kind of western style tones to it with a lot of banjo thrown in. In the beginning that music also becomes an early beacon for helping you find direction in the game too, if you’ve played through the early “tutorials”. It turns out there are fellow astronauts who are lost out there but you can listen for their distinctive instruments to guide you. I’m wondering if they’ll get together at the end because it sure looks like a band in the making here! Following the path set by the them leads you to many of the system locations you need to visit and in the process ties it in with the overall story. As mentioned earlier I think because that music has such a strong influence in how you can play from the beginning it’s hard to separate the two.
It’s hard to tell how much longer I have before reaching the end or how many more deaths I’m going to experience (no shortage of variety there) but for a couple of days Outer Wilds was the one game I was thinking about and it won’t surprise me if I’ll be thinking about it further until I can get a little closer to finding out the truth about my character’s unique situation.
Outer Wilds is out now for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Played on an Xbox One X.