The first time I left the safety of the town of Cierzo in Outward, my journey went as follows. I’d decided to join up with my friend Oleile, who had gone to join the Holy Mission of Elatt out in the Hallowed Marsh. I knew the route to take; the trouble was making it there in one piece. For the first 90% of my journey through the Chersonese, the outing was pleasant and peaceful. I spent some time picking some Garberries and munching down on some of the jam bread I’d made earlier, and was able to skirt around the edges of Conflux Mountain without any trouble. I avoided a large insect-like thing by the side of a lake, and was nearing the wall dividing off the Hallowed Marsh feeling fairly confident. However, ahead of me on the road stood two men. Having not encountered bandits before, I was initially unsure of whether they were hostile. They quickly proved to me that they were, as an archer immediately hit me with an arrow while his friend hacked at me with a knife. While I made some futile slashes with my hatchet, I inevitably keeled over after about five seconds.
Strangely, the bandits did not rob me, but transported me across the map to… somewhere. When I awoke, it was pitch black. I could see mechanical devices around me, and the stars, but everything else was unknown. I got out a burning torch, chugged a hex remedy (as it seems the bandits had cursed me while they lugged my unconscious body to this place), and tried to find somewhere safe to sleep. But alas, it was not to be. Ascending a set of stairs, I encountered what seemed to be a dog with a light mounted on its back, which immediately started chasing me. Fleeing into the darkness, having no idea if I would fall off a cliff or drown in a lake, I ran straight into a hyena which saw me as an ideal snack. Finding myself pinned up against a steep cliff I turned to fight, but the hyena made short work of me. For the second time in less than a day, I expired. This time, a helpful huntress found me and took me back to Cierzo, where I had originally started my journey. Thus I ended up back in my home town, horrifically injured and without anything much to show for it. I am led to believe this is a fairly typical Outward experience.
Outward is a third-person, old-school role-playing game, with a focus on survival and exploration. Outward is brutally challenging, sometimes unfairly so, but for those with the time and patience to invest, it can be rewarding. What it lacks in polish and presentation it makes up for in spirit and dedication to their underlying core mechanics. The nature of Outward’s kind of RPG means it will never attain the mass-market appeal the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim does, but for a niche of people willing to take a gamble, there is plenty worthwhile to experience.
There are several main plot threads of Outward which branch off from when you leave the town of Cierzo, a coastal fishing community where you live in the old lighthouse. Your family did something awful before you were born, and you’re in debt for a Blood Price that must be paid back. The challenge begins almost as soon as you are shipwrecked nearby after returning from a long voyage. Your first quest is to try and gather 150 coins within five days, or else your home is confiscated from you. Nothing in Outward is ever easy. There are a variety of methods and tasks you can take on to try and acquire the money, and if you don’t, the game continues regardless. Only some of the dialogue is voiced, normally the first line of each character’s textbox, and the voice acting is serviceable for the most part. The plot is not the typical saving the world stuff, as your character is much more of an everyman than an invincible hero, but it keeps you appropriately engaged.
What is probably Outward’s defining feature is its persistent save. There is no reloading an old save here, because Outward constantly saves your progress whenever something happens. This means that every time you die, you are locked in and committed, the only alternative being to start the whole game over. This is both interesting and frustrating in equal measure. You’ll be dying a lot throughout the game, and being thrown back to the beginning to basically start from nothing again can feel like a tiresome chore. Outward doesn’t hold your hand, as has become so standard in most games these days. There are no quest markers pointing you in the right direction, no icon on the map screen to show you where you are. There’s not even a fast travel. This is a game where you’re left to work out for yourself how it works, rather than the game showing you straight away. Some players will adore this, while others will be frustrated with its steep learning curve.
Fighting is rather clunky, but proficient. Your stamina meter is fairly low (it’s recommended you drop your backpack while fighting to make the most of it), and stamina is needed to be able to attack and dodge. It’s also lost when you’re hit by enemy attacks, enough of which can cause you to fall over. You can lock-on to individual enemies and perform special attacks which reset on a timer, very much like an MMO. The trouble comes in the animation priority, which often results in enemies getting in more attacks on you while you’re finishing your previous one. There is a good variety of enemies, and everyone from the smallest bandit to the mightiest warrior can feel like a formidable foe. There is a magic system which is equally complicated, involving combining various different types of spells and enchantments to make properly damaging effects potent enough. Gaining the ability to cast magic is a crucial choice though, as you must permanently reduce your health in order to use it.
Environments are large and varied. The world features mountains, forests, swamps and deserts, all of which influence the weather and will have a knock-on effect on your survival and the clothes you’ll need to wear. Although some of the lighting and general landscapes can look very pretty, the world is mostly empty of clutter when you compare it against the majestic beauty of Skyrim, and many areas can feel rather barren. Nonetheless, considering only a small team made Outward, they’ve done a good job of bringing its various realms to life. The soundtrack though is superb. It feels wonderfully lush and epic, with different music to suit all zones. It’s not quite as memorable as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but it gets pretty close in some parts.
Outward feels like a game that dropped out of a time-warp from about 2003. It shares many similarities to older games like Arx Fatalis or Gothic, and similarly embraces the choice to not handhold the player with gusto. It is frustrating and buggy and yet, it is rewarding, with enough unique features and interesting tidbits to keep dedicated players entertained for many hours. Whether or not you’re the kind of player who will enjoy Outward will depend on your tolerance threshold for both the unintuitive learning curve, plus the punishing difficulty of repeatedly dying. For players that have the patience, Outward rewards you with a truly old-school RPG experience the likes of which we haven’t seen for years.