Try-It Tuesday: Outer Wilds

This was a title that I had brief but fierce hopes for when I bought it for a discounted $15 on the Epic Store. The visuals and intimate, hand-crafted space setting had instant appeal to me, so why not? And I have to say that, for $15, I think I got my money’s worth — even if Outer Wilds isn’t a perfect game.

The setup for this one is a little odd, so track with me here. You’re a four-eyed blue alien that lives on a very tiny world, and you’ve started your first day as an astronaut in its Outer Wilds Venture organization. After taking a tour of the village (which contains the cleverly integrated tutorial), you blast off to… just explore. Go wherever you want inside your solar system, see what’s what, and poke around. There are a few story threads given to you at first, but no strong guidance.

Your ship is a ramshackle thing that contains more wood and tape than high technology, although you’ve got enough to get you places and a suit to protect you from the elements. After landing on a moon or planet and seeing what there is to see, the world comes to an end. The whole solar system, actually, thanks to a supernova.

And then you wake up, the clock reset, and you have 20 more minutes of exploration before the supernova happens again. So yeah, you’re in a Groundhog Day time loop with the apocalypse happening three times an hour. Or sooner, if you happen to kill yourself in one of the many exciting ways that are possible here. It’s very survival game-lite here, with only rocket pack fuel and oxygen to worry about, along with general health. But since whenever you die you start over, there’s not a whole lot of time lost. Progress, perhaps.

So this is the big exception to the time loop reset — the ship computer. For whatever reason, it keeps track of my progress as I uncover any information and mysteries. It’s kind of the quest tracker of the game, showing links between relevant discoveries and nudging me toward certain areas. Without this, I have no idea how you’d even play the game period, as it’s so free-form and some of the mysteries very obscure and, er, mysterious.

Outer Wilds feels extremely intimate. Every planet is pretty small — as in, “walk around the circumference in two minutes” small — and the whole solar system here is so smooshed together that it takes only seconds to zip from one planet to another, including takeoff and landing. Initially, it seems like there’s not much here, with just six or seven destinations, but exploration keeps opening up more and more.

Outer Wilds makes a great case for hand-crafted worlds, and this is exactly why I’ll gladly take something smaller that has a lot of design and function to it rather than giant expanses of meaningless randomly generated terrain. Each world here has had a lot of thought put into it, including a water world with vortexes that suck islands up into space, a world with a black hole in the middle, and twin worlds that exchange sand a la an hourglass as the 20 minutes goes on.

The game gives you a handful of tools and abilities for exploration, including a translator for an alien language you keep finding, a sound scope to help locate other astronauts, and a very finicky jetpack. Here’s where my main criticism of the game lies, and it’s almost a dealbreaker.

For all of its well thought-out mysteries, Outer Wilds falters when it comes to its controls. It’s simply not a good platformer nor a ship sim, and since so much of the game involves both, it’s unavoidable. To get to the mysteries and narratives, there’s a whole lot of annoying platforming and maneuvering that has to happen. I’m not going to belabor this point, but if everything functioned a lot better, the game would be an instant classic.

As it is, I have to weigh my interest in these worlds and mysteries vs. the excitement-stealing nature of the controls. It’s a good enough game to play in little spurts here and there, and I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. I would like to know the “why” behind all of the plot points, but I don’t know if I have it in me to persist until I get there.

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