A Review of Mobius Games’ Outer Wilds

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The Outer Wilds video game is a truly unique experience that has been developed by Mobius Games.  I played the game on the Xbox One X via the Xbox Game Pass. It is also available for Windows PC through the Epic store. I have thoroughly enjoyed playing this game even though I was hesitant to continue the review at the start.

your ship in Outer Wilds

If you love space exploration and puzzle-solving; this is the game for you.

The game starts out at a slow pace; introducing you to characters as well as leading you into the narrative.  I am afraid that the leisurely paced introduction could potentially lose adventurous players who want to take to the skies immediately after loading into the game. Despite the slow intro, my first playthrough with this game was scheduled for an hour and a half but that quickly turned into three hours.  I found myself looking forward to getting back into this game during a time-constrained week full of commitments and responsibility while all I really wanted to do was take to the stars again.

planet from outer wilds

A different approach…

The game utilizes a novel approach to space exploration, puzzle-solving, and storytelling. The story has an approachable and friendly setting that allows the player to become an astronaut, who is also an archaeologist of sorts. The main idea is that the player has become trapped in a time loop while attempting to unravel the mystery of the “forerunner Nomai.”  These Nomai have visited the solar system in the past, leaving clues and artifacts that may lead the player to stop the cataclysmic destruction. The Sun will bring about this destruction to the solar system every 22 minutes. Upon either the player’s death or the destruction of the sun the time loop will restart and the astronaut will begin the adventure again. This time retaining their knowledge and travel computer data.  Each life is a chance to solve the mystery and evade destruction.

the ship in Outer Wilds

Who are you?

The player takes on the role of a Hearthian; a very friendly looking extra-terrestrial which are blue-skinned, four-eyed, and have long elf-like ears. This race, to me, seems like a cross between the aliens from Mac And Me and the house elves from Harry Potter. Your fellow astronauts have preceded you and have already begun to explore the star system.  Some have been met with peril, some stand as pioneers, or some have fallen out of communication and are missing. The player starts the game as a junior astronaut who has just graduated into the space program to launch from Timberhearth, the homeworld. 

roasting a marshmallow in outer wilds

Hike across the Solar System

Most space exploration games tend to lure the player into a science fiction setting, such as Elite: Dangerous.  Outer Wilds does the unexpected where it leans heavily into a leisurely interstellar camping excursion that is complete with banjos, harmonicas, campfires, and of course toasted marshmallows. Even while the impending doomsday clock is counting down to zero; it is tempting to become relaxed and lost in the beautifully created worlds and the wilderness motifs present in the game. I for one, love bluegrass music.  To me, the Outer Wilds Theme that plays at the start of the game, and is present in the trailer, is clever and catchy.  

Time and nature take center stage

The Outer Wilds is not a player-centric game.  As time passes, the planets change and the player is required to adapt to the changes to discover how these changes either hinder or enable the player.  The game is non-linear and it is surprising that the story is as easy to advance as it is.  The developers playtested the game during its development making changes that would either make clues easier or harder depending on the results of the playtests. The game was developed to slowly pull back the curtain on multiple storylines concurrently.  For example, while attempting to progress a storyline on one planet; you will stumble across secondary and tertiary quest lines.  This dynamic is important to The Outer Wilds because it promotes story progression and makes the player feel dynamic in their exploration.

dialog from Outer Wilds

Don’t forget to pack your banjo!

How do the various instruments play into the game?  Each explorer that has gone on before you has a musical instrument that a person may take with them on a camping trip, such as a guitar or harmonica. The explorers will play the instruments for entertainment but also to signal Timberhearth (mission control) that everything is well. It is worrisome to no longer hear the familiar music of an astronaut. As the player, you are equipped with a sensor that allows you to pick up and listen to their music which also reveals their location. Most have set up a campsite as their base of operations and will pass on their knowledge of the planet and its surroundings to you when asked.  

Creature in Outer Wilds

“Should I stay or should I go now?” – The Clash

I believe that the setting creates a nice juxtaposition to the urgency of the star going supernova. It lures one to spend their time leisurely exploring the world while there is a sense of urgency propelling the player forward to complete their space odyssey. It allows the player to relax a bit during that 22-minute time loop. Still, the game is set in a “Wilderness” and each planet is wild in its own unique way.  I specifically enjoyed the Dark Bramble and Brittle Hollow. The Dark Bramble is a mysterious hollow place full of fog that has lured into its maw a fellow Hearthian explorer who has become lost as well as other mysteries too.  You are tasked with unraveling its secrets and finding the traveler. 

The Brittle Hollow

The Brittle Hollow has caused me some frustration but also given me some great “Wow” moments too.  For example, this was the first planet I visited during my first play session and I could not stop exploring it. The gravity on this planet is stronger than some of the others. It has a rock exterior but the rocky crust is broken and cracked.  This allows you to literally look down, past various levels of a Nomai settlement, into the center of the planet where a black hole lies. This planet possesses plenty of jumping puzzles that could lead to an early death if a jump is missed. I was fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to miss several jumps and be sucked into the black hole. Just dying was an adventure in itself on this world. Because the gravity is so strong, the jumpsuit does not have enough thrust to obtain the needed velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the black hole.

My first error leads to me crossing the event horizon to discover that the black hole is, in fact, a wormhole and I was adrift in space.  I tried to navigate to a planet but I, of course, ran out of oxygen in my spacesuit. Upon my reset, I went back to the planet and further progressed through the jumping puzzle. Still, I eventually overshot my platform. I was able to steer away from the black hole and discovered that I could slingshot around it. I was hoping to catch a platform on the other side. I was moving too fast and no amount of thrust kept me from bouncing off a Nomai column and stunning me.  With each pass, I was losing momentum and becoming sucked downward closer to the wormhole. I had just barely missed reaching a high enough orbit that I could have landed on a platform.  

I, of course, succumbed to the gravitational pull, despite fighting against it. Once again, I was adrift in space but this time I found that a space station was approaching me. I was able to put myself into its path and find a way into the station.  I discovered that this was a Nomai facility that had been used to study the warp effect of the black hole on Brittle Hollow. It seems to be ever-present but I had missed it the first time. I was able to use the station to transport myself back to Brittle Hollow but I was at a different local and would need to find a way back to my spaceship. I did not make it back before the sun exploded but I really enjoyed exploring the unknown and the excitement of narrowly escaping another reset in the time loop. Mobius Games has done a fantastic job creating a compelling world that pushes you to continue the adventure and push yourself to uncover the riddle of the Nomai.  

The Black Hole of Brittle Hollow in Outer Wilds

Flight Mechanics. Are they that bad?

I like to go into a new game as blind as possible.  I similarly attempt to dodge other reviews until after publishing mine to keep my own opinions sheltered from the hive mind that is the raucous opinions of other gamers. Still, it was brought to my attention that some are not impressed with the flight controls, finding them difficult and cumbersome. I did find myself frustrated, early on, with this. I play Elite: Dangerous on the Xbox console. Anyone who has played this game knows that it can be unforgiving to some players who want to jump in and be an ace pilot. You have to learn the mechanics to play the game. I feel like this tempered my expectations of how quick I would be a good pilot. 

I find the controls rather forgiving.  I have not blown my ship up from an impact.  Believe me, I have bounced off of the ground and other objects rather hard.  The orbital lander mode, in my opinion, is very easy to use. It provides a camera view directly under the ship. The right stick controls all of the movement on the horizontal plane and then there is only vertical thrust on the left trigger.  Also, the lander is very kind when it comes to orientation to the ground. I have landed on rocks and uneven surfaces that should have flipped the lander or knocked it off-kilter enough that controlling for the bounce and redirected orientation would be bothersome. The game controls heavily for this. I can almost feel the landing gear being pulled down to settle on the ground on these rough and bouncy touchdowns. 

Space flight can be tricky, at first. When approaching a planet it is important to keep an eye on the meters per second (MPS) that you are traveling.  Blue targeting around the planet indicates that the MPS are decreasing the red targeting indicates that the MPS are increasing. There is an autopilot mode that can be used to traverse the system.  Be forewarned that this auto-pilot mode is not “Smart”. I have had it navigate me too close to the Sun and Brittle Hollow’s volcanic moon, resulting in my death. 

Flight in Outer Wilds

This is a game of puzzles

It can be frustrating to become stuck in a puzzle game. I think it is important to realize where the frustration originates. I do not like to look up walkthroughs for puzzle games.  Outer Wilds does not offer much assistance in navigating through the quest lines located in the logbook, as they translate into the virtual world. So when I became lost, I was more frustrated with my self than the game but there are times when it can be difficult to differentiate the two possible sources of frustration. There are no quest markers on the planets or navigation beacons. I did find myself at times lost as to what I should work on next. For example, on Brittle Hollow, I knew I needed to get to the Southern Observatory and the only way to access it is below the crust. However, I could not find a path that would take me there. Once I did find it, I discovered that depending on where I was during the timeline, parts of the planet may have already been sucked through the black hole. In other scenarios, I kept looking for a way to do this and began to question if I had overlooked something.  Maybe there was something that needed to be accomplished on another planet. There are some quest lines that require you to planet hop. I discovered that when I became stuck in one area, it was often refreshing to go to another planet or new area and see what I could discover.

gameplay in Outer Wilds

Overall

I have enjoyed playing Outer Wilds. I will continue to play this as it serves a nice change of pace from the looter shooter games that I normally play. The environments are unique in their gameplay and gorgeous in their artistic creativity. The game is immersive and playful.  Each time I uncover a new piece of the puzzle, I want to play more. I never would have thought it would be so exciting to discover blue text on a wall but the space investigator in me wants to continue to unravel the mystery and discover the reason why the sun has become so destructive. 

Josh is a husband and a father to a family that loves to game together. He first experienced video games on the SNES. He is a strong believer that video games are best enjoyed with good company and a strong brew of coffee.

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