The Outer Wilds Review: The fine line between terror and awe

I was only a few hours into my journey in The Outer Wilds, and I’d already run a gamut of emotions. I’d felt it all — anticipation, elation, awe, loneliness, dread and abject horror. None of it was planned, all of it occurred as a result of my own decisions and, often, my own hubris. The Outer Wilds asks you to boldly go, but the rest is up to you.

The Outer Wilds is a first-person take on the roguelike genre that puts a focus on exploration over raw challenge. Each run, or life, begins the same way — with you looking up at the stars. Your first 30 minutes of your first life will be spent on-world, learning the basics of space travel, and how to move and survive in zero gravity. From there, you board your little rocket and depart for worlds beyond.

Your first blast off is both exhilarating and over in moments. Your ship leaves the little tutorial world and you find yourself hurtling into the void. You turn your view this way and that, orient your ship toward the first interesting thing you see and head toward it. Ultimately, that’s it. That’s the entire game. I see a planet, I check it out. But there’s a lot more going on and it has to do with you as a person and as a player than anything the game can conjure up.

The most clever aspect of The Outer Wilds‘ design is that it gives you everything you need to scare the living shit out of yourself. Moments of breathtaking beauty and surprise regularly give way to the abject, pit-of-your-stomach existential dread of being lost in an infinite void. For example, I rocketed off my little hub world in search of a new destination. Picking a nearby planet, a featureless green orb, I punched the autopilot and settled in. From this distance, thousands of kilometres out, it looked quite beautiful, a peaceful little green ball against the black.

As I neared the planet, I switched back to manual controls and started to drift in to have a look. The flat green I’d seen from a distance was actually cloud. Roiling cloud. Lightning flashed through it, the first hint that something was awry beneath the surface. The ship began to rattle as I sank into the cloud layer, turbulence and high wind taking her in its grip. Suddenly, without warning, the cloud layer parted and the world below was revealed — a planet of storm-tossed oceans and towering, powerful vortexes. Giant tornadoes, tall enough to reach the atmospheric layer, covered the planet’s surface.

I yanked the stick hard to the right to avoid one off the bow but it was too late, we were in it now. The ship bucked and banked hard, instantly out of my control. She nosed down and we went straight into the drink. I pulled her back up and we broke the surface — straight into another tornado. Thrown about and suffering multiple mechanical failures, I managed to right the ship and limp back into orbit to repair. My heart rate was through the roof. There had been little to suggest such a nightmare had been waiting for me beneath the cloud layer.

It’s moments like these that will often connect you to the next step of your journey. While I was bucking around trying to escape the tornadoes, I noticed a small island in the middle of the ocean and made a note to return. Once there, I found a stranded ship’s pilot in a similar situation to me. He gave me information that related to a mystery I was already trying to unravel and gave me a tip for things to check out in my next life. The Outer Wilds is very clever in this respect — the direst circumstances, even ones that end in your demise, are often worth the trouble.

Your demise is something you’ll be made to reckon with a lot. Death is a core part of the Outer Wilds experience. Death comes quickly. Frequently, it comes both as a surprise and entirely of your own making. A large part of the game is making sure you have everything under control. Sometimes it was a silly mistake — running out of oxygen because I got lost on the way back to my ship — and sometimes it was because I’d failed to take something important into consideration — starting a spacewalk to conduct repairs, forgetting the ship was velocity-locked to another object, and watching helplessly as the ship sweeps away to leave me floating helplessly in the black. These moments are always punctuated by the sound of your character’s heavy breathing, making them all the more horrifying. A tiny life, powerless against the void.

Speaking of spacewalks, The Outer Wilds makes you appreciate how committed it is to representing movement in zero gravity. In zero-g, you are slow, sluggish and constantly having to course correct as you bumble your way toward your objective. As you explore mysterious craft built by races familiar with moving in zero-g, it’s all too easy to get turned around and waste precious oxygen. Readers of the classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game will remember its adage for orienting yourself without gravity — “The enemy’s gate is down.” I found its principles served me well. They might do the same for you.

The Outer Wilds is a remarkable game. It delights as often as it horrifies, the abrupt changes of fortune creating a swooping sensation in the gut. It moves from zen exploration to full-blown existential terror with a smoothness that is utterly disarming. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Beautiful visuals; Fantastic concept; Great soundtrack
Lowlights: The dread may be too much for some
Developer: Mobius Digital
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC, MacOS, Linux
Available: Now

Review conducted on Windows PC with an Epic Games Store key purchased by the author.

Image Credit: Mobius Digital

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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