Outer Wilds is a space exploration game that has me conflicted. One side of me loves the open-ended nature of exploring space to see what’s out there. The other side gets bogged down with the lack of direction and at times, finicky mechanics. The presentation is also a positive, and each planet has a unique look and feel. Some areas do seem overly hostile, though, and the game’s lack of instruction can make it feel unwelcoming to discover. Yet, when you figure out a series of steps to unlock a hidden vault underneath a planet’s crust, Outer Wilds begins to make sense. Sadly, too much of the game isn’t all that interesting and Outer Wilds can feel like a chore.
You begin in a hub world of sorts. With no direction, you wander around and speak to the space station folk. Once a few of them have introduced themselves, you begin to gain a grasp on what to do. There’s a spacesuit testing area, a place to try out a model spaceship and an observatory among other interesting facilities. These areas add up to a rough tutorial level, which you’re required to complete to gain the launch codes for exploration. The tutorials are easy to follow and do a good job at setting the experience up for real space exploration.
I’m in the sky tonight
At this point I equipped my spacesuit, buckled up, and launched off into outer space. There are a number of planets and areas to explore here, with some looking more inviting than others. Wherever you zoom off to, remember, you only have 20 minutes to wander before the sun explodes, and a new time loop begins. I began my journey in the Giants Deep, a planet ravaged by aquatic storms. I found a fellow explorer sprawled out in a hammock here, for no apparent reason other than to get away from it all. He gave me some tidbits of information about my journey, and off I went.
On another run in a separate time loop, I got a little further. There was an underground locale slowly becoming inaccessible and piles of sand were beginning to effectively sink the place. Before my time ran out, I managed to uncover some truths using my translator tool. This piece of equipment turns symbols into words and is Outer Wilds’ method of telling the story. I found it difficult to truly grasp what was going on, but intrigue certainly built about this weird and wonderful universe. Unfortunately, when I revisited this area to find out more, the sand had swallowed the place whole.
Although these expeditions went well enough, I can’t say I was the most successful adventurer in the wilds. Numerous times I ended up dying in some weird, undignified manner out in the solar system. The sun chewed me up and spat me out a few times, and gravity didn’t always play nice. At times, I ran into some form of dark matter, which always halted my progress. The ship itself could also be hard to control, and unwanted deaths occurred from it being tough to judge the travel trajectory. The Outer Wilds may look welcoming, but this is a game for only the most dedicated astronaut.
It’s quite disappointing that no characters are voiced in the game. The presentation, atmosphere and incredible ambient music are a great setup for interesting conversations, but the purely text-based nature of any in-game talking pulls you out of the moment a little. When exploring the hub world or any of the planets, voicing would have given the NPC’s more personality. With the game’s ambience giving off a Firewatch-esque vibe, it would have certainly benefited from the brilliant voice acting seen there. A more scripted nature to characters and story may have made the game a little clearer too.
Overall, Outer Wilds doesn’t quite come together for me. The initial premise of exploring planets to find hidden secrets and piece together a story is a merited one. At times, this premise comes to fruition and you find yourself in awe at what you discover. The visuals and ambient music only add to these moments, presenting some chilling scenes. However, cumbersome mechanics, a lack of voice acting and a slow, plodding direction mean Outer Wilds isn’t quite able to hit the same heights your spaceship log makes you believe.