When you first dive into the Outer Wilds you’re greeted with calming, banjo-led melodies that are reminiscent of a Freelance Whales song. These melodies are accompanied by the scenery of a Spaceman sitting by his campfire on a floating, unnamed planet rotating in the emptiness of space. From the very beginning, the Outer Wilds sets the tone of a laid back exploration game that’s all about planets and mysteries.
If you’ve read anything by me, including my love for The Long Dark, you’ll know that I love exploration games. When it came to the Outer Wilds, I was excited just by the initial scenic imagery that games studio Mobius Digital and publisher Annapurna Interactive was using to promote the game; A spaceman roasting a marshmallow over a campfire surrounded by pine trees is certainly a mood.
When I think about my most philosophical moments in life, most of them probably came to me while I was sitting around a campfire looking up at the stars. Who hasn’t had that “do you think aliens exist?” discussion while stargazing by a campfire? The Outer Wilds allow us to relive that moment and take it one step further by jumping into our spaceship and exploring the planets of a nearby solar system. Simply look up to the sky, take aim with your spaceship and blast off!
In Outer Wilds, you start as an unnamed astronaut on your home planet of Timber Hearth sitting by the fire and roasting marshmallows with your spaceship nearby. Your first mission is to retrieve the launch codes in order for you to access your spaceship. This allows you to explore Timber Hearth a little more and get used to the mechanics. Everything in this part of the game is very level 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. The design is fascinating as you begin learning about the rest of the galaxy from the relics and materials found on Timber Hearth. However, there’s a catch.
[Minor Spoilers To Follow]
Your playtime maxes out at 22 minutes before your galaxy’s sun goes supernova and destroys everything in its path. It’s actually a pretty dramatic event that shocked me when it first happened, but a little more on that later. Your character does indeed die in this scenario but fear not, for you will be stuck in a time-loop, starting off where it all began on Timber Hearth. It’s sci-fi Groundhog Day. Luckily your ship logs your activity, acting as the main progression system in the game through “rumors” you hear about different planets and people. So while no one else in the game notices the constant death and destruction of their galaxy, your ship certainly keeps track.
One of the main things I love about the Outer Wilds, apart from its relaxing atmosphere, is the constant secrets and mysteries you find around every crack and crevice. One of the first things I did when I started Outer Wilds was I jumped into a geyser in the middle of town just to see what was down there. Low and behold, right before I drowned (I wasn’t wearing my space suit) I found chairs and cups and signs that someone had been living down there. These little hidings spots give players an immense satisfaction when looking around every corner of each planet and the game doesn’t disappoint by hiding a ton of great secrets for you to find.
Aside from motivating exploration, one of the things the game does well is immerse you into the horror that is space exploration. For starters, there’s the fear of the unknown. I got caught in the gravitational field of one planet known as the Giant’s Deep that’s covered in water. A little known fact about me, I have an immense fear of open bodies of water to the point where I can’t even play Sea Of Thieves. So having my ship crash land into the water pretty much devastated me to the point where I quit and restarted the game. While Giant’s Deep might be an isolated incident of my irrational fear, each planet has their own unique hazards that give you just enough anxiety to fear the next step you might take or what a new planet might have in store for you.
In fact, the unpredictability of each environment is exactly where the challenge of the Outer Wilds comes in. From lava spitting moons to unstable free-falling ground, to animals that can eat you in a single gulp, to a sun going supernova, for a game that doesn’t have any combat it certainly finds many ways to kill you.
While traveling from planet to planet doesn’t take much time, which is great considering everything is going to blow up within 22 minutes, flying there can be quite difficult. When you first begin the Outer Wilds, you’ll have a tough time navigating the flight system. This is something that I think was intentional by the developers, as space flight isn’t meant to be easy. Admittedly, you get much better at it the more you play and my discovery of the autopilot system certainly helped even if my landings remain a little rough. What the difficult flight system really accomplishes is supporting just how dangerous traveling through space can be. This includes getting stuck in the gravitational pull of your sun and burning to death or crash landing into a planet because you were moving too fast.
If I had any criticisms of this game it would be two-fold. The first being that there’s not enough play-time. In a game about exploration and mystery-solving, having the sun explode every 22 minutes can really kill your motivation, especially when you feel like you’re just getting somewhere. In some cases, certain areas are very difficult to get to and when you finally get there only to have to restart your expedition, it can be disheartening to jump back in right away. My second criticism would be from an optimization standpoint. The game is built on the Unity engine which, truth be told, is a great engine and one that I use for my own games. But sometimes Outer Wilds can play a little janky. Nothing game-breaking by any means and it doesn’t ruin the experience in any way. But drops in frame rates and slow load times can sometimes bog down your plan.
Edit: After investing many more hours into the game, the 22 minutes of gameplay before the sun explodes actually adds a great deal of urgency. I often found myself frantically trying to translate alien texts, trying to log as much information to my ship as possible knowing I was seconds away from certain doom. What I thought was once a nuisance has actually made the game more fun.
All in all, the Outer Wilds is a relaxing space campaign game that kills you a lot. You can find mysteries and secrets around every corner but in some cases, it doesn’t give you enough time to fully explore where you want to go. A difficult flight system eases over time and really nails the dangers of flying through space. For its price-point, I would say the game is definitely worth it and if you have Game Pass, it’s DEFINITELY worth the download. I certainly recommend playing Outer Wilds and will be spending many more hours trying to uncover the many mysteries of this galaxy far far away.