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Outer Wilds Review: The Next Great Mystery Game Isn't Lost In Space

Outer Wilds has officially launched by studio Mobius Digital, and is currently available for Windows, OS X, and Xbox One. The project was initially developed by Team Outer Wilds, and began as Alex Beachum’s USC Interactive Media & Games Division master’s thesis before evolving into the finished product of today. While other titles released in recent memory are both rooted in speculative Science-Fiction and space exploration, we would have a difficult time grouping Outer Wilds among them. No Man’s Sky encourages continuous exploration, gathering, and crafting, whereas Outer Wilds feels more like Out There: Ω Edition. Outer Wilds invites an unsuspecting player to explore space, before morphing without warning into a wonderful time-loop mystery bound by the inescapable death of the solar system and everyone who resides within.

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The gameplay is fair but brutally punishing to the careless explorer. At first, movement is simple, consisting of walking and jumping on a planet with gravity similar to ours. However, once in the spacecraft, all bets are off. There is no “up” or “down” in space, so when you blast off for the first time, a tremendous sensation of insignificance creeps up as you see your planet shrink into the cold, dark distance. The celestial bodies of the solar system keep hurtling in orbital trajectory relative to the sun, so you will need to navigate carefully in three dimensions. Luckily, you have a map with the position of planets in their orbits in real time, and a rudimentary auto-pilot that goes from point A to B in a straight line. This means you will fly directly into the sun and burn to a crisp if not careful.

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As for the story and the objective of the game, things take a delightful twist shortly after beginning the game. Twenty minutes after, to be precise. The plot revolves around playing as an alien astronaut setting off to explore the solar system and learn the secrets of the Nomai, the alien race that built this galaxy. After acquiring launch codes from the observatory and launching into space, something goes horribly wrong. Twenty minutes after beginning the game, the sun goes supernova, destroying everything in the solar system, including you. Your perspective goes dark, and then, everything you witnessed flashes backwards at high speed, and in the next moment, you awake with a gasp, staring up at the same sky and stars from when you first began the game.

No one that you speak with will have any recollection of dying, except you. With the launch code still in your memory, access to a ship is immediate in this second life, finding that not only is your memory intact, but so too is the ship’s computer log, recording everything you encounter. Now you can set off to explore another place, and without fail, the sun will again become the destroyer of everything a mere twenty minutes later. Still, your memory persists when you awaken, and the ship keeps a log of what you have recorded. The player is bound to this endless loop before the imminent death of the solar system, allowed only a short twenty minutes at a time until death takes you, during which you unravel the mysteries of the galaxy a few steps at a time.

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At its core, Outer Wilds aims to provide as much a narrative journey as a literal exploratory one, succeeding brilliantly by striking reminiscent tones felt in the older Myst series and more recently with titles like The Talos Principle. We will not spoil anything further here but suffice to say that the journey towards revealing the history and truth of the galaxy and the Nomai is well worth the effort. The search for truth within the mystery of this galaxy mixes well with the literal dangers of space travel, and does not ask the player to complete a list of objectives in any set order. Players are free to explore whatever they wish, whenever they wish, which is a refreshing change of pace from other games.

Music and themes also play a significant part in setting the tone for Outer Wilds, as they do for any game with heavy elements of Science-Fiction and space exploration. FTL: Faster than Light does a superb job in this regard by creating strong themes for distinct alien sectors, combat, and exploration. Andrew Prahlow, Composer of the Outer Wilds themes, establishes a friendly, recurring feeling when engaging in certain activities. When a player comes across a campfire or fellow alien, the music shifts towards the cozily familiar through a banjo, harmonica, or a whistled tune of a main theme will quickly become as part of the world as the spaceship used to explore the solar system. If the aim of the developers and composer was to provide this feeling of familiarity and warmth while exploring the harsh reaches of space, they have succeeded with style.

Finally, although the game is quite lenient in how a player explores the universe, one may ask how long it takes to “beat” the game. Certainly, there is an ending that will vary based on certain decisions, and a casual player who takes their time exploring the nooks and crannies of the game will likely clock in 25 hours or so from beginning to end. If one were trying to beat the game quickly, they may sprint about, finding clues and seeking the shortest path, but that is not how this game is meant to be played. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, if one were stuck in a continuous loop of time, there would be no rush to anything, would there? Embrace your inner Bill Murray, take your time, get accidentally flung across the solar system by stepping into a wormhole, and watch the sun go supernova or suffocate when your oxygen tank empties. Then do it again sometime, just for kicks.

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Outer Wilds seeks to mix explorative science-fiction with mystery and story telling, great music, and at times, brutal punishment for missteps in space. It nails the execution of this mix, and quite frankly, we need more games like it.

5 out of 5 Stars

A copy of Outer Wilds was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Outer Wilds is currently available on PC, OS X, and Xbox One.

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