Outer Wilds is a space exploration & adventure puzzle game. You, the player, take on the role of the newest member of the Outer Wilds, a team of astronauts tasked with venturing out into the galaxy.
Their mission? To learn about the Nomai, an ancient race of aliens who mysteriously went missing. After setting out on your first voyage into the unknown of space, you find yourself locked in a time loop which brings you back to your home planet every twenty-two minutes (or upon death, whichever comes first).
The majority of the gameplay revolves around exploring the solar system. You’ll translate ancient texts, learn about technology, and explore decrepit ruins. Along the way, you will meet other members of the Outer Wilds, who lead you to points of interest to explore.
Other than the small input given to you by your comrades, the solar system is yours to adventure through. You can fly to any planet in any order you want, choosing to examine any monument or cave you find.
The game does not hold your hand, which ends up being both beneficial and detrimental to the experience. On the one hand, the absolute choice of the player allows for a pace of your own choosing. When a discovery is made, your progression feels very rewarding. On the other hand, when you hit a wall with no obvious way to continue, it can be extremely frustrating.
Of course, the only point to exploring is finding something worth your time. The team at Mobius Digital strike a great balance in their design. The galaxy feels empty enough that you believe you’re scouring the remains of a long-dead civilization, but full enough where you never feel like there isn’t enough to explore. With six unique planets to discover, robust lore and clever storytelling tools, you often stumble on discoveries that feel genuinely rewarding.
As mentioned, one of the main features of Outer Wilds is it’s time loop system (think the three-day system from LoZ: Majora’s Mask or the movie Groundhog Day). Much like Majora’s, it serves a practical function to the gameplay.
On multiple planets, there are time-based puzzles and areas only accessible during a fixed point of the game’s 22-minute cycle. Without giving away too much, one of the puzzle solutions involves waiting for falling sand to fill a pit to safely traverse a cavern otherwise unexplorable. ( The cave will fill with sand if you wait too long, and made completely inaccessible)
Besides the environment, another core puzzle solving element is your explorations tool kit. The game provides a flashlight, a sonar device, and a small image capturing drone to use.
While most puzzles aren’t too difficult, some aren’t very intuitive and can be difficult to solve. Environment based puzzles can also be frustrating if you know what to do but are stuck waiting for the right time.
Besides the core gameplay though, what else does Outer Wilds have to offer? While the graphics are simplistic, the stylized, almost cartoonish look lends itself well to the experience. The soundtrack is solid, and though it lacks any earworms, the ambiance is always fitting. When you visit important locales, the music swells up, becoming grand and magnificent and making your discovery feel monumental. While you are on your home planet, the tempo slows and the music takes on a rustic feel.
Even the lack of music benefits the game. When lost in a sea of fog beneath the surface of one planet, the music cuts out completely. You find yourself alone in the eeriness of your surroundings, for a very surreal experience.
While Outer Wilds does a lot right, one of my biggest gripes with the game is its performance. During my play-through of nearly twenty hours, the game crashed on four different occasions, sometimes during very important parts of the plot. There was also often frame dropping while exploring certain areas. If a lot of moving set-pieces occupied an area, my frame rate would drop considerably, making it agony to play. This continued until I either left, or the moving pieces of the environment stopped.
I believe this could be my fault for playing on an Xbox One I’ve had since launch. Were I playing on an Xbox One X or a decent PC, I feel these issues would likely be non-existent. That said, I cannot state for certain this is the case.
Although I may come off critical of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Outer Wilds. It was an experience that I was not expecting to enjoy as much as I did.
I see Outer Wilds as the alien archaeology simulator that no one knew they wanted. While performance issues and non-intuitive puzzle design may bog down some, the game’s excellent world-building, fun to explore solar system, and gratifying progression should keep most entertained during their play-through.