If Outer Wilds wasn’t as good a game as it turns out it is, I would feel really bad for its release.
It’s a game that you can barely promote (let alone review!) without spoiling. It’s also a game that shares a remarkably similar title to The Outer Worlds, a high-profile release from the same year. And it’s from a small and young team.
I will do my best to review this game without spoiling much, but I would also recommend that you first try the game if you have Xbox Game Pass. I think a spoiler-free game like this benefits from the “trial mode” it gets on the platform, and you have nothing to lose except a few hours to try it.
The Outer Wilds gameplay “loop”
Outer Wilds is a combination of space-faring adventure and Majora’s Mask-style time loops. But, most importantly, it is game where the only perks, upgrades, and new abilities earned are knowledge.
In this loop you play the next astronaut in a colony of aliens, and you are about to make your maiden voyage into the solar system to explore. What happens next… well… you will learn as you play. 😉
I would guess the game will take most player 15-20 hours to complete, but this can vary greatly due to the nature of the design. More perceptive or lucky players could beat the game earlier than this.
Outer Wilds excels at “emergent”
In much the same way that Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reinvigorated my love for the unknown with its massive, colorful world, Outer Wilds did so through the emptiness of space.
One of the reasons that I compare the two games above is due to their focus on emergent storytelling. Yes, there are story beats to hit in both, but a large majority of playtime is spent uncovering details through emergent storytelling and lore gathering.
While we are using the word “emergent,” we can extend the adjective to apply to “gameplay.” Emergent gameplay refers to anything discovered by game players that wasn’t explicitly planned and designed by a game’s creators. Using the same analog of Breath of the Wild, Nintendo built intelligent systems that enabled users to use elements and tools. For example, pulling out a fire sword to combat freezing temperatures is an interesting way to solve a problem.
Outer Wilds does the same thing with thrusters, gravity, and the other tools at your disposal. There were a number of moments that I created and got myself out of.
At one point, while not paying attention, I flew a ship into an asteroid at full speed. The ship exploded into pieces and I was sent flipping through space in my empty suit. Getting my bearings, I noticed a small planet moving through orbit towards me. With nothing but my own heavy breathing to keep me company, I jetpack thrusted my way and successfully landed on the planet. Running low on oxygen from the trip over, I found a source of air at the last possible moment and was able to explore further.
If the above story excites you–if the concept of exploring an alien galaxy with nothing but knowledge to propel you forward sounds good–I cannot recommend Outer Wilds enough. I guarantee you will have a great time.