Outward: High Art, Lower Accessibility

Approaching Conflux Mountain.

by SeskaBooom

Outward is the latest open world RPG from developer Nine Dots Studio. The game is set in a fictional, medieval world, where your character is a regular person on a series of adventures. Or not. In creating this game, the developers wanted to release the reins and allow the player run free with the story. Nine Dots’ mission: to push the gaming industry forward by emphasizing humanity and artistry. With Outward, they wanted to create a more meaningful experience, and highlight the message that regular humans can do extraordinary things. You may choose to follow quests given by story characters or venture off on your own. Either way, you will have to grind your way to the top. As you gain skills and advanced weaponry, you may find that staying as close to normal as you can brings the richest, most exciting experience.

Outward character creation menu.

General Gameplay/Mechanics

You may start and save multiple games, and switch between them as you wish. To start a new game, name and design a character. Customize by gender (female or male), race (three; all human), face style, and hair style and color. There’s also an interesting option that allows you to select a legacy Legacy, whereby a new character can inherit up to four items from one of your earlier creations. In order to make a legacy available to future creations, you must locate one of the four legacy chests on the map, and place the items inside. As customization goes, I find the character options to be a bit off-putting. The face styles are not aesthetically pleasing; the characters are crude and not inline with the artistic effort evident in the landscapes.

The storyline begins after your character has survived a shipwreck en route to their home village of Cierzo. At this point you, may follow the story or chose to venture off on your own in the world. I recommend the former on your first play through – this will help you to quickly obtain the basic necessities and provide you with information about the world around you.

Story characters (inside cities) will provide you with information, directions, and available quests. Use the very basic map (press M) and given directions to navigate. Once you venture into the open world most people and animals will be a danger to you. Avoid them, especially groups, play them against each other, or stock up on stamina potions and run.

Time moves quickly in this game; I have experienced multiple days while playing for only an hour or two. This is a different approach and makes everything seem a bit more urgent. If you are given a deadline to complete a quest and it’s not completed on time, you may lose the opportunity and there will be consequences (I am playing multiple games right now and I’m slightly nervous about one because I missed a chamber meeting).

During a fight, you can use the Tab key to lock in on an enemy and circle around it. This makes fighting easier, but it also prevents you from moving too far from your foe. If you use this method and additional enemies appear, you must remember to disengage from the first or you will not be able to fight them both effectively. You can die in this game, however dying means that you are sent back to Cierzo, probably broken and confused, and have to start whatever journey you were on again, without the benefit of additional time. Thankfully you will not lose your bag, it will be lying somewhere near you.

Superheroes and Special Powers

There are none. Everyone begins at the same level and is required to earn advancements in ability by purchasing training and advanced weaponry (with currency earned through the efforts of the player or looted from felled enemies) and by earning the right to use magic.

The developers wanted to emphasize the idea that your character is a real person and not a superhero or magical being. As a consequence, you are required to eat, drink, and rest periodically. Before embarking on a journey, you should stock your backpack with food and at least two water bottles. You will encounter health hazards; cold or heatstroke (so dress properly and don’t camp too close to a fire), disease (read the description before you eat and boil water unless it is specifically labeled clean), and possession or spells if you encounter a magical enemy.

Sleeping requires a bedroll and can be done almost anywhere, except that there is a danger of ambush when sleeping outside of city walls. You may need to guard for as much time as you sleep. Also, take the opportunity to repair your equipment because it will wear out over time and may fail you where no shopkeeper or peddler is available.

Inventory management is an important part of this game.

Inventory

Management of your inventory, which includes the contents of your backpack, pocket, and chests, is highly important. Efficient management can make or break your game. Only pack what you need; sell or store extras. If you pack too much, it will slow your movements. If you do not pack enough you may starve or succumb to the elements. Helpful reminder: Purchase or create the objects you may need before leaving a city. Consider purchasing instructions or recipes rather than the actual items so that you can create these items on the fly. Be greedy: if you see an object you don’t need, and you have the space, take it and sell it to a trader or shopkeeper. However, not every object will be accepted, and you will receive less money for an item than it may costs to purchase.

State of Development

Outward is marketed as a completed game, but feels as if it’s still in development. Some players report inconsistent results, especially in 2-player mode; such as items disappearing from inventory or the loss of a backpack. I have experienced some of the same issues; an alchemy recipe disappeared from my inventory after I spent the majority of my remaining coin. I’ve also lost a weapon and food to the void. I’ve been relocated to Cierzo without cause. And there is no manual save so I never know how close I’ll be to my last location when I turn the game back on.

The map in Outward has inspired a heated discussion in the steam community boards. The lack of a marker to indicate the player’s location is problematic; although it reinforces the developer’s no hand-holding theme, it unfairly ratchets up the difficulty. Real paper maps also lack an indicator, but contain sufficient detail to help you figure out your current location. The Outward map lacks detailing and has several identical monuments. In addition, there is no way to annotate the map or leave breadcrumbs to assist you in wayfinding.

Visual Accessibility

Outward is full of amazing artistry complemented by compelling music. The soundtrack itself is assistive in that the tension increases when you run into or are approaching trouble, so that even if you cannot see your enemy, you know it’s close or coming for you.

The text size is an issue for me. Verbal interactions, containing essential information, are accompanied by text and only some of the text is spoken. I have low vision so I need the ability to adjust something about the text (size or color). However, the only available adjustment is language. I find myself straining to see the written dialogue. I would need to invest in a third screen to play this game comfortably.

Can you find the arrow?
The arrow blends into the stone path.

There are aspects of this game which depend on the ability to see color and fine details. Objects which may be used or consumed often shine brightly or emit a sound. Unfortunately, some objects do neither and may blend into the background, avoiding detection unless your character moves close enough to activate the interaction prompt. The game lacks a contrast setting which would make some items easier to see. Filters for colorblind accessibility are also missing, as well as the ability to alter the HUDs (heads up displays).

Limited volume controls.

Auditory Accessibility

Verbal interactions between characters are usually accompanied by very short-spoken dialogue and longer written text. Environmental sounds are generally limited to footsteps and animal noises. There is a lovely soundtrack which changes to indicate a shift in events (such as danger, safety, and magic beings/objects nearby). There is no option for subtitles, so deaf or hard of hearing gamers, especially, may miss out on these cues. In addition, the 2-player option allows for voice-only chat, no text.

Motor Accessibility

Keyboards and controllers can be remapped to suit the needs of the individual. Given the sometimes glitchy nature of the game (mentioned under state of development), the player may experience some frustration when at needing to repeatedly press the same key over again. I have found that it’s not a constant source of frustration, but these glitches may plague you at the worst times.

In order to speak with a character or travel in/out of a building or location, you have to press F (interact) at the right time. This control is finicky, and at times will not work unless you are in the exact right spot. If you get too close to a talking character you cannot speak to them (the arms maker in Cierzo is very tricky to interact with). While running from a pack of hyenas, I made it to a cave entrance only I was apparently too close to actually enter it! I received a thorough and unexpected mauling from the pack and woke up inside the cave, battered and confused. This glitch is annoyingly frequent, adds to the “early access” feel, and can really screw up your game.

Overall

Outward is a medieval open-world fantasy RPG, featuring an impressive landscape and soundtrack. The game is in need of further development and lacks key accessibility features. However, it’s fun! Especially for players who enjoy swordplay and spell-casting. I have hope that the Nine Dots will work to make improvements because this game has loads of potential.


Game Details

  • Rated PEGI 12+ for violence.
  • Released March 26, 2019.
  • Published by Deep Silver (Koch Media) and available on Xbox, Playstation, and PC.

About the Author

SeskaBooom is a streamer on Twitch (https://www.twitch.tv/seskabooom/).