Outer Wilds Review — Explore. Die. Repeat.
Outer Wilds takes you on a wonderful mystery through a hand-crafted solar system that is well worth a visit.
Outer Wilds is one of the most engaging games I’ve played this year. You play as an astronaut who is finally making their first journey into space. Unfortunately, your first trip is fated to end in disaster as your entire solar system will implode when your local sun goes supernova.
Luckily, your death is not the end of this journey. Shortly before take-off, you interact with a mysterious alien statue that gives you the ability to loop back to the start of the game every time you die. Nothing comes with you through each loop except for the information you’ve gathered, making exploration paramount on each trip.
During your travels, you discover relics from an alien race known as the Nomai (their statue was the one that gave you time-looping powers). These advanced creatures traveled to your solar system in search of the Eye of the Universe. They’ve left behind a number of clues about what they were doing before their extinction. It becomes your job to follow their clues and discover the secrets of the universe.
Each clue is saved in your ship’s memory logs when your current loop resets. These hints help you discover new and interesting secrets on the various planetoids present in your solar system. Unlike other space-faring games that try to give players a huge universe to explore, Outer Wilds focuses on giving you a small number of hand-crafted worlds full of secrets to unlock. Each is packed with tons of content for you to explore.
Every world feels incredibly distinct, too. They all look absolutely gorgeous, but that’s pretty much the only similarity. One planet is a giant ocean that has cyclones that will shoot you and the planet’s islands up into space. Another pair of planets have an interesting mechanic. One begins covered in sand but then transfers the sand to the other, opening new areas on the first planet while closing off areas on the second. Yet another is constantly exploding, making traversal dicey.
And these are just a few of the many examples. Even the planets I’ve mentioned have big secrets I wouldn’t dare divulge here. After all, the journey through Outer Wilds is what makes this game special. The endpoint doesn’t really matter, as getting there is so much fun.
Your imagination and innovation will constantly be tested. It feels a lot like The Witness in that way because it is often more helpful to take a break from the game and just think about it than it is to just bash your head against the wall. The puzzles are varied and sometimes complex. If something doesn’t appear solvable, you should consider going to another planet. The Nomai clues can be tricky to find, but they are there if you look hard enough.
And, if you can’t find the clues, feel free to experiment. There were a number of times where I just tried something wild, and it worked out. You have a number of tools at your disposal, including a jetpack, scout launcher, and signalscope. The jetpack works as you’d expect. The scout launcher lets you send out a scout drone to give yourself an idea of what’s ahead of you. Meanwhile, the signalscope lets you track various signal frequencies that lead you to new clues. Correct usage of these tools is how you’ll solve most of the game’s many puzzles before your time runs out.
By forcing you to reset every 20 minutes or so, the game has an almost The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask feel to it. Everything moves at a set pace, so you might gain knowledge in the 18th minute that you can only apply at the fifth minute. It can at times feel difficult to keep track of everything. That said, when it all comes together, and you make a big discovery, you’ll feel like a genius.
The clockwork loops are, by far, the most interesting part of the game. Each time you loop back, you only take the knowledge you gain. That doesn’t feel like a lot at first, but each new clue you discover opens up possibilities that you never imagined before. The inter-connectedness of the planets leads to some truly mind-blowing discoveries.
I will say that, at times, the game’s clockwork nature worked against it. There were times when I would have to wait at a certain location for minutes at a time to see if a hypothesis was correct only to accidentally die and have to start over. However, that didn’t really diminish my drive for discovery. It felt more like a teaching moment. I needed to force myself to slow down and play patiently.
Being patient is key in almost every aspect of the game, especially when it comes to getting around in space. I was constantly overshooting planets and struggling to land safely because I took everything too quickly. Luckily for players like me, Outer Wilds does have a generous autopilot that makes it much easier to successfully land on a planet.
Any quibbles I may have with Outer Wilds are vastly outnumbered by the sheer joy the game brought each time I made a big discovery. There is so much packed into each planet that even hours into the experience I was still discovering new things on the opening planet. That kind of density just doesn’t happen in games like No Man’s Sky. If you liked the idea of that game but wanted something much more crafted, this is the game for you.
Outer Wilds is a tour de force in world-building and mystery. The team used the time-looping system to build an experience that makes you lose track of time as you play the loops over and over again. The story being told is mildly interesting at best, but the meandering path you have to get to the end is magical.
Mobius Digital has crafted something with Outer Wilds that is well worth your time. In the current climate of gigantic open-world games, this is something relatively small that packs a massive punch. Many of the things I experienced are going to stick in my noggin for quite a while. If you have the means to pick Outer Wilds up, I would absolutely encourage you to do so.