“I love consumerism, TV culture, shopping malls. There’s nothing I’d ever buy, but I like being there. It’s wacky!”
-Johnny Rotten, The Sex Pistols
There are basically two genres of videos game that have captivated my imagination for a great deal of my life: RPGs and first-person shooters. Growing up in a somewhat isolated environment, the greatest adventures I would go on were either found in a book or a game. Role-playing games gave me the opportunity to both map out my own journey and read, so I naturally gravitated to such franchises as Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire.
And Two Shall Become One
RPGs could only take me so far, however. I also needed an outlet for some “soldiering,” to be a hero on the battlefield and feel like I really did conquer the world with just a gun and a hand full of shells. That is where the FPS genre came in, introducing me to both Doom and Wolfenstein 3D at an early age. It wasn’t about the violence or copious amounts of gore. it was about the rush of obtaining victory through direct means. There were no puzzles or flashy dialogue, just point and shoot. The beauty of simplicity was always stained red.
With two completely different genres grabbing my attention, I longed to see both of them come together in a flashy and dynamic way. I would have to wait many years for Fallout 3 before I was able to experience anything close to what I had envisioned. Though that particular game did not quite scratch the itch I had, later titles would arrive that refined the FPS/RPG hybrid genre and give fans of both games exactly what they were looking for. The Outer Worlds would be one of those titles.
Embracing a New Point of View: The WRPG
Before I get into the 8-Bit Critique of The Outer Worlds, I think it is important to learn how the FPS/RPG genre got started. This shift was surprisingly local to the West. In other words, it didn’t start over in Japan or Asia. For the longest time, the greatest RPGs were coming from across the pond, and there was very little competition from America or other Western companies. Squaresoft, at the time, held all the chips, especially on home consoles. Pushed out of the console wars by Squaresoft’s virtual monopoly of the RPG genre, other game companies were led to release their RPG titles on the PC. Though certainly not the first western companies to do this, BioWare and Bethesda were the two heavy hitters who acted as the pioneers for what we now know as Western Role-Playing Games (WRPGs).
Over the years, both companies would release role-playing games that would push the boundaries of interactive technology. Bethesda would focus heavily on the personal experience, dabbling in the first-person viewpoint and how one can achieve deeper immersion through controlling the view of the hero, and not just the hero themselves. This is best seen through the Elder Scrolls franchise and how FPS mechanics are implemented into a role-playing adventure. BioWare, on the other hand, would focus on player agency, creating gaming experiences that give the players choices on how to interact with NPCs and their environment. Such titles as Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect showcase what that freedom of choice would look like in a fictitious setting, and that theme of “player agency” would remain a core component of both companies’ creations.
The creators of The Outer Worlds, Obsidian Entertainment, came from that creative stock. As mergers and acquirements often go, Obsidian was the result of employees from Interplay Entertainment’s subsidiary, Black Isle Studios, being shut down. The few talented individuals soon formed Obsidian and were approached by BioWare to create a sequel to Knights of the Old Republic. KotOR II was a success, and that solidified the company in the creation of WRPGs such as Alpha Protocol and Pillars of Eternity. After their acquisition by Microsoft in 2018, it was only a matter of time before they produced a truly ambitious project. The Outer Worlds was that vision made real, and it is a WRPG unlike any other.
The 8-Bit Review
One would think that exotic alien planets covered in lush vegetation and unique creatures would host equally stunning visuals. Well, in the case of The Outer Worlds, you would be right, assuming that you are playing it on anything other than the Switch. For all of its strengths, the Switch struggles with providing peak visual experiences with most third-party ports.
Supposing you would play this game on the Xbox One or PS4, your experience would be much different than mine. The graphics are crisp and smooth, while on the Switch they are somewhat grainy and have evident texture pixelation. It is even worse when the system is played in handheld mode.
Despite all of this, the visuals are still passable by anyone’s standards. The light and water effects are especially pleasing because of how they shine and shimmer in the light Halcyon’s star. There is depth and variety to the landscapes and NPCs that inhabit the alien worlds. I guess the big question is how much are you willing to ignore when playing on the Switch?
I like my games to sound natural, as if the music and the sound effects are coming directly from the world being portrayed. For games in this new generation, stereo sound and harmonic depth are absolutely key to creating an immersive experience for the player to enjoy. Though The Outer Worlds features these audio interfaces, I do not feel that they are used to their full potential. From the steps that your character makes to the background noises of the local fauna, both active and ambient sound effects have limited variety. In other words, there are a lot of reused sound effects. The original soundtrack is also lackluster, as it lacks any major thematic songs to remember it by and is mostly ambient in nature.
The voice acting might be the only aspect of this game’s audio that shines. Each character, from the eccentric mad scientist Phineas Welles to the meek engineer Parvati Holcomb, is masterfully voiced to match each character’s personality and style. It helps that most of the dialogue is voiced, as well, and each new choice will unlock new voice tracks.
Being a fan of first-person shooters, I found the gunplay in The Outer Worlds to be on point. You can augment your weapons any way you choose with a large variety of upgrades. These upgrades add new effects to each shot, possibly turning even the weakest weapons in the game into incredibly powerful instruments of destruction. If you prefer a melee approach to combat, you can equip different hand-held weapons to bring the pain at a closer range. This title really does give you the ability to add your own style to the gameplay.
Interaction with NPCs is also a very important part of the gameplay in The Outer Worlds. Most NPCs will give you hints and clues about what to do next, and they will also provide dialogue options for you to choose from. Depending on what stats you choose to focus on, you can manipulate or persuade NPCs to take actions that are in your favor. Many of the chests/crates are locked and require special items to open them, unless your Hacking or Lockpicking skills are high, then you can just circumvent the puzzles and key hunts and claim your prize. With every game mechanic that is employed, there is a way to exploit it.
It wouldn’t be an RPG without some sort of party system, right? Well, in the case of The Outer Worlds, there are six crew members you can recruit, and each one has unique strengths on the field. Two crew members can accompany you at a time on missions, and they will follow you until you engage an enemy. That is when they will fight automatically, using weapons and techniques that you equip them with. You can tweak the AI behavior of your crew to compliment the complexity of the battle, but I honestly found little use for that. I found it more fun to use and mix different party members together because they all share unique banter with each other that never disappoints.
It is easy to sum up the gameplay in one single word, “customizable.” It is all about choice and agency, or at least the illusion of it. As you gallivant around the Halcyon System in your ship called “The Unreliable,” you are pigeonholed into just a few possible conclusions. What begins as a game that promises limitless outcomes with a myriad of choices actually ends with a bottleneck plot that forces you to choose one of two outcomes (three, if you are really stupid, and I won’t spoil that one). Of course, this all matters very little if the story is good, which it most certainly is.
Video games either have it or they don’t, and in the case of The Outer Worlds, the game’s narrative is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in a game. Taking place a few hundred years into the future when mankind has all but trashed Earth, the action of the game centers around the endeavors of the “The Stranger,” which is you, of course. You are a survivor from a colonization ship called the Hope, which was lost in space for years while its crew and a few thousand colonials were frozen in hyper-sleep. The “mad” scientist, Phineas Welles, finds the ship floating in space and revives just one crew member, which is, once again, you. You are tasked by Welles to go into the Halcyon System and save what remains of the colonies that were established a few hundred years earlier. The threats are actually tyrannical corporations that act as the governing authorities of the solar system. This pits you directly against “The Board,” which are the shareholders of these corporations and the force that is, supposedly, slowing the extermination of the colonists in Halcyon.
That may be the plot of this game in a nutshell, but it is only scraping the surface of how deep this narrative actually goes. The charm of this game is based heavily on the idea that nothing is as it seems. Though Welles is the one who saved you, he is also a lunatic and a murderer, and his credibility is constantly questioned by your crew and other colonists. The Board is clearly out for making a quick buck, but they do have a compelling argument about wanting the save Halcyon in their own way. What starts off as a clear cut “good vs. evil empire” story is transformed into a series of moral dilemmas. Each faction you meet has its own understanding and solution to what is happening in Halcyon, and helping one faction will ultimately put you at odds with another. No matter what choices you make, people will die, and it is up to you to decide if it is the right people or the wrong people who do.
There is also a wonderfully deep philosophical question that is explored in this game through its narrative: when does capitalism become too much? Many players have remarked that this game is anti-capitalist, but I strongly disagree with that. The almost absurd power of the corporations serves as a cautionary tale to those who desire to use capitalism to serve their own desires and not allow it to benefit others. The end result is that there is little difference between tyrannical capitalism and communism: the people suffer. It is for this reason that I recommend multiple playthroughs of this game, but we will get to that in a moment.
Being an avid player of FPS games, I found The Outer Worlds to be “tough” at best. Given the experience system and ability to increase one’s power exponentially through gear upgrades and skill point usage, it is possible to make your character nearly unstoppable. Sure, there are enemies that pack a surprising punch, but with the right combination of gear and crew mates, any enemy can be downed in a few shots.
The real challenge of this game is not the combat, but rather achieving the diplomatic results that you are aiming for. There are so many ways to mess up your relationships with the various factions in this game. It is as easy as stepping on the wrong side of a fence, and that may prove to be your death. Tiptoeing around the rules and preferences of certain NPCs adds a fun, and often frustrating, angle to the game.
It is very evident that this game was designed to be replayed based on how the story is set up. Since it is not possible to reveal all dialogue and character arcs in one playthrough, one would have to play through this game multiple times to achieve all the possible outcomes. Even though there is no New Game + option, it is easy to jump right into the action when starting a new file, especially if you have a good understanding of the game’s mechanics. I have played this game through at least five times and have found something new every time I played.
The Outer Worlds often receives the designation of being “Fallout in Space,” which is accurate, but quite restricting. This title has a fun and whimsical 1950’s science fiction aesthetic that permeates the game’s landscapes in an almost absurd fashion. Some of the “science weapons” (considered the strongest ones in the game) look like something from Buck Rodgers or Flash Gordon, and the comparisons don’t stop there. The hokey corporate logos and sales jingles dot every corner of Halcyon, further pushing home the fact that the corporations rule this side of the galaxy. It is this retro-industrialist dark humor that makes this game stand out from the rest.
Unfortunately, the uniqueness of this title does not spread to the game’s mechanics or even its wide array of player choices. Fallout, Skyrim, Knights of the Old Republic, all these games have implemented these devices before, and they were always seen as revolutionary. Unfortunately, at this stage in gaming history, the pendulum of player agency and the ability to change worlds is beginning to swing back, and The Outer Worlds is on the wrong side of that swing.
I personally adore The Outer Worlds. I was able to pick up this game during the heart of the pandemic, and it could not have come at a better time. The story is easy to get wrapped up in and the variety of choices make this title very replayable. Aside from all of that, it’s hilarious. The humor and great delivery from the voice actors hit you at the most unexpected moments. The Switch port is not the optimal way to play this game, but it does provide adequate quality as long as you are not picky about pixels. Even if you are not a fan of FPSs or WRPGs, The Outer Worlds is worth a try, for at least the first half of the game.
Aggregated Score: 7.6
J.R. Sommerfeldt is a family man, pastor, farmer, fiber artist, and indie game enthusiast living in the heartland of America. He has found solace living the simple life, and his preference in games centering around narratives, crafting, and exploration are a testament to this.