One of the most important factors to consider when jumping into any RPG is its focus on escapism. Role-playing is in the name of the genre, and no one would want to dive headfirst into a lengthy experience that has a cookie-cutter setting. Most players want to venture into worlds unknown, with casts of characters so full of life that they never want to leave. Here is the bottom line: Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds has some of the best dialogue, characters, and, well, worlds that gaming has to offer. Stopping to admire the scenery might just amount to a quarter of the playtime once all is said and done, and the character lineup is so well-written that even the most casual gamer will spend hours just spending time with a crewmate. The Outer Worlds is a space-western for the ages. The catch? Obsidian forgot to give The Outer Worlds gameplay that is even the least bit impactful.
Let us get this out of the way: This game shares a lot of similarities with the Fallout series. Talking to NPCs yields an immediately familiar dialogue system, traversing open plains will often lead to rewarding discoveries, and it even includes a spin on the combat wrinkle that is V.A.T.S., called Tactical Time Dilatation (TTD). The game does not open with a vault escape, but the player is unfrozen after a long hibernation and shot down onto a foreign planet. To be frank, these similarities could not be farther from negative. Where the Fallout series stumbled with these mechanics, Obsidian strides.
I have always had a problem keeping my attention when talking to the hundreds of NPCs in modern RPGs. Skim the dialogue, answer, and repeat; the entire process can become taxing over the course of hundreds of hours. The Outer Worlds forgoes this issue by making every interaction memorable in one form or another. Intimidating the chef of a fancy restaurant in order to lower his prices is easy enough on its own, but how would you feel if a companion, whom you think a lot of, started to openly disapprove of actions like this? The Outer Worlds does not lazily tack on a morality bar just to force in another mechanic for players to micromanage. Player action or inaction influences those around you in more ways than one, and seeing these influences unfold throughout the course of the game creates completely organic experiences. The best part of the lack of a morality bar is Obsidian’s decision to not punish players for picking one playstyle over the other. Betray your friends, be the hero, or just be a dick—the choice is yours. These moments are woven into a story that is, for the most part, good enough. The Outer Worlds is not aiming to be the next The Last of Us or Citizen Kane of gaming,’ and it definitely does not need to be. It does, however, succeed at raising the bar for games that wish to create a world where players create their own narratives.
Adding on to this is the game’s dark, comedic, sincere, and, above all, engaging dialogue. The Outer Worlds is never a drop-dead comedy, but it also never really tries to be. The dark humor is mostly a way for Obsidian to keep the game’s witty tone in check without sacrificing any narrative weight. While a lot of Obsidian’s sci-fi romp remains tongue-in-cheek, plenty of room exists for some feeling, too. Early on, players will encounter a companion that they can choose to bring along for the journey ahead. This character is timid, explaining that she has never been one to speak up or stand out on her own accord. Where this character build-up pays off is in an early side quest where the same character becomes interested in another NPC. The choice to either serve as a confidence-boosting wingman or jealous third wheel is completely up to the player. Opting to encourage the relationship means hearing your companion mention their new partner in passing, in what are some of The Outer Worlds’ most raw moments. The best part is that the game is littered with brilliant interactions like this, making the game’s planet-hopping trek feel all the more authentic.
Providing the backdrop to the convincing cast is The Outer Worlds’ nice number of planets to travel to. Players will be happy to know each planet is completely distinct from a geographical and visual standpoint. The game’s first planet, Terra 2, has so many unique qualities that some of it looks straight out of a Dr. Suess book. Planets hang overhead in a sky that is just as blue as the rivers it reflects upon, while striped, bulbous plants fill out more open areas. Cargo ships will periodically fly overhead, further driving home the illusion of a lived-in society. On the flip side are the swamp and creature-infested plains of Monarch, which are filled with acid pools and marauder camps. This world looks and feels like the inside of a bubble of puss, and its residents are always sure to remind you of that. Both planets have unique individuals that fit into their respective settings, further adding to the game’s immersive qualities.
Obsidian is no stranger to weaving in environmental storytelling throughout its landscapes, and The Outer Worlds is no exception. Just as in Fallout: New Vegas, most worn-down buildings and alleyways have a story to tell for the more attentive. Sure, players will travel to the occasional grey, metallic, and/or claustrophobic space station, but the number of strange and extraordinary sceneries on display far outweigh the locations that are, at worst, a bit drab. Some areas start off locked away but can later be visited through means of simple progression. In typical open-world RPG fashion, players can directly influence some of the changes that happen in these worlds, too. One early highlight sees the player left with the decision to completely reroute a town’s power so that a group of outsiders can survive, or vice versa. Choose the former and a town loses its power, and its job structure begins to come apart, but choose the latter and risk the outsiders losing much of their protection.
The vessel that serves as both a hub and means of transportation is the hunk-of-junk home that is The Unreliable spaceship. The ship has its own sarcastic AI comrade, rooms for travelers picked up along the way, kitchen, workbench, storage—you name it. More than that, though, The Unreliable is the place where players are encouraged to build relationships with those they have come in contact with. Coming back to the ship to find two companions sharing unique dialogue over a couple of glasses of alcohol and cigarettes makes the ship really feel like a weird home with a player-crafted, dysfunctional family. The entire adventure never stopped feeling like an odyssey, with a crew that was genuinely getting to know each other. In many ways, The Unreliable is The Outer Worlds’ version of Mass Effect’s Normandy, just without the world-ending tone.
Unlike the majority of its positives, one thing The Outer Worlds does not have that almost every other competitor in the genre does is combat. In fact, the game’s combat might best be described as some of the most uninspired, boring combat in an RPG in recent years. The Outer Worlds features dozens of unique gun and melee weapons, ammo types, armor variations, and companion abilities but fails to utilize any of it in fun and interesting ways. Light assault rifles feel virtually indistinguishable from an LMG, leaving shotguns as the only weapons that feel even the slightest bit unique. Modding these weapons to have different elemental damage types, scopes, or extended magazine does not seem to have much of an impact at all. This all stems from airy gunplay that feels like Fallout: New Vegas table scraps from more than seven years ago.
Even choosing to approach a potential combat encounter via stealth feels like nothing more than a waiting game thanks to stale AI. This is not to say Obsidian did not do its best to rectify what it almost certainly recognized as The Outer Worlds’ weakest quality. TTD is more engaging and tactical than the mechanic it is based on, allowing players to slow time and inflict specific status effect damage on enemies by targeting different body parts. Additionally, players will not need to worry about strictly using firearms as a primary weapon, as melee tools are often just as viable as some of the game’s best guns. One surprising inclusion is a new dodge mechanic that send a player flying just out of reach of an enemy projectile. A dodge this quick and effective would be easier to find in an arcade shooter, but its inclusion here is still very much welcome.
Companion abilities also add a hint of strategy when charging head-first into an impending threat. Of course, players also have skills and abilities to explore throughout their journey, too, though these trees mostly just feed into the game’s willingness to let players freely play how they wish. An interesting new addition to this, which feeds perfectly into the game’s tone, is a new mechanic called Flaws. During combat, players can contract Flaws that allow them to make a decision on the hot seat. Accepting a Flaw can permanently lower some of a player’s base stats while also gifting a point. The mechanic is a double-edged sword and could completely shift a playthrough if enough are built up over time. Impactful skills, companions, and TTD save The Outer Worlds’ combat from being a total mess, but that does not stop the thought of what this game could have been with moment-to-moment combat that felt even a little weightier.
Though The Outer Worlds has one glaring flaw, it also manages to almost completely pass up another pitfall that normally plagues Obsidian titles: technical issues. That’s right. At least while playing on a standard PlayStation 4, The Outer Worlds never had a single glitched mission, horrific facial animation, see-through wall, etc. Speaking of, facial animations during dialogue are almost regularly impressive, with NPCs emoting in convincing and colorful ways. Telling facial animations were made all the better by voice acting that was consistently solid across the board, too. Occasionally, the game would see a rare, sharp occurrence of a large frame dip, typically provoked by a large number of enemies, but the rest of the campaign saw smooth sailing. Some UI tweaking would not hurt, either, as some pop-up menus obstruct items in the player inventory, leading to some cumbersome navigation. Considering how big and beautiful this game is, along with how many missions are on even one planet, the fact The Outer Worlds works as well as it does is a refreshing change of pace for a genre that often gets away with bugs and glitches under every rock. Even with imperfect UI and a frame jump every now and then, Obsidian seems to have finally dug itself out of its buggy rut.
Fans that have been following all things The Outer Worlds up until launch will not be disappointed here. Obsidian managed to produce a title that is completely carried and elevated by its world(s) and characters. With the amount of interesting interactions filled in each conversation, The Outer Worlds will always beg to be revisited. Sadly, The Outer Worlds shot for the moon and only landed among the stars, thanks to combat that feels like shooting a BB gun at walls of sponge. Lackluster combat is only one flaw, but when players are spending nearly half of their time taking part in the flaw, its problems are unavoidable. Still though, Obsidian has crafted something special that fits right up there with its contemporaries. The Outer Worlds completely succeeds in its mission to take players on an interplanetary adventure in ways that have not been seen in gaming for some time. Hopefully, other titles will follow in its footsteps when taking players to brand new worlds.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4. Also available for Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.