Indie Game of the Week 220: Outbuddies DX

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I'm beginning to sound like a broken record I realize, but Indie explormers will always be a fascinating cottage industry as well as a game type that I'll never grow bored of playing. It's why I've probably dedicated about 25% of this feature's oeuvre, if not more, to this once-obscure format for 2D platformers looking to emphasize non-linear and more immersive world design. True to its more common appellation, the explormer genre tends to focus on two distinct stylistic themes: gothic horror fantasy with a supernatural/magical source for its traversal upgrades, and atmospheric horror sci-fi in which gadgets and advanced technology occupy the same role. Outbuddies DX is very much leaning towards the latter, presenting a pseudo '30s adventure serial of a slightly unhinged gentleman explorer who finds himself in Bahlam: a vast network of tunnels both above and below water which he believes to be the cradle of all life, located under a particular spot in the middle of the ocean. What he finds are colossal beings ancient enough to be positively alien (there's some small amount of Lovecraft sneaking in) and a tribe of friendly troglodytes who have been awaiting the prophesized "man from the ocean" to save them from their cruel titan taskmasters.

It's evident after a few minutes that Outbuddies wants to be a lot of things, and it has no shortage of ambition for what I imagine was a small team. Its slightly garish color scheme is immediately reminiscent of the C64 or Spectrum ZX eras - think VVVVVV's ode to 8-bit, but with a little more detail - and when you hack your first enemy with your floating drone buddy, there's a distinct sense that the developers were looking to make an Axiom Verge successor before its original designer could do so. Meanwhile, there's so many allusions to Metroid from the enemy design to the atmosphere to the weapon and traversal upgrades (which are steam-powered but otherwise similar in function) that it's hardly worth getting into them all here. As with Indie Souls-likes, there's two tiers of homage a given project can take on: the first just imitates the structure, replicating many of the mechanics but transplanting into a new paradigm, while the second makes sure to ape the tone and presentation to some degree also as if to avoid any attempt to hide where this inspiration came from. I do appreciate the latter just for their honesty, but it means I've played far more games riffing on Metroid's whole style than I've played Metroid games themselves. It is getting a little silly, but I suppose I have only myself to blame for constantly buying these things.

The Wozan are cute, but rescuing them all might be more of an onus than it first appears. You can also use the currency needed to save them to save yourself with some one-use resurrection consumables, if you don't care about collectables (or being a good person).
The Wozan are cute, but rescuing them all might be more of an onus than it first appears. You can also use the currency needed to save them to save yourself with some one-use resurrection consumables, if you don't care about collectables (or being a good person).

Outbuddies has a few positive traits in its corner, irrespective of its stylistic origins. For one, its map is absolutely massive: when you first start the map is filled with squares, easily in the hundreds. It's when you enter one that you realize that many rooms are comprised of multiple squares in various combinations, such as a long 1x4 corridor or a 3x2 rectangular boss arena. The map's also one that annotates itself frequently, indicating where upgrades have been found, areas that cannot be accessed yet, color-coded barriers for later referral, and lines to show how its network of teleporters are connected. I'll also say the drone feature has been well incorporated: not only will the drone hack enemies at higher levels - modifying their DNA to turn them into anything from a floating platform to reversing their friend/foe detection to simply making them explode - but you can control the drone at any time to sweep the room for secret destructible walls or check on various points of interest for hints on how to use them or if they're better off avoided. The drone can also use telekinesis to push boxes around as platforms. In the game's asynchronous two-player co-op, the secondary player controls the drone and can be left in charge of reconnaissance while the primary player tries to stay alive.

However, Outbuddies is also extremely rough in many spots, and it's been something of a minor avalanche of annoyances that have grown into a sense of antipathy for the game, if not quite one that overrules my desire to hit 100% map completion (I hate leaving tasks half finished). Platforming in general feels a bit stiff and unresponsive, specifically in how certain moves work: one example is taking a running leap off a platform for more horizontal distance, yet every time I reach the end of the platform for the jump it suddenly reverts the momentum back to normal walking speed. This is obviously an even bigger problem where there's not much space for a run-up. Another example is a jetpack upgrade you get approximately halfway through the game: you're meant to hit the dash button while in mid-air to activate it, as both use your steam gauge for power (it regenerates automatically, but you have to be touching the ground), but the trigger refuses to work half the time. I've not encountered any reflex-intensive platforming challenges where I needed to use the jetpack yet, but given how unreliable it has proven to be I'm not looking forward to encountering one. The aforementioned map system, while handy, also promises more than it delivers. For instance, it does indicate if you've completed a room's puzzle or have found its hidden object with two distinct markers (cyan for the item, green for the puzzle), but rooms that have neither receive no symbol, so there's no way of knowing from looking at the map if there's nothing to find there or you just missed it. A more valuable feedback system would involve presenting the green "clear!" checkmark for rooms that have nothing to find, as well as those that have since been cleared. As it is, the ambiguity is as unhelpful as if there was no feedback at all. The huge map is also a detriment because of the game's lack of effective fast travel: there is one hub location with a half-dozen teleporters but everything is spaced so far apart that you're likely to take 15-20 minutes reaching any given spot on the map, and if that's if you run straight there from the nearest warp site. Projectile physics are both unpredictable and inscrutable, with bouncing projectiles randomly increasing and decreasing speed as they move along making them much harder to avoid than they need to be. The game also has this default option where it zooms in on smaller/narrower rooms to fill the screen, but this zoomed in effect also applies to the map screen for no discernable reason making it even harder to navigate due to expanding its already immense size.

I can't fit the whole map on here, but can you see those little squares on the top and left of the main box? Those are sliders that indicate how much of the whole map is visible. (The cyan circle is the cursor and draws a line to your current location so you don't lose where you are; it'd be easy to do so otherwise.)
I can't fit the whole map on here, but can you see those little squares on the top and left of the main box? Those are sliders that indicate how much of the whole map is visible. (The cyan circle is the cursor and draws a line to your current location so you don't lose where you are; it'd be easy to do so otherwise.)

The worst aspect, which is usually the best in many games of this type, are the boss fights. Each boss has a trick to them, but it's close to impossible figuring out what this is because bosses are so fast and aggressive you barely have a moment to think. Many hit you with these rapid homing shots that are instantly up in your grill and just stay there sitting on your sprite for several seconds applying damage, and considering you only ever have five HP total - unless I've somehow missed every energy tank, which would be weird since I've found at least ten missile tank upgrades so far - a fight can be over almost as soon as it starts. One particularly egregious example is a "sheep" that rolls around the screen at the speed of sound not unlike a certain hedgehog, and you have less than a second to react the moment it enters from any one side (you only ever see a small portion of the boss arena). The way to defeat it, I'd eventually figure out, is to trick it into unfurling and charging at you, and then directing that charge into a spike wall. This looses its grip on the dozen or so satellites that follow it around - each of which might fly out in any random direction at any given moment, and all can do damage to you - and then you have a small window to hack as many of these satellites as possible before they regroup into their invincible formation again. It took so long to get past the "not dying" stage of the fight that I only discovered this solution through pure luck, and even then the boss would occasionally stop mid-charge just to roll up into a ball and bounce away again. Much of the rest of the game has been the same situation: either too fast, too hard, or too random to reasonably surpass, and if I ever do it's only minimally satisfying because of the luck factor involved.

I wanted to like Outbuddies simply because I want to like any explormer that passes my way. I realize I make it sound like there's a new one coming out every week with how much play they see on this feature, but they're still not that common and I relish the chance at every new one I find to see what they do different, or at least how well they handle the familiar mechanics and gameplay intrinsic to the format. Outbuddies has frequently felt like more trouble than it's worth, with its high difficulty often feeling cheap or capricious rather than a challenge worth taking on (one small credit to the game is that death just boots you back to the entrance of the current room, rather than all the way to the last save point). The opening crawl is stylish enough but filled with typos, and it's not made all that clear what the protagonists goals are or how he came by a lot of his technology beforehand: the drone, for example, is shown to originate from this ancient, forgotten part of the world, but is present when the game starts and it is never stated how the protagonist came by it. Yet I can't really say it's a style over substance issue either, because as stated the game world is gigantic and packed with (albeit similar) ruins full of treasures, gadgets, weird monsters, and secrets to find. I'm invested enough to see it through to its end and I certainly can't fault its ambition, the amount of content, or the fidelity to its inspirational sources, but it feels like it's fighting me every step of the way and not in the sense video games are supposed to.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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