Science, art, and mystery in a small solar system
I know it’s a good sign when I play an adventure game and immediately grab a pen and paper to write down a piece of information I got. Having just finished Outer Wilds, a game I was excited to come to PS4 a few months after its initial release on PC and Xbox One, I can put the pen an paper down feeling content at a wonderful adventure game experience. Granted, I didn’t loose too much ink in my pen since the game has a robust journal with smart updates to your progress.
Outer Wilds takes place in a minuscule solar system with a handful of planets and moons. Each one is only a few kilometers apart and accessible with your spaceship, which you can access within a few minutes of booting up the game for the first time. You’re a Hearthian, a blue-skinned, four-eyed being from the planet Timber Hearth. A race filled with a love of archaeology, music, and a cozy campfire. Early on in your village on Timber Hearth a statue from a long-gone alien race known as the Nomai peers at you and imparts an odd gift: when you die your consciousness returns to your body as you left it at the start of the game. Yes, like the movie Groundhog Day.
This is the heart of Outer Wilds. Every bit of knowledge you discover is useful in your next life. And the next, and the next, etc. There’s nothing to collect or stats to increase. Not only is it a gameplay mechanic that pulls you through the story, it allows the player to relax when they accidentally crash into the sun. There’s no progress to lose when you die. You simply open your eyes to the same sky and everything is back to the way it was. The nuts and bolts of playing the game, such as piloting your ship and interacting with switches, have a preciseness that can be pretty unforgiving. The only negative experience I had was accidentally dying from taking my thumb off the throttle a little too late, or being disoriented in my spacesuit’s jetpack in zero-g. There’s also an aggravation when your time loop is nearing the end but you’re just so close to finishing reading an important bit of lore.
My minor complaints melt away every time I encounter a new astral body. These small planets aren’t sparse spheres with a few buildings for you to walk around. Each one has a truly unique mechanic and look, making exploring every nook and cranny a pleasure to explore. The art style is clean and fun, as well as the symbology, combined with music that ranges from simple banjo pickin’ to somber synth track that signifies the end of the time loop.