Mobius Digital's Outer Wilds is a bold and enthralling game with a time-bending narrative that is as strange as it is emotionally compelling.
At first glance, developer Mobius Digital's Outer Wilds is a typical space exploration game, in the same vein as something like No Man's Sky (though on a much smaller scale). 22 minutes in, however, Outer Wilds does something bold and extraordinary: it kills the player character in a massive supernova and then everything resets. For a player completely unaware of this Groundhog Day-like plot device going in, this would prove to be quite a shocking moment the first time it happens. And that's where Outer Wilds really starts to show itself as something completely unlike anything else in its genre.
Outer Wilds uses its first-person perspective to an early advantage by introducing players to both an unfamiliar planet (Timber Hearth) and alien species (called Hearthians). Unlike a lot of first-person games though, Outer Wilds is not a combat-centered experience. In fact, players will never fire a single weapon during the title's near-20 hour playtime. Instead, a lot of the focus is on exploration of planets, uncovering the mysteries of an extinct alien species called the Nomai, and just learning in general. Learning and exploration are often side activities for a lot of narrative-driven games, but here it takes front and center and will be absolutely necessary in solving the time loop puzzle.
The world of Outer Wilds is transcendentally beautiful and strange in all the best ways. It can also be dangerous. Surviving 22 real time minutes before the supernova consumes everything is not always guaranteed in a loop. There are predators like the angler fish, a black hole that will suck you in and spit you out into the cold uncaring depths of space, and other random fatal opportunities. While the time loop concept guarantees that permanent death is the least of your concern, it can still be frustrating to start all over after just getting into the rhythm of exploring some faraway planet. But it's also frustrating in all the best ways.
Another big plus of Outer Wilds is that it takes its story concept of exploration and knowledge gathering and translates it into uncovering goals that will propel the story forward. There's no HUD or objective marker (other than a device that allows players to follow random signals) to lead you to the next mission. A player must embrace their own inherent sense of curiosity and learning from mistakes made in previous loops to succeed. This approach potentially isn't for everyone, but it's where the game shines the brightest for those willing to embrace it. No game in recent memory encourages such a deep level of immersion like Outer Wilds does.
It probably wouldn't be quite as compelling a game if the initial world building put in by Mobius Digital wasn't as great as it is. While dialogue isn't voiced, characters on the home planet of Timber Hearth are uniquely designed and written, and it truly feels like a lived in world. There are even other explorers that can be found on planets by following their unique musical instrument-based signals. The universe of Outer Wilds is also something that could only exist in a surreal visual medium like video games and its planetary design is on a level of creativity and imagination that other developers only dream about.
Outer Wilds is easily one of the biggest video game highlights so far in 2019 but it is not a game without small flaws that keep it from being perfect. The flight mechanics of the ship and space travel in general, while admirably realistic, are often more than a little shaky and unrefined at times. It can be frustrating when trying to carefully traverse the universe and avoid potentially dangerous objects (or even the sun). Even planetary traversal can be a little odd at times, especially in zero or low gravity situations, though this feels more like a deliberate design choice.
As a whole, Outer Wilds is a revolutionary gaming experience. It is boundless in creativity and imagination, with a knowledge-gathering system that permeates throughout the whole experience and serves to create a title that is easily one of the most immersive games in recent memory. Mobius Digital has crafted one of the best games of the year and easily the best and most complete space explorer in years. The time loops in the game may only last 22 minutes but you'll be happy to spend hours upon hours getting lost in Outer Wilds.
Outer Wilds is available now on Xbox One and PC for $24.99. Screen Rant used an Xbox One copy for the purposes of this review.