Review: The Outer Worlds

22 Oct 2019

You know that song, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)?” Well, Obsidian Entertainment have been singing it for almost 20 years, and I think their rendition might be the best. While many gamers think of Bethesda or BioWare when discussing the great RPG developers of the 21st Century, the passionate RPG fans know that Obsidian have quietly been showing up their peers at every turn. 2019’s The Outer Worlds is no different and shows yet again they are deserving of your attention and your money.

The Outer Worlds was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Private Division and will be released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 25th, 2019, and on Nintendo Switch at a later date. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review.

Better Than You

In this generation of games, I feel we have a drought of truly brilliant role-playing games. For every The Witcher 3, we have a Fallout 4 and Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not that these games are bad, but they just haven’t been the deep and addicting RPGs we hoped they would be. With the next generation on the horizon, I had pretty much resigned myself to waiting for Cyberpunk 2077 before I would get hooked again. When Obsidian surprised me with the reveal of The Outer Worlds, I knew immediately it would be the classic experience they are known for. 

Part of the problem I have had with modern Western RPGs is their desire to create bigger and bigger worlds with more and more to do. It’s a weird thing to complain about, I know, but it has gotten to the point where I think these games are just putting me in a sandbox with no direction and making it my job to figure out how to have fun. What The Outer Worlds brings to the table is a decidedly old-school approach that blends some modern game design sensibilities with the world building and storytelling of older RPGs such as Knights of the Old Republic.

I was instantly struck by the first interaction I had in the Halcyon. My character had no voice. I can’t remember the last game I played where I really had to read my dialogue options to follow along with the conversation. I had also forgotten how much better the dialogue is when there is no voiceover to accompany it. It was like waking up from a dream.

For the last six or seven years, I felt like I had no agency over my characters’ decisions. While it was a great gimmick when VO dialogue trees were introduced with Mass Effect, it didn’t take long before I realized how shallow conversation became in RPGs. Suddenly, with The Outer Worlds, the character was a canvas where I could impose the personality and traits I wanted them to have.

Halcyon Days

I appreciate Obsidian’s clear dedication to the characterization of both the player character and the NPCs you will encounter. Since the player character has no voice, all the characterization for them comes from how I choose to interact with others. There are enough dialogue options in each conversation for every player to really make their character who they want them to be. What it proves is RPGs don’t need an epic, sprawling story to be engaging and fun. The truth is, The Outer Worlds doesn’t have a story that I would call incredibly engaging, but that doesn’t really bother me at all. The storytelling isn’t bad, and almost every side quest kept my attention, and they never felt tedious. The characters that fill the game are just so well written that they carry the experience. I spent so much time tracking down every character I could interact with in a given area just to see what they would say, and did they have some gems.

What I wasn’t ready for was how funny The Outer Worlds would be. Almost every character and quest was filled with humorous events and snappy dialogue. The best part is even the player character gets in on the jokes. I had gotten so used to my character in RPGs having the personality and humor of Ben Stein (does anyone get that joke?) and easily being the most boring character in the game. Here, I was constantly laughing at the dialogue options I had when communicating with both my crew and the various characters I came upon. Conversations in RPGs are fun again.

While the game was frequently silly, it did offer some surprises in the depth of my companions and the stories they had to tell. When members of my crew asked me to help them with a task, I assumed I would be in for the same revenge and romance companion quests from other RPGs, but what The Outer Worlds offered was refreshing. There is a hidden diversity to these characters that the player will only learn from taking the time to talk to them. In a time where we are fighting for diversity in all forms of our lives, Obsidian does a beautiful job of telling typically unheard stories with care.

Obsidian have also brought back a more in-depth character creator and customization. The character creator has everything an RPG fan could want. There are screens and screens full of sliders to change your character’s appearance, but also a refreshingly deep traits and perks system. It feels good to actually have my traits do the heavy lifting while my perks add small but welcome bonuses to various stats. My companions level up as they explore the Halcyon with me as well, and while my options to affect their stats are more limited, being able to give them perks every now and then is welcome.

Keep It Simple

In terms of its action, The Outer Worlds does a lot right, but it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel. There is a decent variety of weapons to lug around as you shoot, blast, and slice your way through space. Most of the guns have unique personalities, and there is enough different ammo types to keep combat interesting.

Fighting is usually fun and rarely a chore, unlike many other RPGs of its kind, but there isn’t anything particularly special about it. It’s hard to hold that against The Outer Worlds, however, as I was always having fun.

Some of this is assisted by the compartmentalization of the playable areas. I referenced Knights of the Old Republic earlier and this is where I got that feeling. Each planet has its own distinct personality and vary in size. There are a small handful of main story quests to do on each planet and a large offering of side quests to keep me busy, but never enough to feel overwhelmed. I could easily complete all my tasks and move on to the next planet.

On occasion I would find a quest that would ask me to return to somewhere I’d already visited but it never felt like backtracking. The overall experience is one that’s big enough to feel like an adventure, but small enough to stop me from getting frustrated and eventually bored by all the quests in my journal.

The Right Stuff

You can tell The Outer Worlds wasn’t developed with the astronomical budgets of most AAA games today, but that’s not really the point. Most of the shaders and textures are merely serviceable and there aren’t really any “wow” moments when looking at some of the vistas. The characters and enemies in the game look great from a design perspective but we’re certainly not peering into the uncanny valley.

Obsidian knew where to focus their time and money and they did just that. Typically in RPGs I find myself being a little more judgmental about graphics because I want to be immersed, but for some reason The Outer World‘s lower level of polish didn’t bother me. I think that speaks to how much Obsidian believed in the quality of the game, and they were right to.

Music is similarly minimal but not poor. There aren’t any sweeping scores or bombastic, John Williams-esque epics you expect from most science fiction tales. There is, however, pretty strong ambient work. Each planet, ship, and space station had a particular character expressed through sound. Different planets had different fauna who all were unique in the way they filled the soundscape. Lasers are properly “pew-y” and the screams of my enemies as they burn to ash after I pew them is pretty damn satisfying.

The shining achievement is, unsurprisingly, the voice work for all the characters. No two NPCs I encountered sounded the same. Their personalities were all unique and lovingly crafted to create a world that felt real, if not a little cartoony and silly.

Getting It Right

The Outer Worlds is a love letter to how role-playing games used to be without becoming a nostalgia trip. Too many modern RPGs get caught up in trying to tell a story to you instead of with you. Obsidian has reminded us of what was fun about these games to begin with: the role playing. What it has to do right, it excels in, and what it just needs to not screw up it does really well. It’s one of those rare games where as soon as I started creating my character, I knew I was in for a good time.

In the last handful of years, with all these “games as a service” pretending to be RPGs, it felt good to play a game I didn’t know I was missing. Obsidian have made a career out of being the unsung heroes to role-players the world over, and they have struck gold yet again. It may not be the flashiest, prettiest, or most obvious choice for meeting your RPG crave, but trust me, The Outer Worlds is a can’t miss gem of not just 2019, but the entire generation.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Private Division for PS4. Screenshots captured by reviewer.