Dark Souls is often referred to as an elaborate form of self-harm. It’s not a very funny a joke, nor particularly clever, but the reason behind it is quite clear. Dark Souls frustrating difficulty curve and ambiguous guidance can feel more painful than enjoyable, especially when coupled with its unforgiving death mechanic that can have you lose so much potential experience for failure.
Then there is Outward, which on the surface might sound like just another “Souls-like” game: a tough as nails high fantasy action RPG with a dark setting. But Outward is more than another clone of the iconic series. For starters, the game goes to no end to tell you that you’re not special. You’re not the Chosen Undead, the Bearer of the Curse or the Ashen One, you’re just some guy. Sure you might have magic, but lots of people in Outward have magic, it doesn’t make you special.
Knowing all this, I still elected to play as a Sigil, Outward’s version of spell caster when I got hands on at Gamescom last month. Like so many wizard classes, Sigil’s are glass cannons: incapable of taking much damage but able to deal an incredible amount. But unlike your typical fireball thrower, Sigils have to draw wards on the ground to augment their simple spells into something formidable.
It is in these moments you can see where Dark Souls and Outward diverge from each other. Combat in Dark Souls is about reacting and adapting to whatever situation you find yourself in, while Outward is about preparing for what’s coming, and being aware of the situation. Backpacks in Outward will slow you down during a fight so it’s sensible to drop them before engaging, but then you’ll have to make sure you’ve got you need in your pockets. For a Sigil, wards need to be prepared, but for the other classes there are other considerations to make.
More so then that, while fans of Dark Souls might jokingly compare its difficulty to self-harm, Outward introduces it as an unintentional consequence for the unprepared.
During my brief time with the game, I spied some bandits hiding in a cave. I set my backpack down and prepared a fire ward on the floor. This particular ward transforms a simple spark spell, useful for lighting torches, into powerful fireballs that I hoped would dispatch the enemies quickly. Confident I was ready, I got their attention by shooting one in the back, which unfortunately didn’t kill him like I had hoped. The thugs closed in much quicker than I expected, and when they got close enough to hit me with their swords, I panicked and cast a shield spell.
Outward is about preparation, and a clever player would have worked out an escape plan should things start to go wrong. A smarter decision might have been to retreat, preparing a lightning ward that can be used as a trap and taking back the advantage. But I didn’t. I cast a shield spell. Normally this would coat me in a protective aura, but I hadn’t stepped off the fire warding.
So what was meant to protect me, instead set my skin alight and destroyed my health bar.
TRY TO AVOID SELF-IMMOLATION
It was a brief moment in the game, lasting perhaps a minute from when I spied the bandits to when they watched my charred body slump over, but it couldn’t have revealed more about the philosophy of the game.
By rooting the combat system into a need to prepare beforehand, Outward breaks away from other ‘Souls-like’ games by not just relying on quick reflexes. Sure, you’ve got to be able to react quickly in Outward, but assuming that will get you through every encounter is a good way of turning up dead.
Outward’s complex combat and magic system create a threatening, dangerous and unpredictable environment. Players can’t just run in and hope for the best, nor can they simply rely on a good weapon and familiar strategy: plans can backfire, literally. Outward has players think carefully before and during an engagement, much like the more serious military shooters, except with magic, swords and self-immolation and not some boringly named assault rifle.
When I panicked, I didn’t even realise I was still standing on the ominous, glowing red symbols of the fire ward. I thought I was being smart, and resourceful by quickly throwing up a shield to protect myself. But its more than simply being aware of where the enemies are, its more than simply being aware where you are too. You have to learn what the outcome of preparation and actions are, and remember it.
MORE THAN A SOULS-LIKE
Outward is an inventive take on the action RPG, demonstrating an understanding into what players want to find challenging that so many “Souls-like” miss. Enemies are tough, but it is the deep, mysterious combat system that will keep players invested when the full game releases early next year. While Outward might appear familiar on paper, it feels completely fresh for the genre. The magic system is inventive, and surprising, with even small encounters being challenging and strategic.
The punishing combat doesn’t just end with a bad spell and an unpleasant death either. Outward takes you further then a simple loading screen and a chance to try again. If you are defeated, a lot of things might happen to you, they’re rarely good, but they’re rarely just trying again. Bandits might enslave you, or rob and leave you for dead, monsters might drag you deeper into their liars or try and feed you to their young. From there its back up to you to get out and keep going, continuing the adventure rather than resetting it. This means that even the biggest mistakes, like setting yourself on fire, won’t be as frustrating as bouncing off the same fight and sitting through the loading screen over and over again.
Outward is a small game with big ambitions. Rewriting the way that combat, death and preparations work in action RPGs, this is a game that looks set to carry the torch forward from where Dark Souls planted it all those years ago.