I picked up a game called Outward on sale for $20 a while back. It looked like a fun single-player third-person RPG, and the emphasis on starting weak and earning your rewards appealed to me.

My jaunty adventurer with a big permanent smile on his face.

I almost immediately regretted my purchase. The voice acting isn’t very good, and they do that thing I really hate where they only speak the first line, leaving you to read the rest of it. (It’s particularly annoying if you’re making videos.)

Character creation is fairly limited, although I personally loved being able to make an old bald frumpy rotund dude instead of a ripped teenager with flowing anime hair. The graphics are okay, but nothing to write home about. The music is okay, but the sound effects are notably weak. (In fact the first time you load into the game, standing next to an ocean, there’s no sound. I thought it was a bug.) The combat is okay, but nothing to write home about. It’s vaguely Souls-like, in the sense that you get to target-lock and duel with your enemies, but it’s nowhere near the same level of fluidity and complexity you get in a Souls game.

However the game did start to grow on me after a while. It’s a very old-school style of RPG, where you start with nothing and have to earn every penny. In the old days, every RPG adventure started with your character wearing rags and beating rats to death with a dying torch. You didn’t get shiny armor and magic weapons to fight dragons until the end of the game. Outward is that kind of game.

You start out having to pay a “blood price.” You have to pay 150 silver to keep your house, where you start. If you don’t pay up in five days, you lose access to your house. Your house is very nice: You have beds to sleep in (very important), you have a bank storage, you have a cooking station to make food. You don’t want to lose it. I came back to my house after every adventure to store my gear and rest for the next day.

Unfortunately I ran out of time to make 150 silver (in the middle of a cave far away) and I lost my house. Including the stash where I’d been storing all the gear (and money) I’d been collecting on my adventures. Poof, it was all gone, and I was back to being a poor wretch with nothing but what I carried in my backpack.

I stopped by these two blond NPCs quite often, but despite the gesturing, they never actually said anything.

You see, you have to store your stuff, because you can’t carry very much. This RPG is so old school that it limits your inventory, and everything has weight, and when you carry a lot of stuff, you move slower and slower until you can’t move at all. You can’t just pick up every wheel of cheese you see like you do in Skyrim. You have to make decisions about what to pick up and what to leave. My first time starting out, I foolishly thought I’d just drag everything back to the stash in my house and keep hoarding things, but then I lost my house, and it was all gone.

You can get access to the house again, but after the first five days, it’s 300 silver.

With nothing left to do but make more money, I ventured out into the world again. You have to carry a bedroll and cooking pot and waterskin with you if you want to have anything to eat or drink along the road, and you need to keep eating and drinking if you want to survive. You have to sleep to recover your health. There are bandages, but you have to craft them from linen which is hard to find. There are health potions but they are pretty rare.

I decided to go to the next zone to join a faction. It was really hard to cross the first zone, Chersonese. I had to fight hyenas and bandits, and I had to choose my battles wisely, and it took a lot of food and water to get to the other side of the zone. Then I crossed to the next zone, the Hallowed Marshes. It turned out the safe haven of the city was all the way across the zone from where I started. So I set out, running out of food and water. I got killed about halfway across the zone by roving bandits that trounced me.

Caves are really, really dark if you don't carry a lantern.

The game isn’t so hardcore that it ends when you die, but there’s no re-loading the last save game, either. I was “rescued” and sent to the city of Monsoon, thankfully with my backpack, but I lost some silver in the process. At first I thought, “Yay! Now I don’t have to run all the way here. I just got transported to my destination!” Then I found out I was trapped in the city of Monsoon forever.

I realized I was probably in a zone that was too difficult for me, so I decided I would run back to the first zone and continue to explore there. There are tons and tons of little caves and buildings to explore in each zone, where you can earn money and collect gear and experience. (Although I don’t think you actually get experience points. You just earn money to pay trainers to teach you new skills.) Anyway I started to run back across the Hallowed Marshes to get back to the first zone. I got killed and sent back to Monsoon. I tried again. I got killed again and sent back to Monsoon. Again and again and again. (There is no fast travel.) I think I tried about ten times. Each time you die, you lose a little more silver. Eventually I was penniless in Monsoon.

Eventually I got to the point that I had no food or silver. Without food, even if I had managed to cross the Hallowed Marshes without getting killed, I wouldn’t have been able to travel back to the other zone, because it required three food rations to travel between zones.

And so my character was stuck, and I couldn’t think of any way to progress. I started a new character. This time I stayed in the first zone, determined to pay my “blood price” before I lost my house. I ventured out in Chersonese and entered a fortress. I was taken prisoner. All of my money and gear was taken. Eventually I escaped, but I lost most of my stuff again. That’s where I ran out of steam for playing the game, after about 10 hours.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Outward is pretty fun, and much like playing an MMO. But it’s also pretty hard, and the fail states are such that you might have to start over again. It’s got good points and bad points. At first, I was bored, then I got invested in it, then I had to start over because I explored “too much, too soon.” Getting imprisoned in a fortress and having to work out how to escape was pretty neat, but I didn’t care for losing half my stuff in the process. It’s possible to play the game “wrong” and end up getting stuck as a result. I like it when there are consequences for your choices, but I don’t much care for it when you don’t quite know what the consequences are going to be beforehand.

I like the backpack system and having to be selective about what you carry. It reminds me of Asheron’s Call, where you had to make decisions about just how much loot to carry back to town, because it weighed you down so much you might not be able to fight or run away from monsters. On the other hand, it’s pretty tedious to run across these rather large zones at a walking pace because your pack is so full. Thankfully I found the autorun key so you don’t have to hold down the “forward” button for hours on end (cough like Death Stranding cough).

I like the exploration. It reminds me a lot of old-school RPGs, where you could stumble upon a cave somewhere, go inside, and discover a system of passageways that keeps going and going and going, full of monsters and treasure and who knows what because you never find the end of it. There’s an immersive quality to it. There was an old Might and Magic game I remember playing right around the time that games started becoming 3D, and it reminded me a little bit of that game. (Might and Magic VI??)

But it’s also kind of annoying to get a character stuck in such a way that you have to start over, so it’s hard to recommend it. I love games that you don’t have to save, but I don’t love having to start over if something goes so wrong you can’t recover from it.

One other thing I should mention is that I encountered some bugs. They weren’t game-breaking bugs, and they were pretty subtle, but most of them seemed to involve inventory. Once I’d swear I ended up with two Mushroom Halberds instead of one. And when I was captured in the fortress, I’d swear some of my inventory just vanished into thin air. Basically they were the most disconcerting of RPG bugs: When things appear in and disappear from your inventory for no apparent reason. It’s possible there were logical explanations for it, but it didn’t feel very logical at the time.

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