The Outer Worlds Review (Switch)
Release Date: June 5, 2020
File Size: 13.8 GB
Publisher: Private Division
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
It’s been just over a year since The Outer Worlds launched on the Switch. At the time, the heralded first-person shooter/role-playing game, created by the minds who introduced the world to the first two Fallout titles, surprised nearly everyone when the Switch version was announced to follow upon the heels of its Windows, Xbox One, and PS4 counterparts only months after its late 2019 debut on those platforms. Then, in the summer of 2020, the Switch port of this unique and ambitious next-gen RPG finally arrived. The reactions, to put it mildly, were somewhat mixed.
While the essence of the game, beloved by so many, remained mostly intact and was received as positively as ever, much fuss was made about the various downgrades that were required in getting this version to perform adequately on the Switch. And with good reason too. For many reviewers and gamers, the result wasn’t up to snuff. From scenery gutted of detail, fuzzy resolution, and horrendous draw distances to lots of pop-in and low frame rates, the general consensus when my copy arrived in late June, almost a year to the day of my writing this, was that The Outer Worlds on the Nintendo Switch remained a solid game but one that was best experienced on more powerful hardware.
On the flip side, Virtuous, the development company that handled the task of bringing over Obsidian Entertainment’s vision to the Switch, has been hard at work during the past thirteen months. The game has seen a series of patches, each promising to enhance some of the visual and performance issues that plagued it upon release. In addition, the developers’ collaborative effort with publisher Private Division has begotten the first of two brand new story expansions in the form of the separately purchasable DLC, Peril on Gorgon and Murder on Eridanos, respectively. Peril of Gorgon landed on the eShop this past February while the latter has yet to receive a concrete release date on Nintendo’s platform but is expected to arrive before the year’s end.
On top of all this, if you watched Microsoft’s E3 presentation last month—Xbox Game Studios now the parent company of Obsidian Entertainment, which seems to be a common theme judging from a couple of my past reviews—you may have caught wind of a hilarious reveal trailer for the highly anticipated sequel, The Outer Worlds 2.
Thus, in many ways a review of The Outer Worlds on the Nintendo Switch feels almost as relevant as it did a year ago when I set foot in the dystopian worlds of the Halcyon solar system for the very first time.
My motivation for revisiting The Outer Worlds and composing some thoughts on it at this late date are threefold: First and most simply, it’s a game that never received a SwitchRPG review and I feel that it more than deserves the attention. Secondly, I’ve been on the fence about purchasing the above-mentioned DLC, having completed the main game last July, and considered that replaying it could help persuade me one way or another. Finally, I was curious to see how the game has improved since my original playthrough.
That said, I didn’t run through the entirety of the campaign again, which took me around 40 hours the first time as I set out to complete all of the quests that were available. However, I did spend a few evenings tinkering around with my previous save file and exploring a number of areas, reacquainting myself with the game mechanics, and evaluating how its performance stacks up in 2021. And I should add that I have never played any of the Fallout games nor had I encountered The Outer Worlds prior to its Switch release. However the game may be perceived on those platforms against which this port in particular has been constantly measured and critiqued, my primary source for comparing the different versions is the internet.
If nothing else, I can at least say that I went into it all with an open mind, and very biased towards the idea of merging two genres that I enjoy, viz., FPSs and RPGs, which both excited and intrigued me. What follows from here on out is more or less an account of my initial run, though I will of course note instances in which I encountered improvements in the game’s current state versus what I saw in 2020. With that out of the way, then, thank you for choosing me as your guide, strap in, and remember: ‘It’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice!’
The Outer Worlds takes place in the distant future, during the 24th-century (the year 2355, to be precise), in an alternate timeline wherein megacorporations have grown to such an extent that they more or less control all facets of human activity. Civilization has reached the outer edges of known space and established a colony in a six-planetary system known as Halcyon. Unfortunately, when you arrive—or rather awake—onto the scene, you find that the situation for the inhabitants of the colony is not only unsustainable but is rapidly becoming more dire.
The entire solar system is owned and run by the Halcyon Holding Corporation, or ‘the Board,’ a conglomerate of ten corporations that formed to purchase Halcyon some years prior from the powers that be back on Earth before the stellar communities lost contact with their terrestrial peers. How this happened is never explained but the implication is that the alienated peoples of Halcyon have been left to persevere amidst a tense political environment where their limited and dwindling resources are controlled by a few bureaucratic technocrats.
When the colonization of Halcyon was first attempted many decades earlier, two ships containing the brightest minds on Earth were sent to establish a settlement in this new frontier: the Groundbreaker and the Hope. While the Groundbreaker successfully reached its destination, the Hope suffered mechanical failure that caused a delay in reaching its target, setting it back some twenty-five years later than its scheduled arrival. The crew members, resorting to grim tactics for survival which included cannibalizing their fellow passengers, ultimately perished. As for the hundreds of thousands of colonists onboard who were placed in cryosleep, they remained in stasis even after the Hope eventually resurfaced within the neighborhood of Halcyon and came into the possession of the Board.
Your role as the player comes in when a mad scientist named Phineas Welles, a fugitive on the run from the Board, discovers a conspiracy to conceal the tragic fates of those who died or have been left stranded on the Hope. The Board, lacking both the means and the will to revive the colonists who linger on, frozen in time within the ship’s cryogenic sleep chambers, aims to hide the Hope’s existence from the living populations of Halcyon. Welles, wishing to save the slumbering pioneers, manages to successfully awaken one of the brave colonists from their decades-long rest. He tasks this stranger with locating the resources necessary for rescuing the other remaining souls, these scientists, engineers, and all-around brilliant intellects being indispensable, Welles believes, in turning around the crumbling prospects of Halcyon’s long term viability. The stranger is none other than you.
The Outer Worlds’ plot is one that takes you across a number of alien worlds, ranging from large open planets and terraformed moons to industrialized asteroids and spaceship pubs. You take on a variety of quests as you navigate the harsh realities of life in this unforgiving hellscape of outer space, assisting the common citizenry, helping to resolve political and social disputes between rival factions and industry honchos, and of course, shaping the direction of future events as it pertains to the unconscious colonists left aboard the Hope as well as those slowly losing hope in each of the outposts you visit.
This is a game in which you are repeatedly faced with choices that have important consequences for how the narration and brief sections of gameplay unfold. As concerns the choice-based dialogue employed throughout nearly every interaction, enough can’t be said of the superb job that Obsidian did in making every alternative feel amusing if not truly consequential. Part drama, in bigger part dark comedy, the writing on display in The Outer Worlds is nothing short of fantastic, not only because it satirizes real-world political and corporate misbehavior so well, or finds almost endless ways of utilizing irony to humorous effect, but also because the writers navigate a balance of serious storytelling and absurdist farce to impeccable results.
I’m not going to pretend that every sidequest enthralled me to the same (or any great) degree, but the script that plays out is usually unpredictable and engaging enough that I found myself seeking out more duties to fulfill, not less. RPGs typically tack on scores of distractions in the form of fetch-quests and other monotonous chores to pad out length, and rarely are these aided by writing that consistently hits the mark. I’m not suggesting that The Outer Worlds contains such filler. Sure, there are a fair amount of sidequests that don’t serve to directly impact the main thrust of the narrative but you never feel like completing all of them is too tall of an order. Among the reasons for this, I’d argue, are that they’re not that numerous, not overly drawn-out or difficult, and best of all, never hampered by boring writing.
Given the variety of dialogue choices you’re given, I can easily conceive that the number of pages that went into composing The Outer Worlds’ script must have totalled somewhere in the thousands, not hundreds. It’s all voice-acted, too! (But more on that later). While the extent to which character interactions often contain numerous branching possibilities is impressive, it’s all the more so given that the personalities and plot threads you come upon are as habitually colorful and entertaining as they are moody and sombre. However you feel about it all when everything is said and done, there can be little dispute that each of the exchanges and multifarious situations encountered throughout Halcyon possess a unique flair, oozing an intelligence and self-confidence that really sets The Outer Worlds apart.
In sum, where The Outer Worlds’ ‘Story’ is concerned, and specifically its writing, so far so good.
At the outset, you’ll be required to choose between four difficulty modes. In my case, I went with the default ‘Normal’ setting which is recommended for first-time playthroughs. Like many RPGs within the genre, the next series of decisions that you have to make involve the look and build of your character. From gender, skin tone, bone structure, and hair color to distributing points that determine his or her personality traits, i.e. things like ‘Attributes’ (strength, dexterity, charm, etc.), ’Skills’ (melee, ranged, dialog, stealth, etc.), and ‘Aptitude’ (your character’s career specialization, for example, ‘Food Additive Tester,’ ‘Tossball Team Mascot,’ or ‘Scientist Inspector’), which correspond to a small stat bonus, there is considerable freedom to customize your preferred protagonist to your heart’s content.
Also worth mentioning is that skills such as dexterity, intelligence, and charm really come in handy for things like picking locks, sneaking past foes undetected, or, getting back to the choice-based dialogue, successfully lying your way out of a situation or persuading or intimidating a potential adversary instead of fighting them. The different possible outcomes may also affect your reputation with the several cliques and communities you meet, which in turn can cause, for instance, the vendor prices in that locality to increase or decrease depending on how your presence is received.
After the introductory cutscene, Phineas Welles sends you off to the Emerald Vale on Terra 2, a mountainous province that slightly resembles the Earth insofar as it is replete with foliage and flowing rivers. It’s also brimming with terrifying alien monsters and lawless marauders who will unflinchingly rip you to shreds if you’re not careful. Home to Edgewater, a small industrial town owned by the company Spacer’s Choice, your mission is to locate Alex Hawthorne, a smuggler who will serve as your chauffeur around town. Sadly, some regrettable circumstances prevent you from meeting Hawthorne. Nevertheless, you do come across his spaceship, the Unreliable, and a very funny bit of dialogue between yourself and the ship’s centralized A.I., a computer system named ADA, that results in your christening as Captain (Hawthorne) of the Unreliable!
The Unreliable will serve as your central hub and means of travel between the game’s several areas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your first moments in the Emerald Vale will act as a tutorial for the game’s controls. With regards to combat, The Outer Worlds is very much an action-RPG set in the first-person. However, instead of primarily using swords and magic spells, your chief tools are guns and lasers. In other words, it’s a first-person shooter. But actually, that’s not entirely true. There are a number of one-handed and two-handed melee weapons that you can stumble upon too, so blasting your way out of any problem isn’t required if you instead prefer to handle dust-ups the old-fashioned way.
To speak of gunplay, The Outer Worlds offers some cool features while overall not really pushing any boundaries or breaking new ground. The controls are pretty standard (including a gyro option if you’re into that), allowing you to run, crouch, and jump, and even jump left or right if you wish to swiftly evade an attack. The two highlights for me were the ‘Tactical Time Dilation,’ which puts everything around you into slow-motion for a few seconds, letting you get a couple of cheap shots in before the enemy returns to a normal pace, and the ability to target specific body parts. It’s always rewarding to fire away at a bloodthirsty marauder’s head or leg, the former triggering a brief killshot cinematic while wounding persons below the waist will cause them to stagger, significantly reducing their speed.
Beyond these aspects, combat didn’t really do too much for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good fun, but as FPSs go nothing here really stands out or is done exceptionally well. You’re usually simply ducking behind rocks or crates, waiting to get a decent shot while enemies do the same. Either that or, too amped up and impatient, they stupidly charge at you willy-nilly. While this is part of their deranged character, on the whole the A.I. is pretty unsophisticated, not only in its behavior while engaged in combat but also in quickly forgetting about your presence should you briefly retreat from the action before returning for a second round. I’m not trying to say that the game does anything particularly poorly on this front, only that my impression of The Outer Worlds as a first-person shooter was that it’s… okay. Not bad but not amazing either. Then again, this is essentially a first-person RPG and on that side of things The Outer Worlds is terrific.
Whether it’s collecting loot, ranging from weapons, armor, and other useful items that you can sell or use at a ‘Workbench’–enabling you to repair and upgrade your equipment or break something down for parts–the real joy that I derived from playing The Outer Worlds, aside from its interesting worlds and characters, stemmed from its comprehensive RPG systems. You are continually compensated for your efforts with satisfying rewards as you level up your characters and increase your different skills. There’s a good deal that I could say about the game with respect to the amount of customization involved as you progress your stats and abilities and retrieve ever more powerful and exciting weapons but I’ll keep it to the point: if you like your RPGs for any of the reasons that I’ve just skimmed over, you’ll find plenty to love about The Outer Worlds.
There are also a handful of eccentric party members that can be recruited on your journey. With six companions that you can locate in total, each quirky and personable in their own right, some of these include a janitorial robot known as SAM, a pompous vicar named Max, and the alcoholic monster hunter, Nyoka. Whenever you depart from the Unreliable you’ll be able to bring two of your allies along for the ride, the others remaining onboard and passing the time in lively discussion or a little friendly competition. While your companions will always fight alongside you autonomously, you have full control over the weapons and armor they utilize in addition to their combat style and how you wish to dispense their perk points when they level up. Should they enter into the fray aggressively, passively, or defensively? Should they specialize in the use of ranged weapons? Melee only? Or a mixture of both? And so forth. It’s a nice touch that really makes you feel like the leader of a team and adds a bit of spice to the gameplay given their random banter as you traverse Halcyon’s terrains.
Speaking of transit, while the Unreliable serves as your home base of operations, you don’t actually get to pilot the ship. As I alluded earlier, it’s merely the hub from which you can fast travel to any of the diverse regions that you’ll visit, whether a planet, a moon, or a station in orbit. Even though the most that you can really do inside your ship is explore its interior and talk to the other passengers that you’ve bonded with during your exploits, I found that being captain of my own sexy spaceship was pretty gratifying in itself, and contributed quite effectively to this sense that my crew and I were but a ragtag group of adventurers on an epic space odyssey.
The bottom line is that in terms of ‘Gameplay,’ The Outer Worlds gets it right.
This is the one area where the game begins to stutter, but before I highlight some outstanding issues that continue to plague the Switch edition let me discuss some elements of the ‘Presentation’ that merit praise. First, the voiceovers. Given the hundreds of NPCs who speak and the multitude of forking dialogue trees often involved, giving expression to all of these characters was surely a monumental feat. The developers not only pulled it off but, with the exception of lines spoken by you, the protagonist, every word of conversation is voice-acted and the performances are both well-executed and memorable. I will say though, what struck me as peculiar about the voiceovers is that they frequently sound slightly awkward, even inauthentic, and yet somehow they completely fit the game’s thematics. I think it’s that there is a dryness in the deliveries that matches the sort of cynical nature that pervades all of life in Halcyon. Whatever the case may be, it works.
Another detail that I appreciated, though mostly without consciously realizing it as I was playing the game, is the soundtrack. There weren’t any tunes that truly stood out to me, the score typically consisting of atmospheric melodies that alternate between a fragile calm and something that sounds vaguely unsettling. It kind of just slips into the background and, for me anyway, I easily forgot it was there until I stopped to pay attention to it. Only in these moments did I notice the distinct flavor that the music adds to each scene, helping to paint a fuller picture of the eeriness, the melancholy, and the sense of despondency that taints so much of the air.
Okay, now onto the bad. Look, I’m no stickler when it comes to the technical specs in video games, whether concerning frame rates, the finer points of textual details or… whatever. In my mind, if a game is fun and it functions decently enough, I’ll not only overlook minor shortcomings like a dip in FPS (that’s frames per second, in this context), I probably won’t even notice them to begin with. I can’t say that my leniency in this regard applies here.
When I completed The Outer Worlds the first time around, there were an abundance of issues that held it back from really feeling like a great game on the Switch. The graphics were muddy and, while the environments you explore are clearly based on some imaginative and riveting concept art, their actual translation into the world design of Halcyon that you encounter as a player left me a tad underwhelmed. Insofar as the scenery is intended to look alien and even spoiled by human ingenuity, Obsidian did a decent job of achieving their aims. But many of the landscapes still lack a certain appeal, partially due a blandness in their general layout and also because, at least on the Switch and undoubtedly owing to hardware limitations, a lot of it simply looks very ugly.
With the most up-to-date patch, I can happily report that visually the game has undergone some significant improvements in this department. Unless I am misremembering my experience from a year ago, plenty of work has gone into sprucing up the overall liveliness of the biosphere, adding small features like additional vegetation on the map and much more color and vibrancy in the skies overhead, which before were rather empty and bereft of the picturesque volumetric clouds present on other platforms. Everything now feels richer and more vivid than it did when I previously played the game.
Well, almost. The water effects still look worse than, again, unless my memory fails me, freaking Star Fox Adventures from the GameCube era! On the whole, textures look better but nonetheless they’re not exactly what I would call pretty. If you were holding out for some upgrade that would capture the graphical fidelity of its Xbox One or PS4 cousins, don’t hold your breath. You’re not going to get it here. And if you planned to primarily play the game in handheld mode, take everything that I’ve just mentioned and then knock it all down a few more notches.
As concerns performance, among the more glaring problems that I ran into before were extremely noticeable frame rate drops. When this occurs during a frenzied firefight against multiple foes, it’s naturally going to produce some frustration and annoyance. There was also a horrendous loading icon that would appear on-screen at random moments, halting the action for a few seconds, even if I was doing little more than casually walking along an unpopulated hillside. And then there were atrocious draw distances, whole building structures and rocks popping into view as you approached them or entered into a new area, lacking all features until you’d literally see the details quickly get penciled in. I found it difficult to fully immerse myself into the experience with these inexcusable defects left unfixed.
Fortunately, Virtuous didn’t leave them as such, and the game feels much more polished in its present state. There is still some pop-in, some noticeable graphical rendering when you initially load in a map, and momentary pauses that disrupt the fluidity of the gameplay every few minutes when the game auto-saves, but the game on the Switch is beyond question in far better shape than at any time previously. In fact, despite all of these flaws when it came to the game’s performance back in 2020, I thought the game remained really good. It was, needless to say, rough around the edges, but it wasn’t just ‘playable’: it was actually still a lot of fun! And if I felt that way in July, 2020 after watching the credits roll, rest assured that I feel that way even more so now.
Beneath the hiccups that persist there is perhaps a great game to be found here, easier to locate now that patches have smoothed out a myriad of technical issues that held it back before. As it stands though, it’s just a really good one, and the case remains that if you can play The Outer Worlds on PC or another next-gen console, that’s probably your best bet. Having said that, if the Nintendo Switch is your only option, or you want to experience the game in the palm of your hands, you ought not let my criticisms prevent you from enjoying what is truly a thrilling ride on Nintendo’s platform, regardless of its shortcomings. And with all of the work that Virtuous has put into it throughout the past year, there’s arguably been no better time to do so.