Outward is a survival-orientated, third-person action-adventure, emphasising exploration and timely quest completion, with deliberately different approaches to fantasy game tropes and some fresh world-building. There are ample crafting opportunities, RPG-style character building, strange locations to see, and three different main quest paths. It also sports local and online cooperative multiplayer. Quite a list. How all these elements coalesce is a bit more complicated, however, as we'll see below.
From the beginning, Outward reminds you of its survival underpinnings, subjecting the more incautious players to a health-sapping infection and ushering you into the first main location, where you'll learn some of the basics of survival and gear. Cold and heat need to be managed, as do hunger, exhaustion, thirst, as well as poisoning, indigestion, and disease, although many of these are avoidable through sufficient preparation, or are quickly remedied. Food can be prepared, potions brewed, cold or hot weather gear can be equipped, water can be scrounged from a variety of places and then boiled to eliminate the chance for complications. Sleeping allows a combination of rest, guarding for ambushes, and automatically repairing equipped gear, which is a nice touch.
Gathering components is relatively painless, especially for rudimentary items. Basics can be fashioned from leather, cloth, wood, and iron scraps that are plentiful enough to find. A campfire kit requires three wood and you can walk up to pretty much any tree and get an unlimited supply of wood, three units at a time, a few seconds apiece. Rarer and more useful materials take a bit more patience to find and gather, with some of the more exotic ones scattered across the game's four major regions (a mountainous starting location, a poisonous swamp, a forbidding desert, and a sparse forest), or for sale at a store. Perishables degrade over time, as does equipment when used or damaged. Gathering materials, setting up camp, and meeting basic needs are fairly easy and add a bit of calming ritual to the game.
Crafting, too, is straightforward. Creating new equipment needs no crafting area and can be done from a menu. When cooking, though, doing anything more complicated than grilling a steak requires a cooking pot or kitchen, and potions require heavy alchemy apparatus. Both of the latter may result in wasted items if you're experimenting (for example, when it says boil a marshmellon, just grill it on the fire. Boiling it in water inexplicably turns it to wasted food). Potential recipes can be attempted all but instantly, and while in-game recipes need to be learned for combinations to display, one can combine anything from a contextual list if one desires, or has, you know, read a wiki with the recipes on them. For those who love all the grindy mechanisms of survival and the chore of chopping down trees and gathering stones, this may be disappointing, but it seems like a good compromise that few games seem to manage well. One is also expected to manage encumbrance, which is measured solely in weight. Whatever you have equipped weighs effectively nothing, but everything in the abstracted pockets on your person, and whatever you have in your backpack, counts against you if limits are exceeded, slowing your character down and increasing stamina drain when running or fighting. Backpacks can be dropped, and this is encouraged to enable a quicker dodge, as well as removing items from potential breakage should your hindquarters get hit during battle. This is often not the best idea, though, as we'll explain later on.
Though we were able to use a lot of stealth and speed to get past obstacles, often combat is hard to avoid. Much of the game is devoted to different weapon styles, and character progression requires finding, making, or buying better armour and weapons. Attacking is a combination of quick attacks, special manoeuvres based on the weapon and which attack swing you activate them on, and activated special abilities that often require special prerequisites. Meanwhile, defending means blocking physical attacks, dodging, and a few special moves. Both require a diligent managing of stamina and health. Combat is frantic and the timing difficult, even with some playtime under your belt. Things feel loose and it's easy to miss an attack or block, or mistime a roll, especially early on. Conversely, it is entirely possible, especially in indoor locations, to cheese it by hitting an enemy stuck on terrain, especially with ranged attacks. We also would often pit enemies against each other (something we used to great effect and feel no guilt about). Enemies range from ubiquitous human bandits to rocky mantises, glowing troglodytes, sword-mawed automata, and undulating horrors, with little to help you guess just how powerful a creature is without some potentially lethal experimentation. Lethal insofar as it goes in Outward, at least.
A fundamental system in Outward is the death mechanic. Your character never really *dies* per se, but is instead delivered from death in different, often randomly selected ways that are anything from being healed and respawned nearby, to being thrown to the other side of the map, injured and without your backpack if you'd dropped it (though it's recoverable). To balance your character's inevitable survival, there is no reload function, at least by in-game means. If you left all of your camping equipment in your backpack and your backpack is in a cave far away, it may take you a while to get things together again in your quest to reclaim your gear. Probably why, even when encumbered, we often wound up leaving the backpack on so we wouldn't be separated from that hoarding enabler.
The death system can be gamed at times. If you have an irritating condition like a disease you can't readily cure, throw yourself down a mountainside or get torn apart by hyenas. If you don't relish the idea of traversing an area or escaping a mine, die until you wind up somewhere better. It can also be incredibly frustrating, as we found when trying repeatedly to complete a plot dungeon. We'd left our backpack in there and upon dying were placed at the entrance of the dungeon, but each time we died and respawned outside trying to recover the backpack, the guards near the external entrance drew nearer, until upon our next death we magically appeared right in front of them, were killed, and woke up in the opposite corner of the map, still backpack-less. It also must be said that it is possible to save scum, that is, reload from a prior autosave buried in the files, as others have discovered. This in a sense allows a limited reload, though one must, of course, use it at one's own risk.