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Outer Wilds - title

In a Nutshell


  • Entire toy solar system to explore!
  • Dynamic open world play space
  • Despite tiny scale, physics are just believable enough
  • Player-driven mystery
  • Ship's log tracks all relevant info
  • Time loop provides stopping points for intermediate-length sessions
  • Clever alternate endings that reward players for experimenting with the laws of physics and causality


  • No on-screen countdown?
  • Nomai texts do not stay translated in future loops
  • Timed Epic Store exclusivity

Overall Impression : A+
A tiny little solar system with a big mystery!

Outer Wilds - cover

Mobius Digital

Annapurna Interactive

PC < (via Steam or Epic Games Store),
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)


Original release date:
28 May 2019 (Epic Game Store, consoles)
18 June 2020 (Steam)

sci-fi mystery

ESRB Rating: E 10+ (for 10 years old and up) for:
fantasy violence, alcohol reference

single player

Official site:

I refuse to give money to Epic,
and waited for Steam release.

Outer Wilds was one of my most anticipated games in 2019. As such, it was immensely disappointing that it became a timed exclusive for the Epic Games Store. I have a lot of issues with how Epic Games runs its business, and with the ethics (or lack thereof) of the company, and so I refuse to give them a single penny of my money. Our daughter plays Fortnite with her friends, and we're not going to disallow her from doing such (and besides, her socialization options were incredibly limited during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and I think playing Fortnite stopped her from going stir crazy). But I've told her that the first time she asks me for money to buy V-Bucks, it will be the last time she plays the game.

I could have bought Outer Wilds on PS4 a year ago, but it just looked like the kind of game that would be better experienced on PC. I've been burned enough times by Bethesda RPGs that I'm always skeptical of a console's ability to adequately run a game with a world of the scope and comlexity of Outer Wilds. So I bit the bullet and waited the year for the game to release on Steam.

The opening screen recommended the use of a game pad, and I obligingly started using my PS4 controller on my second play session. And I've read that the game ran just fine on consoles. So I guess I could have spared myself the wait and just played on PS4 from the start. Ah well, live and learn.

Outer Wilds plays best with a controller anyway, so there was no need for me to pass up the console release.

Now to go back to finishing Fallout: New Vegas while I await the Steam release of The Outer Worlds...

Knowledge is your upgrade

Readers of my blog know that I'm not a huge fan of most open world games. The sandboxy nature of those games tends to lead to stagnant stories and worlds that feel ironically dead. They also tend to be full to the brim of monotonous copy-pasted content that becomes a drag to play.

Outer Wilds offers an entire solar system as an open world sandbox for you to explore. Granted, the scale of this solar system is considerably shrunk down in order to accommodate a game, such that an entire planet is about as big as a small neighborhood, and the different planets are only a few kilometers apart from one another. It's fine. It works well enough with the game's cartoony aesthetic style.

You have an entire toy solar system to play in.

What's important though, is how rich with detail and intrigue this world solar system is. Nothing looks or feels copy-pasted. Every nook and cranny of the map contains something new that you haven't seen before. On top of that, the map is positively dynamic!

The core conceit of the game is that you play as an astronaut who is stuck in a repeating time loop of the last twenty minutes before your homeworld's sun goes nova -- which, of course, destroys the whole solar system and kills everyone you know. So every time you start a new play session, you have twenty minutes before the sun goes boom, you die, and you have to restart and do everything over again.

Except, you aren't really doing everything over again. You and your ship's on-board computer are able to retain your memories from loop to loop. You thus travel from planet to planet, exploring and investigating everything you can in that twenty minutes, trying to figure out why the sun explodes and why you are stuck in this time loop, and maybe -- just maybe -- a way to stop the cataclysm and save yourself and your home. Each location you visit contains clues to help you piece together the puzzle of the ancient alien race that visited your system eons ago, and which may have set the apocalyptic events in motion. These clues will guide you to other locations in the solar system for to follow-up investigations, and will shed new light on the places you've already been.

Ship's log records all the clues you've collected.

They might also provide clues on how to navigate certain obstacles or barriers. In your early explorations in the first few time loops, you will likely come across seemingly impassable barriers to progress. Whether it's overgrown cactus plants blocking a path, mysterious "ghost matter" that kills you on contact, hostile angler fish that devour you on sight, and even a black hole at the center of a planet; each world is full of unique obstacles that slow down or halt your progress. At first, you might think that this game is going to be like a Metroid-vania, in which you find upgrades and abilities that let you come back and access the previously-inaccessible locations of the map.

But that isn't quite the case.

In fact, every obstacle is traversible from the start of the game. It's up to you to figure out how. Heck, if you know what to do, you can beat the game in the first time loop, and there's even an achievement for doing so!

Clues spread throughout the solar system may provide explicit clues on how to bypass certain obstacles. Yet others will rely on the player making careful observations and recognizing patterns. You see, despite taking place in a twenty minute time loop, the [open world] solar system of Outer Wilds is not stagnant. Almost every world undergoes dramatic transformations over the course of that twenty minutes. A pair of binary planets closest to the sun exchange sand like an hourglass, filling one world's canyons and making them inaccessible, while emptying the other world and exposing previously buried structures. Another planet is slowly breaking apart and being consumed by a small black hole. Another planet's oceans are filled with cyclones that spit whole islands out into space before they plummet back down into the water. And an observatory orbiting the sun is eventually enveloped and destroyed by the expansion of the star itself.

With ingenuity, you can find a way past any obstacle in the game.

The dynamic nature of each world means that certain locations might be locked off until certain times in the loop, or until certain other conditions are met. It's up to the player to learn these patterns and use them to gain access to places that you might otherwise not have been able to reach.

Thus, it isn't upgrades to your space suit or ship that grant you access to previously-locked locations; it's your knowledge of the environment itself. Learning about this place and how it all fits together and works is the core challenge of the game. The map isn't just the space between quests or story set pieces. The map is like a character itself. It is a villain, but your growing familiarity with it turns it into an ally.

The map itself is a mystery that you must piece together using your own powers of observation. The ship's log will handily track almost every piece of useful information that you come across, and it will remind you when one clue points you towards another location, but it won't tell you where to go or what to do. It's entirely up to you to decide where you go at any given time, and what you do when you get there, and you can tackle any location in any order that you wish. It is completely, 100% player-driven exploration of the solar system! No hand-holding or objective markers or hints of any kind, other than what you find for yourself, and what you gather from the in-universe clues or dialogue.

Each world is dynamic and changes over the course of the time loop.

Further, you can only access the ship's log while you are physically in the ship. You can't simply pause the game at any time to review the clues you've accumulated. This means that you actually have to pay attention to what you are observing, reading, and being told, or else you are going to completely lost and confused. As such, the game is best played through in a relatively short amount of time, so that all the information stays fresh in your head. Other internet commentators are suggesting that you expect to spend at least 12 or 15 hours to complete the game, but it took me 24 hours over the course of a week-and-a-half. I failed to thoroughly explore several large areas in my first visit and had to go back and re-explore them later, which added a considerable amount of time to my play hours.

The game No Man's Sky wanted to be

Comparing Outer Wilds to something like No Man's Sky (at launch) really highlights the power of hand-crafted design. No, Outer Wilds doesn't have a quintillion planets to explore, nor are the individual planets as large as the ones in No Man's Sky. But each of Outer Wilds's handful of tiny worlds are distinct, interesting, and (most importantly) feel worth exploring! Better yet, the overarching mystery that drives the whole game also feels more engaging and worth solving in Outer Wilds, compared to No Man's Sky.

You explore the solar system for the sake of knowledge and discovery.

In many ways, Outer Wilds feels like the game that No Man's Sky desperately wanted to be -- or at least, it's further in the right direction. This concept of investigating the anomalous destruction of a star while trapped in a time loop could easily have been adapted into a pretty damned good Star Trek game! If any game has ever captured that spirit of "exploring strange new worlds", it is Outer Wilds.

Outer Wilds is the game I feel No Man's Sky wanted to be, capturing the spirit of exploring strange new worlds.


If I have any complaints with Outer Wilds, it's some nagging control and interface issues. Navigating in fully 3-D space is never easy from a control standpoint. Outer Wilds does an adequate job, and it's U.I. is very helpful at keeping the player oriented. It's a little bit harder to judge speed, and it's easy to lose control and crash your ship or your self.

Judging speed can be a bit tough.

My biggest issue, however, is the lack of an on-screen countdown. If you have visibility to the sky, you can usually tell when you're down to the last couple minutes of a cycle because the sun will start to swell before it collapses and explodes. The aptly-named Hourglass Twins are also a good indicator. There's also a musical cue when you get down to 120 or 60 seconds. But since so much of the game takes place underground, you don't always have the luxury of observing the state of the sun, and there's no other universal indicators of how much longer you have before the current cycle ends. There's a few other subtle indicators on each world, but they aren't always readily accessible, and it will take a few visits before you learn to recognize them. I can easily set a timer on my Fitbit watch each time the character wakes up to start a new loop, but I really shouldn't have to. This is a space-faring civilization. Surely they've invented stop-watches!

If I could make one change to the game, it would be that after you witness the nova of the sun for the first time (might not necessarily be the first loop, since you might kill yourself before the nova), there should be a cutscene of the character waking up and immediately starting a timer on your watch. As the sun goes nova at the end of that ensuing cycle, the character holds up the watch to see that 22 minutes had passed. Then, at the start of the next cycle, the character wakes up and immediately starts a 22-minute countdown. From then on, you should just have a countdown in the corner of the screen at all times (without having to sit through cutscenes of setting the watch).

The 20 minute loop can also feel a bit strict at times. This is a game that is about carefully and methodically exploring the environments, and taking the time to really absorb what is going on around you. The 20-minute countdown really makes me feel like I need to rush through a location to find all of the clues, especially since the Nomai texts do not stay translated in later loops. Having an on-screen timer would certainly help me know how much time I have left, and whether it's necessary to rush.

If the nova happens when I'm in the middle of exploring a city, it can sometimes be hard to remember what I've explored. The dynamic nature of the game world means that things won't necessarily be where you left them, and some of the areas can be rather maze-like with non-distinct rooms and hallways. Sometimes I waste an entire loop (or two) just trying to find where I was when the timer expired last time, which is part of why it took me 10 hours longer to beat than most other critics are saying it took them.

The player character should be able to set a stopwatch as soon as they wake up.

I cannot stress enough that these are just nagging issues. I thoroughly enjoyed this game, and it stands alongside gems like The Swapper and Soma as one of the best science fiction games that I've ever played. And it's also a rare breed of game (along with Return of the Obra-Dinn) that makes you feel like you are genuinely solving these mysteries, rather than just having the solutions handed to you after playing Simon Says. If you're a science fiction or physics nerd, then Outer Wilds is a must-play. Even if you aren't a nerd, it's still a fun and cute little space adventure with a captivating mystery.

It was well worth the wait!

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