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Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Expansion to one of my favorite games ever!
  • Solving a puzzle to access the expansion content
  • Attempts to use under-utilized base game mechanics
  • Narrative about facing unpleasant truths

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Puzzles don't rely as much on physics or sci-fi concepts
  • Some esoteric progress gates
  • Hide and seek in a pitch black maze, with a time limit
  • Lacks the sense of awe and wonder

Overall Impression : C-
I loved Outer Wilds for its sense of awe and wonder,
not for playing hide and seek in the dark

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - cover

Developer:
Mobius Digital

Publisher:
Annapurna Interactive

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam or Epic Game Store),
PlayStation 4 | 5 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One | Series X | S (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $15 USD

Original release date:
28 September 2021

Genre:
sci-fi mystery

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
10 hours

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

Official site:
www.mobiusdigitalgames.com/outer-wilds.html

When I played it last year (after waiting over a year for its timed Epic Store exclusivity to end), Outer Wilds quickly became one of my favorite games ever due to its innovative sci-fi exploratory gameplay in its dynamic sandbox solar system full of interesting places that are genuinely worth exploring. It was a compelling sci-fi game about the nature of science and the desire to find our place in the universe. It was also a compelling player-driven mystery game that doesn't hold the player's hand and which provides genuine "eureka!" moments.

I wasn't expecting an expansion because the game seemed so perfect and self-contained that I struggled to even think of what could be included in an expansion. Would they add more planets to the solar system? Would it be a stand-alone prequel with the player playing as one of the extinct Nomai?

But I sure as hell was not going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

I wasn't going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

River rafting around the world

One of my favorite things about Outer Wilds is its open-ended exploration of the hand-crafted solar system. Each world is a little puzzle box for the player to unlock, with the solutions to every puzzle involving some sci-fi physics concept that the player has to learn and apply.

The puzzles of Echoes of the Eye don't seem to have that same sci-fi quality to them. Most puzzles involve the use of light, and feel like they could be puzzles in any earthbound adventure or fantasy setting. I just point flashlights at things to trigger mechanisms, turn lights off or on to trigger secret passageways, or turn off my source of light to sneak past photo-sensitive sentries in the dark. I guess I should praise the puzzle design for never falling back on the tried-and-true (yet rote) method of reflecting light off mirrors or through prisms. The actual puzzles are a bit more clever than this, but I just don't find it to be a very engaging or interesting gimmick, especially compared to how novel and creative the core Outer Wilds puzzle box is.

The use of light as the instrument for most interactions with Echoes of the Eye seems to be the result of a concerted effort by the developers to use base game mechanics that are under-utilized in the base game, such as the flashlight and ability to nap at bonfires. The puzzles just lack that sense of awe and discovery that comes with progressing in the base game.

Echoes of the Eye starts off strong with solving a space-based mystery.

Some of the late puzzles do start to embrace Outer Wilds's sci-fi nature. They hide some very fun and interesting surprises that really mess with the player's perception of reality in a very video-game-meta sort of way. But they are so esoteric that the game almost has to literally tell the player what to do. It's like "summoning the tornado in Simon's Quest" levels of esoteric at times.

Honestly, I think the single best puzzle in the game is the one that the player has to solve just to get access to the DLC! It's also the most "Outer Wilds" feeling puzzle in the game. The developers managed to cleverly hide the DLC in plain sight, as if it had been there all along.

The opening for the DLC tasks the player with finding a remote satellite and solving a simple puzzle involving it. Then the expansion treats the player with the awe-inspiring discovery of a massive hidden world that makes up the expansion's primary setting. After that, however, everything feels like pretty typical adventure game stuff. Instead of planet-hopping in a tiny space capsule, I find myself white-water rafting and watching home movies on slide projectors. Later on, there's some horror-adjacent exploration of dark spaces with just a flashlight, and even a little bit of hide-and-seek. Again, it's nothing I haven't seen in a hundred other indie games.

Hide-and-seek horror?

Exploration is still bound to the 22-minute time loop, and the setting is still dynamic. Midway through each loop, the whole world of the DLC changes, removing access to some areas, and also opens new paths and access to places that were previously inaccessible.

Most of the expansion is rafting up and down a river, or stumbling around in the dark.

But the dynamic time loop feature of Outer Wilds is also the biggest detriment to my enjoyment of Echoes of the Eye. There are large parts of the game that seem clearly inspired by the myriad hide-and-seek horror indie games and walking sims on Steam. Except that Outer Wilds isn't a horror game. Yes it has the dark hallways and forests full of craggily trees that play tricks with the light. Yes it has stalker characters that pursues you through these areas. What it doesn't have, however, is the creepy atmosphere or unsettlingly horrific themes that make the experience scary.

There's also that 22-minute time limit, some of which is burnt in the few minutes it takes just to get back to those hide-and-seek setpieces. Hide-and-seek gameplay (and stealth gameplay in general) is very slow and methodical game design, and a hard 22-minute time limit just does not engender that sort of slow-paced gameplay. It doesn't help that I'm stuck having to navigate a pitch black maze with no visible landmarks or guideposts to navigate by, and no real clear indication of where I was supposed to be going or what I was trying to do. It all leads to a lot of frustrating failures. They're soft fail states that just return me to the entrance to the hide-and-seek labyrinth, but each successive fail chips more and more time from that 22-minute timer.

There's a setting to tone down the "frightening" parts of the game, but I'm not sure what it does. It doesn't illuminate the maze to make it easier to navigate, nor does it make the stalkers more oblivious to the player's presence (as far as I could tell). Maybe it mutes the creepy music? I don't know. I got sick of the pitch black hide-and-seek mazes. I'm OK with hide-and-seek gameplay. I'm OK with navigating dark arenas. I'm OK with solving mazes. And I'm OK with reasonable time limits and soft fail states. All of those game design elements work fine on their own. But this particular combination, in this particular game, just doesn't work for me.

If Mobius had just come up with some sci-fi "time dilation" excuse to allow the time limit to be disabled in these parts of the game, I probably would have enjoyed Echoes of the Eye much more.

The slow, methodical nature of hide-and-seek stealth gameplay is undercut
by Outer Wilds central time loop gimmick.

I confess: I gave up

In the base game, I feel like I'm always going somewhere new and interesting. In Echoes of the Eye, all the locations look very same-y, and I just didn't get that sense of awe and wonder that permeated every location in the base game. The similarity in locations makes it easy to confuse where certain things are and also makes it easy to get lost. The darkness means that clues to progression are very easy to miss, which leads to whole time loop cycles being spent just going around in circles in the same location trying to find what to do.

Eventually, after spending several hours without making any progress at all, I gave up and just watched the rest of the expansion in a let's play. I noticed that the players I watched seemed to have the same problems that I had, which made me feel better about my own inability to "git gud". There were a couple obscurely-hidden steps to progress that I honestly don't think I ever would have found without looking them up. I'm not sure if there's a clue for these that I just missed, or if players are expected to stumble on them by chance.

It's a shame too. The story that I saw in the let's plays looked good. While the base game is largely about the acceptance of an imminent end, the expansion is about the extent people will go to resist change. It shows a culture so afraid of facing reality that they construct a completely artificial reality to hide themselves away in. I wonder if this is intended to be a metaphor for contemporary fundamentalist religious politics?

Perhaps if I didn't have a newborn baby keeping me up at night and making me tired and irritable, I'd have had a bit more patience and energy to get through Echoes of the Eye, and would have enjoyed it more. I don't think that I would have been any less annoyed with the annoying stealth sections, but I might have been patient enough to get through them and complete the game on my own. Other reviews online seem to be glowingly positive, so take this review with a large grain of salt. Man, if I was too irritable to handle playing an Outer Wilds DLC, that does not bode well for the release of Elden Ring early next year.

I got stuck and watched the rest of the expansion on a let's play.

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