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April 2024

Outer Wilds

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Mobius Digital
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2023

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Switch Review - 'Outer Wilds: Archaeologist Edition'

by Andreas Salmen on Jan. 25, 2024 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Outer Wilds is an open world mystery where you explore a solar system trapped in a 20-minute time loop.

For many indie developers, porting successful games to the Nintendo Switch has been the guide to success during the system's lifespan. Outer Wilds developer Mobius Digital probably thought the same when it announced the Switch port, titled Outer Wilds: Archaeologist Edition. It took more than 18 months of silence since the initial announcement in early 2021 for the title to finally be released on the hybrid system in December 2023. Was it worth the wait? It's still a great game, but the performance doesn't present in the best light regarding performance.

In Outer Wilds, players take control of a nameless astronaut who's departing their home planet for a first solo flight to explore the universe. Our job is to examine and research the celestial bodies rotating around a sun-like planet at the core, finding remnants of ancient alien colonies and eventually running into a dead end. Essentially, the sun explodes, and we are sent back to the beginning of the game. There are 22 minutes per cycle, and we're trapped in a seemingly eternal time loop. While I'll keep story and content spoilers to a minimum to retain the experience for anyone who still needs to play Outer Wilds, the time loop is vital to the experience. It resets our progress immediately, but everything we've learned thus far is retained across loops in our ship's logbooks, which get longer as we explore different sites and places. Each new insight brings us closer to the core mystery.

The beauty is that we are free to explore the universe. We can get into our ship and blast off into the distance; we can land, get out, and explore. While it's small in scale, it feels immersive to explore a little universe that is constantly in motion and behaves, in a simplified form, like you'd expect a bunch of planets in a vacuum to behave. It's challenging to go into details without spoiling the solutions to the puzzles, but everything works logically. All laws and clues are repeatable and observable if you are at the right place at the right time. You start learning the ins and outs of this world until it all clicks together into the interwoven clockwork machinery.

I don't think I'm surprising anyone by saying that Outer Wilds is an indie gem. It's a space exploration game that, in a post-Starfield world, reigns supreme in the genre. Outer Wilds evokes a sense of discovery and exploration with a limited number of planets in a small solar system, proving that quality is much more important than quantity. Starfield and Outer Wilds are very different beasts to compare, but this title gave me the exact feeling that I was missing from other space exploration games: a sense of place and presence in a larger, cosmic machinery that works by its own rules. The rules ultimately make sense, but I had to learn by observation and chance.

We fly from planet to planet, translate ancient alien inscriptions, discover artifacts and other interesting structures, and encounter space phenomena. While we're doing that, we're also gathering clues, identifying dependencies and knock-on effects, and slowly piecing together how this universe works and what eventually destroys it.

What impressed me the most is how many different exciting avenues Outer Wilds provides to explore the space. You can send camera probes to capture images from hard-to-reach places or locales that you'd rather not enter. You can also send probes into obscure areas, watch them end up where you did not expect them to end up, and try to make sense of it. You might use a universal translation tool to translate obscure inscriptions that send you on another tangent on the other end of the solar system. The game isn't just a good puzzle to solve, but it also simulates a little universe. It gives you free rein to explore and experiment within its boundaries, and it's really well executed. This is a puzzle adventure game first and foremost, so there is no combat to be found. You drive your own progress, and figuring it out on your own is the only reward.

The only weak spot in the experience is with the controls. I really don't enjoy flying a spaceship in Outer Wilds. I do fine while in the middle of nowhere, but I cannot get the proper handling down, which is especially apparent when I crash into yet another planet. It gets better over time, but the game honors the laws of physics; picking up speed means you are quick to spiral out of control if you're not activating the correct thrusters to get back on track and at the appropriate speed.

Outer Wilds on the Switch wasn't my first experience with the game; I started but never finished a playthrough on the PC. While I finally completed the incredible journey this time, including the DLC, I didn't do it on the Switch, even though I tried. Ports on the Switch are often treading a fine line between visual trade-offs and being borderline playable. Outer Wilds is simulating a tiny universe, sometimes while the player is rapidly accelerating and moving around beautiful planetary vistas while testing the laws of physics. A lot is going on all the time, and while Outer Wilds can hit 30 frames per second and does so often, it also doesn't come close to that number much of the time. It doesn't take much to see visible stuttering on-screen, and it can feel like a minor slide show when something happens.

The visual stutters are much worse and more noticeable when docked and playing on the TV. It is quite noticeable in handheld mode, too, but it's much harder to detect on a smaller screen. Outer Wilds looks decent enough. The low-poly look was more than serviceable when Outer Wilds was released close to five years ago, and the Switch maintains that look with some extra fuzzy edges. If you have no other means to play the game now or in the foreseeable future, Outer Wilds is so good that I would still recommend it on the Switch, but only if you can live with the inconsistent performance.

When the credits roll on Outer Wilds: Archaeologist Edition, you'll feel sad that there's no way to experience it with fresh eyes again. You can play the main story for close to 15-20 hours, and the meaty DLC adds another 10 hours or more, but this isn't a game that you'll return to after completion because you've solved the puzzle. As cool as the little pocket galaxy is, if you have another system besides the Switch that can run Outer Wilds, I'd recommend playing the game on the other system instead. Outer Wilds simply isn't meant to be played on a handheld console.

Score: 7.0/10

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