I'm 12 hours into fantasy RPG Outward when I travel to its second region, visit the city of Berg for the first time, and buy my first proper backpack. Strange to say that buying a backpack feels momentous, but dammit, it really is. I feel triumphant to discard my primitive satchel and shoulder a real pack on my back. Not only does it fit more loot, but I can hang a lantern from it too, so I can have both hands free and still see in the dark. That's the kind of game Outward is, one where the things you take for granted in other games feel like a real accomplishment.
I've also been humbled repeatedly in those 12 hours. I've been battered unconscious by large birds and angry deer, gouged by hidden spike traps, and pummeled senseless by scruffy bandits. One time I even ran into the wrong castle and was imprisoned in a mining colony beneath it, from which I only escaped by first convincing the guards to let me work in the kitchen, stealing back my precious backpack from the fort's storage room, then leaping into a pit and washing up later on a beach, freezing, confused, wracked with pain, and dying of thirst. I had to build a fire for warmth, chow down on some dried mushrooms, tear my hood into linen scraps to use as bandages, and brew a potion with my alchemy kit to regain my senses. Outward is a fantasy game with monsters and wizards, but it's also a completely engrossing survival experience.
I tend to enjoy the beginning of RPGs more than the endings. I love to start Oblivion or Skyrim over with a new character, penniless and talentless, relishing the early hours of play when every rusty dagger and basic leather boot is a treasure. I find the hardscrabble life more satisfying than hours later when I'm dumping complete sets of armor out of my inventory because I simply don't need them and can't even be bothered to sell them, that's how damn rich and powerful I've become. I also love games like Stalker and DayZ where no matter how many hours I put in, and no matter how much great gear I collect, I'm essentially no stronger or sturdier than the average person. I remain fragile and mortal, where the slightest misstep can leave me inches from death. It makes every encounter a tense and memorable one.
I find those same feelings pervade in Outward. You play as an ordinary, common person who can contract a cold and suffer from indigestion and can easily lose a fight to a large crab. I get genuinely excited at every piece of new gear I find or buy, even knowing they won't turn me into a superhero. And this feeling of being a common mortal is especially interesting here, because you don't actually die in Outward.
Similar to games like Mount & Blade, losing all your health in a fight results in you falling unconscious to the ground. You'll wake up again, bruised, battered, often hungry and thirsty and suffering other negative effects. Sometimes you'll be thrown in a bandit's camp or fort and have to find your gear and make an escape. Other times a mysterious, unseen benefactor will have dragged you to safety and you'll awaken next to a burning campfire with a helpful potion and a friendly note. Sometimes you'll be unceremoniously dumped outside the dungeon you were defeated in, other times you'll wake up in in the safety of the nearest big city so you can put yourself back together.
This sounds like an extremely forgiving system—and some might say it's not a true survival game if you can't actually die—but at times it can feel pretty punishing. Typically, upon losing a fight in a game, I want to reload my last save and plunge back in. Outward auto-saves for you constantly, meaning there is no going back. Make a choice and you're stuck with it. Lose a battle, and you'll have to pick yourself up and find your way back to it to try again. After a defeat I've woken up clear on the other side of the map, so it can take ages to pick up where you left off (and there's no fast-travel, either). I failed a timed quest because some monsters beat me up and I woke up too far away to return to the quest giver in time, which was a considerable setback. The lesson is clear. Don't start fights unless you need to. Flee when you have to. Make choices carefully. Always be prepared. Losing isn't fatal, but it can certainly be a headache.
I also acquired my first magic spells in those dozen hours, after a considerably tricky journey to the center of a mountain to meet some wizards. And even using spells is a bit of a survival challenge. To begin with, you need to permanently trade some of your maximum health and stamina to even acquire the mana needed to cast spells, making yourself physically weaker in order to become more spiritually powerful.
And as for the spells I learned, one is called Spark. It's weak. It's wimpy. It does a bit of damage, and burns enemies a little over time, but it's like flicking a lit match at someone and hoping it overwhelms them. To really put it to use, I need physical components. I can mine Mana stones from glowing mineral deposits with a pickaxe, and then use an alchemy kit (purchased) over a campfire (crafted) to mix oil (found or purchased) with those magic rocks to create fire stones. With those fire stones in my inventory, I can cast a flaming sigil on the ground, and as long as I'm within that burning magic circle, my wimpy Spark spell will now burst with power.
It's a lot of work to cast spells, in other words, and that work makes it enjoyable. In Outward, spellcasting is a process, one of preparation and crafting and ritual. It makes spells feel weighty, makes you deliberate before using them, and having used them, feels like an accomplishment (or a waste, sometimes, if you use them on creatures that perhaps didn't justify it). And all this for a simple fireball spell, which most RPGs give you as a matter of course so you're not out in the wild with empty hands.
That design follows through with just about everything you do in Outward. You need to keep yourself fed and hydrated and sleep regularly or begin to suffer negative effects on your stamina and health. You can lay down a simple bedroll at night, but you won't rest as well as you do in a tent or a bed, and you may be ambushed in the wild unless you devote some hours to standing guard—meaning less replenishment from sleep. You can get too warm and too cold, depending on the weather and circumstances, meaning you'll want fur clothing for cold climates and desert gear in arid ones.
Want to visit another region? Prepare travel rations by cooking meat and salt in a pot, carry any number of restorative potions, bring anything else you think you might need because it's a long, slow trip back if you forget something. And all of that gear weighs you down, right down to how much water is in your waterskins and how much money you have on you. Sure, it's great to have a few hundred pieces of silver to spend in the next city, but the more silver you carry, the less you can carry of everything else.
I haven't even talked about the story! There is one, and I'm enjoying it, though I'm not far into it yet. There are lots of NPCs, a main quest, side quests, plus dungeons, forts, and caves to explore. I haven't talked about weapon skills: you can learn them by helping NPCs with quests or purchasing them from experts (I can throw my lit lantern at someone for a makeshift fireball if I'm desperate and can't cast my Spark spell). You can increase your health and stamina and mana, usually by visiting trainers and plying them with silver. There's dozens of recipes for cooking and alchemy and the crafting of weapons and armor. There's a lot going on in Outward. There's even local and online co-op, which I have yet to try.
For now I'm mainly taking pleasure in the survival elements, the preparation that I perform before stepping outside the safety of city walls, my lovely backpack filled with potions I've brewed and food I've cooked and weapons I've crafted and repaired, and maybe some silver to spend in the next city. If I make it there in one piece.
Outward, developed by Nine Dots and published by Deep Silver, is due to arrive March 26.