[If you'd like to watch some gameplay and listen to an audio reading of this, following this link if the embedded video isn't working.]
It’s difficult to talk about Outer Wilds without addressing its major gimmick, so let me start by giving my closing summary first for those who don’t want to be spoiled: Outer Wilds is wonderfully open-ended, possibly allowing every player to progress in their own way. The solar system to explore and investigate isn’t the biggest, but each planet has plenty of possibilities and discoveries to find. The game does need to direct you to its ending somehow, so your patience may be tested somewhat by relearning information and clues already known a few times which can get redundant and tiring. I can’t quite call the game peaceful due to some (at least for me) frightening elements, but there’s no denying that the ambiance Outer Wilds brings really makes you feel like a fledgling space explorer… Just needing to reopen paths and doors for the umpteenth time over does make me wish someone left a key around. Outer Wilds gets a good recommendation from me if you’re after an exploration game or enjoy having a self-paced/driven narrative experience.
Now to elaborate for those not against spoilers. Outer Wilds has players taking the role of a Hearthian on the planet Timber Hearth who is set to be the next member of its expedition team into space. The initial objectives are loose before taking off: Check up on the previous expedition team members and/or get out there and start exploring. Once aboard your ship and suited up however, there’s nothing stopping you from exploring Timber Hearth or its moon. In fact, once at the ship controls your path is self-directed for which planet to explore first and for how long. To avoid running in circles and forgetting discoveries, the ship comes with a log that tracks major information or clues to investigate - Keeping your own journal handy wouldn’t hurt either. The log becomes a ‘web of interest’ in due time, connecting one location or concept to another and pointing out if you’re missing something. Your wandering starts becoming more focused, but even as mysteries and puzzles sprout up, you’re still at the helm as to when to take them on.
Your excursion into space however is marred by one unavoidable constant: In approximately 20-22 minutes after starting, the sun will explode which destroys the solar system and by extension yourself - Don’t try to outrun it, I’ve tried. This cosmic demise doesn’t mean the end; time is looped back to the start on Timber Hearth where the clock starts once more. The save file isn’t wiped as the ship log remains fully intact, just all progress, doors and paths opened are reset. This isn’t as kneecapping as it sounds since 20-22 minutes doesn’t feel all that long when in game. The developers even have options so that when talking to characters or reading text that time progresses as normal or stops altogether which alleviates the pressure to read quickly. There’s a musical cue that sounds just when the sun is about to explode which is a prime signal to hustle and wrap things up before the solar system goes up in a puff of supernova smoke. A comical constant is that the time loop seemingly kicks in right when on the cusp of a big discovery, resulting in me staring down the inevitable death while cursing at the cosmos.
My main criticism of the game could arguably be based on my own impatience, but the time loop for me didn’t become irksome until I hit the late game where my leads and clues started running out and my objectives became far more focused. Redundancy becomes an issue where information can appear multiple times elsewhere but worded differently - This is great if you’re hungry for lore, but this resulted in me growing frustrated that I wasn’t learning anything new nor how to finish the game. Design-wise this makes absolute sense since every player’s path will be different thus having repeating information means no one will miss out on lore and clues alike, but with the path I’ve taken the redundancy isn’t adding to anything. Doesn’t help that I have three or four major mysteries left to solve, one being guarded behind an area with borderline jumpscares. With where I’m at now in the game I’d just wish for the time loop to go away so I can sit down and crack these last puzzles, but admittedly that would defeat the purpose of Outer Wild’s story. The lesser criticism I have is that the piloted spaceship sometimes feels bigger than it looks, resulting in unintended bumps that can send it awkwardly careening when doing precise flight maneuvers or landings.
I wouldn’t go so far to call Outer Wilds’ loop of exploration zen; having to spelunk dark corners of abandoned locales or traverse actively hostile and unknown areas fills me with tense determination rather than blissful wonder - Don’t get me started on Dark Bramble and its ‘lovely’ residents. Even with my frustration of redundant knowledge and wariness of the unknown, there’s just something about being in the shoes of this ramshackle space program rookie that makes me want to see things through to the end. Outer Wilds also left me with a very strong, memorable imprint: Often time has to be killed in order for something to trigger or a path to open up. The player character is given a signalscope (combination binoculars and signal reader) before taking off and hints are given to tune the signal to that of the expedition members elsewhere in the system. When aimed properly, their signal comes back by way of their musical instrument. When aimed properly and with good timing, it’s possible to have every instrument play in harmony - A melody so hauntingly pleasant that it’s impossible for me to forget this experience. [Refer back to the first paragraph for my closing summary.]