Some of the best sci-fi works like a funhouse mirror. It reflects reality in a twisted way. The exaggeration paints the world in stark relief, highlighting the absurd and the tragic and allowing the observant to draw correlations to modern times.
It’s a way to subtly criticize a regime or state of affairs. “The Outer Worlds” works as this type of satire as a game that skewers corporations and late-stage capitalism. It takes place in the distant future on a colony owned by the board of the Halcyon Holdings Corporation. Light years from Earth, the alliance of companies has run amok in the star system.
Players take on the role of a colonist aboard a lost ship called Hope. It went missing during transit, and instead of finding and rescuing the passengers, the Board swept the disaster under the rug to avoid bad publicity and lost finances. Everyone assumed it was gone until a rogue scientist named Phineas Vernon Welles manages to save one of Hope’s passengers, the Stranger.
That’s the protagonist that players create. Much like “Fallout,” players craft the hero of the campaign and mold the Stranger to their playstyle. They can make the colonist a melee specialist, who rushes enemies with a sword in hand, or they can turn the character into a smooth talker who is able to avoid battle. The variety of ways to resolve conflicts is a strength of “The Outer Worlds.”
The style of the game will draw comparisons to a Bethesda-owned franchise. Dialogue choices that are dependent on stats and the Tactical Time Dialation are obvious examples of “Fallout” influence, but that’s natural because many of the people who created the original title worked on this one. In addition, the developer, Obsidian, also made “Fallout New Vegas,” which is arguably one of the best entries of the series. Suffice to say, the new project has a great pedigree behind it.
Although the foundation is similar, what separates “The Outer World” from “Fallout” is the razor-sharp writing and distinct world-building. After the Stranger is rescued, the hero quickly becomes embroiled in a grand quest to save his fellow colonists on the Hope. That mission expands as the Stranger visits other locales and uncovers a plot that will impact every person in the Halcyon colony.
It’s a setup for a space opera, but Obsidian grounds “The Outer Wilds” with humor. In the colony, the corporate ethos has embedded itself so deeply that soldiers and citizens spout off advertisements in regular speech. Children are born into indentured servitude and the fear of losing their job makes employees do comically bad tasks.
Players have to navigate this farce and decide which side they stand on. They can side with the Board or Welles. Similar to “Mass Effect,” the choices have an effect on the planets and space stations the Stranger visits. They can bring together feuding communities or they can empower one side to overthrow the other. Some of the choices will be difficult and most of the quests that players will come across are enthralling and will keep players attached to the narrative.
No missions seem like a waste of time. Even the mundane-seeming tasks have a wicked sense of humor. As players take on more missions, they’ll discover that their decisions matter and shape the future of the colony.
On a microlevel, those choices extend to the Stranger’s crew. Players will run across colonists who want to join the protagonist aboard the Unreliable, a spaceship that the hero “inherits” from its previous captain. Players can bring two of these cohorts in the adventure. Each of the six members have their own skills and players can modify their equipment. It adds a team element but the crew mates are more often used for their strategic value in improving players’ stats. They’re mildly useful in combat as long as one doesn’t expect fine-tuned teamwork.
The narrative of “The Outer World” is backed by a head-turning visual style. Instead of a hyper-futuristic world akin to “Star Trek” or gritty one like “Blade Runner,” Obsidian invokes a retro look found in pulp magazines. The world looks more like it came from “Buck Rogers” or “Flash Gordon” with richly colored flora and fauna and fantastic vistas with looming Jovian gas giants or ringed planets.
That art style blends well with the colonial world, which echoes a mix of the Wild West and Victorian England. It’s a look that hasn’t been done much in video games and is refreshing in a sci-fi universe. All of this creates an inviting and novel environment that players want to explore.
The creativity of the world building almost makes up for the stiff animations and the redundant character designs. It seems like several of the colonists are cut from the same character model with slightly different hair or a few added scars. Graphically, “The Outer Worlds” won’t impress players the way a game such as “Red Dead Redemption 2” would, but that doesn’t matter too much when compared to Obsidian’s distinct visionary style.
That’s a minor quibble because “The Outer World” is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a well-crafted role-playing game that will enrapture players with its storytelling while also giving them a pressing reflection on the times.
‘The Outer Worlds’
4 stars out of 4
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintend Switch (coming in the future)
©2019 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.