For a game about interplanetary exploration, Outer Wilds can often feel incredibly small. Flying from one planet to the next takes a matter of seconds, making it easy to ping pong around the game's singular solar system. The brevity of traveling through this handcrafted collection of areas to explore might seem strange at first–especially when the opening minutes of Outer Wilds place such a heavy emphasis on the importance of your mission to document the unknown. However, it doesn't take long for your expectations of Outer Wilds to be completely flipped on their head, giving way to captivating mysteries to solve and difficult questions surrounding mortality to confront. These questions lead you on unforgettable adventures in which each piece of the story you unearth feels as rewarding as the last.
You play as a citizen of a race of four-eyed, jolly-looking aliens, and you have been selected as the next of your kin to take to the stars. Nestled in the cozy forests of a small planet called Timber Hearth, you and your brethren contemplate the same questions that you've likely thought of before. Just where did we come from? Have there been others before us? And if so, where are they now? These questions drive you to explore the solar system you're in, risking your life in search of answers. Armed with nothing more than a spacesuit, a nifty language translator, and tools for surveying anything from distress signals to harmful invisible gases, you're left to take flight in your crudely constructed spaceship and venture off in any direction.
With suggestions that other life existed in this solar system before you, you're tasked with finding evidence to support that claim. Dilapidated architecture from a forgotten age can be found on most planet surfaces, with translatable foreign texts allowing you to piece together the mystery of where these civilizations are today. Your exploration is restricted by a celestial ticking time bomb: The sun at the center of the solar system implodes after 22 minutes and sends you back to the same dreamy campsite on your home planet to start this Groundhog Day loop again. With each new run you can collect more pieces of Outer Wilds' narrative puzzle, slowly piecing together what might be causing the rapid decline of your neighborhood star, before embracing each inevitable death.
Death isn't detrimental in a traditional sense in Outer Wilds. In a way, it's beautiful. The somber tune that plays moments before the light disappears from the solar system signals your death, but it's also an indicator of how much you might have discovered in that one life. It's satisfying to have a productive run that unlocks multiple new threads for you to follow up on in your next attempt, pushing you to new planets to explore and narrative puzzles to solve. Other times it's just as poignant to accept an uneventful run and just embrace the gorgeous scenery around you. Sitting on top of a peak and watching the sun die out is oddly soothing after uneventful expeditions, letting you reflect on your misguided choices and realign yourself for the next journey.
Exploration and the knowledge you obtain with it is the only way to progress through Outer Wilds. As you come across clues and discoveries, they're recorded in a useful log aboard your ship. These clues are stitched together and color-coded to help guide you along the various dangling threads of the story. The game's open-ended structure lets you tackle whichever parts of the mystery you want to, in any order, before they inevitably start linking together to bring the bigger picture into focus. These links aren't clear directions towards the next piece of the puzzle, but instead are suggestive nudges that help you determine when it's safe to move on from one discovery to another. This helps make each of these discoveries feel earned while also avoiding potentially frustrating barriers to your progress.
Strong writing brings you into Outer Wilds' world, and unearthing even the smallest bits of this larger story is a rewarding undertaking. Its myriad of uncoverable dialogue records are charming while always maintaining a purpose, giving you small nuggets of information to ponder even in the most seemingly throwaway conversations. The preserved exchanges between children might describe a game they created to pass the time in dark and gloomy catacombs beneath a planet's surface, which contains a helpful clue for how to get to a hidden area. By contrast, you can also stumble upon the bleak distress signals that never reached their intended saviors or complex plans for alien contraptions that drove past civilizations to make alarmingly dangerous decisions. You grow attached to the recurring names in conversations and become invested in their stories, even when you know many of them don't have happy endings.
Without an explicit guide to point you in the direction of your next great find, each new discovery feels like a hard-earned reward. You'll slowly be able to piece together events taking place on other ends of the solar system, slowly letting your own theories make way for a clearer understanding of events that truly transpired before presenting even more questions. This loop of discovery drives you towards exploring every inch of every planet you can, each of which holds its own delightful little puzzles to solve.
Outer Wilds features just a handful of planets and other celestial objects that you're able to explore on foot, but no two are exactly alike. They each feature unique characteristics that present different challenges you need to overcome to simply explore them. The Hourglass Twins, for example, closely orbit the sun but stay dangerously close to one another, with the gravitational pull of one absorbing the sandy surface of the other and slowly unearthing new areas for you to explore over time. A fast-traveling comet known as the Interloper has an icy exterior that hides a labyrinth of caves underneath its crust, which can only be explored once it travels close enough to the sun for entrances to be melted open. An orbiting moon littered with erupting volcanoes that project volatile balls of lava into space makes simple surface exploration of Brittle Hollow treacherous. You have to uncover a way underneath the Hollow's crust to safely traverse it, discovering previous civilizations that grappled with the same dangers seemingly eons ago.
Figuring out how to safely traverse each planet is an engaging puzzle to solve, especially when it requires an understanding of their positions within the solar system and at what times they're best to tackle. Stumbling upon entrances to new areas by accident or observing mysterious behaviors when exploring a planet make each of these spaces more detailed and expansive than their small physical sizes suggest, and it's even more surprising when many of them contain large cities hidden underneath their crusts waiting to be picked apart. The mechanical and visual variety of each of these planets makes exploring each new one a tantalizing treat.
It's disappointing then that the rules governing simple movement and space flight in Outer Wilds are counter-intuitive to this curious poking and prodding of its world. Space flight in your ship and planetary surface exploration with your jetpack is strictly bound to the rules of physics. You need to wrestle with different gravitational magnitudes and directions as you navigate using thrusters that fire off in six directions, adding or subtracting to your motion in each associated direction.
The somber tune that plays moments before the light disappears from the solar system signals your death, but it's also an indicator of how much you might have discovered in that one life.
It takes time to learn when to start applying reverse thrust on an approach to a planet or how to delicately jet upwards on a planet's surface without accidentally breaking through the atmosphere and into space, but no matter how much you practice, these actions never feel completely natural. Small errors are punished with untimely, frustrating deaths. You can spend minutes waiting for the right time to navigate to a certain area, only to waste all of it over a mistake brought on by Outer Wilds' unintuitive control scheme. It's at odds with the rest of the game.
Outer Wilds’ deeply captivating narrative and plentiful mysteries push you further into exploring its richly varied and stunning solar system. The time loop you’re trapped in lets you craft bite-sized expeditions that all end up telling their own stories, irrespective of whether you make a monumental discovery or simply encounter a playful interaction. Having a tool to neatly document your discoveries helps you slowly piece together a tale filled with charming writing, and one that presents its own open-ended questions that add emotional heft to the numerous exchanges you parse through during your travels. By letting you chart your own course and piece together its mystery at your own pace, Outer Wilds makes each of its expeditions feel incredibly personal and absolutely unmissable.