If you dig 4X games, then chances are you dig space-stuff. And if you dig space-stuff, there is a good chance you’ve heard about No Man’s Sky. And if you’ve heard anything about No Man’s Sky, you probably know all about its catastrophic launch and player reception – where everyone collectively realized there is nothing at all behind the curtain. Ouch. The good news is that there is a chance you have NOT heard about a completely different game – Out There by Mi-Clos Studios released in 2014.
I mention No Man’s Sky, because Out There is also a procedurally generated, open space exploration, survival-sandbox game – and one coupled to a mysterious narrative that prompts you to traverse the galaxy. Sound similar? Unlike the 18-quintillion planets and monstrous scope of No Man’s Sky though, Out There shows, if nothing else, that good things can come in small packages. In this case, the good thing is an exceptionally refined, challenging, and intimate adventure experience. Engage warp engines!
So here’s the setup: You are hanging out in cryo-sleep and something goes wrong (something always goes wrong in cryo-sleep, by the way). You wake up to find yourself stranded in a little spaceship somewhere Out There over the rainbow on the far side of the galaxy. A strange crystal-thing zaps your brain and gives you the coordinates to a star system and the knowledge of how to build a Space Folder, which allows you to jump between star systems. With that, you’re off and on your own!
So what do you need for your journey? Principally, there are three resources required to keep the game moving forward: fuel, oxygen, and iron. You need fuel to move between and/or land on planets and to jump between stars. You collect fuel by sending a probe into the atmosphere of gas giants (or if you are more desperate a star) to collect hydrogen or helium. You also need oxygen, which is, like, important for breathing and stuff. You gather oxygen by landing on Garden planets, which also contain life forms (more on that in a bit). Finally, your ship is going to get all banged up and need repairs, so you’ll want to collect iron to keep things shipshape. To get iron, you land on rocky planets and use your handy dandy drill to dig for it.
So, in simple terms, you’ll spend your time hopping from star to star and planet to planet to find fuel, oxygen, and iron in suitable concentrations. Run out of any of those at the wrong time and you’ll be stranded and lose the game. Out There is a roguelike in this way, as there is permadeath and no save scumming of any sort allowed.
Of course, there are other opportunities and associated complications along the way. First, nearly every time you travel to a new star system, you are presented with a narrative event. These appear to be mostly random; although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some special event system at work behind the scenes to keep things reasonably fair. Nevertheless, the brief narrative events are fantastically written and conjure up thought-provoking and introspective situations.
Of course, you have to respond to these events. Do you walk through the glowing archway? Do you touch the spinning crystal? Do you let the thing knocking on your spaceship door inside? The narrative situations have a bit of that nail biting, choose-your-own-adventure flair. My one regret while playing is in the instances where I was too chicken to do the thing, thus I missed out on a narrative twist of fate, be it good or bad.
Speaking of which, these narrative events are one of the ways to acquire new technological knowledge, which in turn allows you to construct new modules for your spaceship. Modules can affect a number of aspects of your spaceship and they usually require other rare metals (Au, Th, W, Pt – yes, get out your periodic table!), which must be mined in order to build them.
Some modules increase the Power of your spaceship, allowing you to jump greater distances or use fuel more efficiently. Other modules increase the ecosystem condition, allowing for better use of oxygen resources. Modules that boost the resistance of your ship means it suffers less damage entering planetary orbits and atmospheres. If you can get a high enough resistance you can even go into close orbit around a star, whereas normally you’d be destroyed outright.
Yet more modules unlock secondary capabilities. Some enhance your telescope so that you can detect what types of planets are orbiting a star or what threats might be lurking there. Others improve the efficiency of your mining drills or hydrogen probes. Then there are even more fantastical devices – like the Life Seed that turns a rocky planet into a garden world or the Death Seed that turns a star into a black hole. And don’t forget the wormhole generator that lets you jump between black holes! There are tantalizing synergies created between different sets of modules, and this, in turn, is what distinguishes one playthrough of the game from another.
Another interesting part of the game is the interactions with alien life forms. Garden planets are populated by all sorts of alien beings that look like something hatched from the mind of Salvador Dali. When you touch down on one of their worlds, they start jabbering away in an alien language. But as you interact (or fail to interact) with them, you’ll gradually learn more of their language and be able to piece together what they are blathering on about. Usually they want some type of rare metal and will give you something nice in exchange: hugs & kisses, maybe a technology or two, a foreign language course, or maybe even “Omega.” Omega is a super-goo of sorts that can be used as a high dose of fuel, oxygen, or iron. It is also a required resource for certain modules to function. You’ll want as much Omega as you can get, so interacting with aliens is critical.
That’s about it for the gameplay mechanics. The primary decision points and challenges in the game mostly concern your resource management. You’ll be juggling upwards of dozen different resources and modules, all competing for limited storage on your spaceship. You’ll routinely have to make tough calls about what resources to drop or what modules to dismantle in order to free up space for something more critical. There are a variety of stranded spaceships that you can discover during the game that provide different storage configurations and usually have a distinct set of modules already constructed. Needless to say, managing your ship’s inventory is a constant challenge – but in an engaging and tense sort of way.
Without spilling too many of the surprises, I’ll mention that there are some menacing things lurking among the stars, but there is no combat in the game at all. So, if you stumble into hostile things (I’m being deliberately vague here), you basically get your ship shot up by laser fire breaking or even destroying many of your modules. Every jump between the stars carries its own grave dangers and uncertainties, so it pays to be meticulous and cautious.
That said, there is a grander storyline and narrative at work in the game, including a variety of possible endings. All of these endings require going to certain stars that are revealed to you and maybe doing something special there. While there isn’t an intricate or deep story, Out There has a few unexpected twists and requires completing the game multiple times to reveal the full scope. As for the content of the story, I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.
The “Omega” edition of the game, released in 2015 following the game’s overwhelming initial success, revamped much of the game’s graphics. I have to say that the attention to detail, particularly in planetary backdrops, is amazing. The game paints an evocative portrait of the far side of the galaxy with a style reminiscent of FTL but certainly its own thing. I’ve been playing the game on my iPad and iPhone (it’s also available for Android and PC) and the interface and controls are clean, simple, and direct. There is a great tactile and aesthetic sense to the game that pulls it all together.
Overall, Out There is a game that I regularly go back to, which I feel is about the best sort of praise a game can receive. It it also worth acknowledging that the game was, initially anyway, a mobile game – and so the level of complexity is relatively low. Don’t go into this expecting a super detailed and brainburn-y survival-craft experience. It’s streamlined for sure. But this enables the best parts of the game – all those tough and interesting decisions regarding narrative events, inventory management, and navigation – to take center stage. If it was more complex, I think it would lose its focus and sense of style. As it is, Out There is a wonderful blend of contemplative exploration and a challenging space adventure. Not many games hit that mark.
TL;DR: Out There is mash-up of space exploration, choose-your-own-adventure, survival-craft, and roguelike romp with a wonderful aesthetic style. The writing is top-notch and unveiled through a series of engaging events and quest sequences. But survival in the far side of the galaxy is hard – you’ll constantly be under pressure to maintain the integrity of your spaceship and expand its capabilities. All in all, this highly decorated game is well worth the price of admission.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy roguelikes
- You enjoy space exploration and choose-your-own-adventure type narratives
- You enjoy survival-craft games
- You enjoy introspective aesthetics, whatever that means
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You demand highly complex and overwrought game systems
- You demand the ability to save scum
- You demand perfect information and certainty before making a decision
- You demand other things this game isn’t