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PLATFORMS: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Stadia
RELEASE DATE: April 1, 2021
DEVELOPER: People Can Fly
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
ESRB: M for Mature
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It’s difficult to know where to begin when unpacking the strange and unwieldy mess that is People Can Fly’s Outriders. There are instances in the game where the studio’s talent for delivering eccentric action and striking level design shines bright, yet just as often the experience is held back by technical shortcomings and bizarre creative decisions. Outriders confounds and frustrates even as it proves compelling in places, making the process of gauging the game’s overall quality an unusual challenge.
A Lot of Setup, for Little Gain
The game’s initial premise suggests an experience that will be coherent in theme and tone, if nothing else. Outriders starts off in the mid-22nd century, following a group of refugees from Earth who have spent 83 years flying through space to their new homeworld Enoch. Upon reaching Enoch’s surface, however, the group is waylaid by unexpected energy surges and other pseudo-scientific phenomena that threaten the future of their colonization efforts. A confident opening, it has the unfortunate side-effect of leaving the audience unprepared for the extreme narrative whiplash to come.
As it turns out, this entire sequence is an elaborate prologue to the actual plot of Outriders. Following a brief but decent detour into horror and an abrupt 31 year time jump, the player’s character is then brought back into the fold to help resolve an ongoing civil war between the last remnants of humanity. This in turn proves to be another misdirection; the war is a backdrop to the player’s search for a mysterious signal from that first day on Enoch. If nothing else, the game’s awkward introduction does offer a glimpse at the madness ahead.
The plot is aimless and wasteful of ideas for much of its runtime, managing to feel both convoluted and underdeveloped. For example, characters like the aloof superpowered being Seth or the crooked boss Corrigan seem positioned to remain significant to the story, yet they exit in anticlimactic fashion without warning. The game also indulges in a plethora of plot detours, such as an extended quest into a volcano that, while enjoyable in its own right, contributes little to the overall narrative. The ways in which Outriders meanders and squanders its opportunities become all the more confounding when the game gets around to showing its hand.
Late in the story, Outriders pivots towards certain thematic material that might have worked had the script been more polished and refined. Without spoiling the specifics, the final third of the game goes into fairly dark territory that recontextualizes previous revelations about Enoch and its existing population in interesting ways. Unfortunately, the logical leaps required for said late reveals and twists to work are so ludicrous and baffling that they undermine the earnest efforts of the plot. Admirable though these narrative ambitions are, the reality is Outriders isn’t in the position to follow through on them.
If there’s a saving grace to Outriders’ storytelling, it’s that it often steps aside to allow the core cast to play off one another for decent drama. In particular, Dmitry Chepovetsky’s jaded veteran Jakub and Lina Roessler’s caustic psychic Channa have a tense dynamic that manages to pay off in a handful of compelling character moments. Those bright flashes of solid character writing are relegated just to NPCs, though - the main character is another matter entirely.
The player is forced to inhabit a custom character whose personality, motives, and role in the setting amount to surface-level fluff, despite the development team’s best intentions. Besides nods to a mercenary background and mild discomfort in the face of temporal displacement, the player character isn’t afforded much in the way of details or depth. The two voice actors for the protagonist do what they can to infuse the role with sardonic charm, but it’s hard to flesh out a glorified mannequin who exists just to help with other characters’ development and push the plot forward.
Peaks and Valleys Galore
At the most fundamental level, Outriders is trying to merge the outrageous excess of third-person action with the deliberate progression systems of the “looter shooter” action-RPG mould. Players select from one of four character classes during the prologue, which grants them access to a range of reality-affecting powers such as pyrokinesis or time manipulation. These powers grow more varied and powerful with the player’s level, alongside an assortment of level-scaling weapons and equipment. This blend of shooter and role-playing mechanics serves as the foundation for the strongest aspect of Outriders: the combat.
Firefights in Outriders are rooted in a deliberate breed of chaos, a clash of elements that proves a perfect fit for this setting. The shooting itself is serviceable in terms of basic game feel, but it’s elevated by the goofy manner in which enemies explode into red mists and assorted limbs. Introducing the player powers into the mix further guarantees that most shootouts are viscerally satisfying; there’s nothing quite like swirling around in a vortex made of time itself, turning living foes into gory detritus. Much of the action here thrives on People Can Fly’s willingness to embrace the absurd and the excessive, though not without risking repetition.
The further a player progresses through the game’s eighteen chapters, the more apparent it becomes that Outriders likes to recycle its enemies and concepts. Despite facing different factions over the course of the campaign, the player keeps running into the same assortment of human and monster types for much of the runtime. Compounding the issue further, various side-quests boil down to killing specific targets - human or otherwise - without any difference in quest format or context. This reuse of assets and ideas over many hours is made more frustrating by the fact that some aspects of the game’s design are genuinely brilliant.
Consider the environmental design, which features the most variety of anything in Outriders and seems to have been prioritized when it came to allocating the game’s budget. Outriders doesn’t waste time driving the player out of the first major location, a decently realized but tiresome post-apocalyptic shanty town, and towards more vibrant locales. Whether traversing the game’s jungle areas or climbing frozen peaks, there’s a clear emphasis on winding paths and impressive vistas that makes the long journey easier to endure. That having been said, handsome places to explore can only work to keep the player invested if the rest of the game is functioning as intended.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Outriders suffers from a range of bugs and technical issues which undercut the game’s good qualities. The combat had a habit of experiencing slowdown with increased frequency during the later sections, leading to possible unfair deaths. Audio and subtitles fell out of sync during certain cutscenes, and there was one outright crash during a single-player session. However, these performance problems pale in comparison to the dismal state of Outriders’ multiplayer.
For a game intended to be played at least partially online with other players, Outriders is astounding in its incompetence with regards to its multiplayer functionality. Most attempts to connect to other people’s games were met with failure, unceremoniously tossing the player back to the main menu. On the few occasions where it was possible to get into a game, the experience was made atrocious by extreme lag that rendered even basic movement virtually impossible. Seeing the state of Outriders’ online suite, one can’t help but wonder what led to this disappointing display.
This is a strange beast of a game, compromised on numerous fronts yet undeniably sincere and energetic at its core. Its haphazard plot and profound design flaws threaten to squash the game’s modest success at delivering a fun combat system. Those capable of overlooking an abundance of issues may find Outriders to be decent action fare, but otherwise it’s best to look elsewhere.