Countless light years from home with a broken gas probe, my only means of collecting fuel. The materials I need for repairs might be somewhere in this star system, on either of the barren balls of rock and ice on my scanner, paradoxically close and distant in the void. Unreachable either way. As I prepare myself for cryo-sleep I dwell on the chance, however remote, that I might be rescued. But more likely I’m stranded. Done for.
Your first game over in Out There stays with you. A melancholy snapshot of what the game sets out to be and it’s worth remembering that initial feeling when it happens a second time. Then a third, fourth, fifth… because you will die a lot in Out There and 90% of the time it will be because you ran out of fuel.
At its heart this is a game of exploration, mystery and tough, frequently blind, choices. A freak hyperspace accident has left you stranded in interstellar space, our solar system a speck on the far corner of your star chart, a seemingly impossible goal. It’s a cosmic road-movie of a game whose universe obeys the laws of the Roguelike even if its combat free gameplay makes it a genre outlier. Progress is made through deciphering game systems and learning probabilities over countless failed attempts to make it back to Earth.
Developers Mi-Clos have done a fine job of breathing life into their procedurally generated galaxy. Random encounters play out as mini text adventures detailing inexplicable cosmic phenomena or chance encounters with other life forms. The writing is occasionally clunky but hits home far more often than it misses with concepts and situations ranging from pulpy fun to the genuinely profound. Play for long enough and you’ll start pulling at the threads of a wider narrative where the truth behind your place among the stars remains tantalisingly out of reach.
Visually, Out There is simple but admirably slick. Alien landscapes, the roiling surface of gas planets and imposing black holes are all depicted with understated, painterly majesty. Even tiny touches like the marker showing the location of your ship dwarfed by cosmic scenery, or the little radio bleep icons indicating other ships subtly feed into a grand sense of scale. Underpinning all this is an ambient soundtrack that barely makes it’s presence felt until the critical moment when early dangers are overcome and your ship is better equipped for the hardships ahead. Haunting female vocals, first sinister and then euphoric, kick in and the universe spread out before you is suddenly a warmer, more welcoming place than it felt a moment ago.
But despite the heady atmosphere and memorable writing, Out There is frequently a drudgery of random misfortune and dull resource management. Your need fuel to continue your journey, you need iron for repairs, you need oxygen to breathe. All of this can be found by drilling and probing planets but yields are random and you’re never more than two or three unlucky, behind the scenes dice rolls from arbitrary perma-death. Where most Roguelikes frequently throw brutal encounters your way there’s usually some scope for mastery of the combat systems and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. There should always be lessons in death, about managing risk, about moment to moment tactics and long term strategies. This is where Out There’s suffers the most, there’s no lesson to be learned from repeatedly running out of fuel in the opening game through pure chance.
To add insult to injury you’re saddled with a pedantic, fiddly inventory system. One that forces you to dump resources unnecessarily because of quirks in its multi-screen layout, or prevents you building ship upgrades because the space they would take up is occupied by the materials needed to build them. All of this is further compounded by an interface originally designed for tablets where the icons you need from one moment to the next are on opposite sides of the screen. Perfect for two thumbs but a pain in the arse to navigate with a mouse and no keyboard shortcuts.
Out There is a flawed game but it hides an epic story to be uncovered, a piece at a time, with each doomed interstellar foray. A hidden chronicle of galactic history laced with great skill into the fabric of the game. Dialogue snippets, text descriptions of strange artefacts and abandoned structures, even the nature of basic ship upgrades all have implications in the light of previous discoveries. It‘s a game full of strange ideas and strange visuals evoking hazy recollections of sprawling, wonky 16 bit games like Captain Blood, Captive and Reunion. For all its faults there’s nothing quite like it out there.