This iPad and Android game offers an abject lesson in how to effectively inject mood and tone into the action/strategy format
In games, movies, TV, and books, it is quite difficult to twist the science-fiction genre into a surprising new direction. Over the years, we have seen far too many well-worn stories and tropes.
In this regard, Mi-Clos Studio's full-fledged embrace of one of the classic sci-fi set-ups - the stranded spaceship pilot trying to find his way home - is refreshing. Instead of attempting to make players snicker at the archetype, this French game studio found a way to tell the story in an earnest, decidedly non-ironic manner.
The truth is that this story lends itself perfectly to a turn-based mobile game. The uber goal of Out There is to find your way home to Earth. The more immediate goal is to simply survive by not running out of fuel or oxygen, and to not get your ship destroyed.
You do this by jumping from star system to star system, collecting the resources you need to keep moving forward, and by discovering new resources that make your ship more powerful.
Discovery is one of the core gameplay loops, and it is something that Out There executes in surprisingly elegant fashion. Each time you jump to a star system (all of which are randomized), you can choose which planets to explore. Some of them are rich in minerals. Some are rich in fuel. And a select few sustain life. On these planets, you'll meet alien creatures, learn new languages, and discover the secrets of the universe.
In some regards, this aspect of Out There resembles Star Control II, a sci-fi game from the golden era of home computing that encouraged you to explore the universe and mine for materials. In other regards, it is highly reminiscent of FTL (which will be coming to iOS soon), without the real-time elements...or the tension of space battles.
What is perhaps most impressive about Out There, however is the pervasive sense of space, distance, and wonder that exists through the entire game. A big part of this is the soundtrack, which is a perfect fit for the game. (Is it just me, or is mobile game sound and music design moving to new heights? Threes's soundtrack was similarly transcendent.)
An equally important component is the diary-like entries that occasionally pop up on your screen. These entries go a long way towards convincing the player that they are in the story, versus simply controlling a pixelated space ship flying around in space. This is proof positive that great writing can make a difference in the mobile game space.
Your first playthrough of Out There will be mesmerizing, and when you fail to make it home, you'll find yourself smiling at the journey you just took. Then you'll start a new game and do it all over again.
Other tablet games I'm playing
1. Lords of Waterdeep: I went back to playing this Dungeons & Dragons board game this week, and now I'm hooked again. (Available for iOS.)
2. Avadon 2: The Corruption HD: If you like old-school fantasy RPGs, you will love this romp. All the fun of the genre, with none of the frustrations. (Available for iOS)
3. Spectromancer: An ambitious collectible card game with an enjoyable D&D-style vibe. (Available for iOS.)
5. Threes: I spend at least an hour every day playing this number-puzzle game. And sometimes more. (Available for iOS.)