‘Out There’ review: homeward bound (iOS/Android)

March 18, 2014
5
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The first bit of technology you find every time you begin Out There is called a “Space Folder,” which allows for faster-than-light travel. “Space Folder” is a technically accurate description of the hypothetical real-world Alcubierre Drive, but it sounds quaint to ears that grew up tuned to sci-fi staples like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. (Maybe it sounds cooler in designer Michaël Peiffert’s native French.)

I mention this bit of linguistic reduction to highlight Out There’s strenuous aversion to technobabble. The straightforward writing and retro aesthetic combine to present a stripped-down and simplified version of space exploration. This is important because Out There is a simulation game with a heavy focus on resource conservation and decision-making. Simple language and concepts keep players engaged with making smart choices instead of parsing what nadion radiation is or how inverse tachyon fields work. 

By that same token, Out There’s mechanics are straightforward and communicated simply. Hopping from star system to star system consumes fuel and damages the hull of the Nomad, your starting ship. Probing gas giants might refill your fuel tanks, but the hazardous atmosphere will strain your bulkheads; mining for iron will repair the ship, but it takes a lot of fuel. Every few days, a story-related event may pop up: exploring a derelict freighter may yield some desperately needed hydrogen, or it may explode with you in it. Friendly alien races may be willing to trade technology, but wasting fuel to reach them may not be wise. 

You could hoard oxygen, helium, and iron, but your cargo hold is finite, and filling it with provisions means you’ll have no room for new technology. Furthermore, some ship modules work best when “stacked” with other tech, so you’ll need to arrange your cargo hold efficiently, which might mean dismantling and rebuilding certain parts of your ship. Eventually, you’ll be able to commandeer other ships, some of which come pre-loaded with new and exciting technologies. 

At its heart, Out There is about balancing risk and reward, about pushing your luck until it, or your oxygen, finally runs out. The rest radiates from this central thesis: Out There is full of options, but they all lead back to one ineffable fact: without fuel, air, or a safe ship, you’ll die alone in space.

That said, Out There is a difficult, tense, and precarious game. My astronauts have collectively died a thousand deaths by suffocation, or spontaneous immolation via solar flare, or alien attack, or a breached hull. After each unceremonious demise, you’ll start over in the Nomad, with a net set of procedurally generated stars (and dangers) unfolding ahead of you. 

Outside of the minute-to-minute stresses of eking out a meager cosmic existence, there’s a grander mystery that flits at the edges of Out There. Every so often, some abandoned artefact or space probe hints at what’s in store for our lone astronaut or how he became stranded in the first place. Each death in Out There sharpens your strategy or expands your knowledge of the game’s mechanics, but it’s also another opportunity to stumble onto one more piece of a fragmented, star-strewn story.

For better or worse, Out There gets better as your get deeper into a run: bigger, more powerful ships give you room to experiment with different technology combinations and you’ll eventually start piecing alien languages together. The interplay between your ship, its resources, and the alien forces you encounter becomes more interesting as your options expand.

Late-game success is all the sweeter because Out There is so punishing and difficult, but it also means that plenty of attempts end up feeling stunted and stillborn. If things don’t break your way early enough, you may find yourself exploring the same early solar systems over and over, waiting for a lucky cosmic dice roll. I do wish the early game was more approachable, if only to pave the way for more interesting scenarios to occur more often.

At its best, though, Out There is mechanically elegant and thematically rich. Mi-Clos Studio's version of space is simultaneously lonely and colorful: electric blue giants and vibrant yellow dwarfs fill the screen, rendering your ship a tiny speck against the cosmos’s vastness. The astronaut’s sporadic journal entries invariably deal with his solitude, putting into text what is all too clear to players: space is big and you are alone.

  • Out There
  • Developer: Mi-Clos Studio/Fibre Tigre
  • Platform: iOS (played), Android
  • Price: $3.99
  • In-app purchases? No

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