It’s been a while since I played an Obsidian Entertainment game. Admittedly, the last time was Fallout: New Vegas. What would turn out to be my favorite of all the Fallout games would also one day break my heart—not because of anything the game did, but because there would never be another one. Following its release, the relationship between Obsidian and their publisher Bethesda soured, and despite bearing many members of the original team that brought Fallout into existence, they would never write another Fallout game again. The subsequent Fallout 4 was famously missing the skill system that added so much depth to the multi-branching narrative structure of previous games. It took much of the series’ depth with it. I thought, with that chapter closed in Fallout history, that there was no going back.
But the past few weeks I found that sometimes you can go home again, even if that home is now worlds away. In The Outer Worlds, Obsidian attempts to recreate the magic of the series that started it all, placing classic visual themes and a robust character-building system against a conflicted political backdrop on a divergent timeline. In The Outer Worlds, a passenger on an abandoned ship from Earth is awoken from cryostasis by Phineas Wells, a mysterious scientist who needs their help rescuing those who remain on board. As they begin the quest to save the colonists of the Hope, a system of interplanetary corporate rule begins to crack at the seams, revealing a drastic conspiracy. How the player chooses to settle the conflict is entirely up to them; a system of specialty skills supports a range of playstyles and approaches, whether you like to go in guns a-blazin’ or talk your way out of everything. Combined with visual and narrative inspiration from pulp novels of the 1950s, it’s a vintage sci-fi comic book, fully realized in an interactive space.
If you’ve played older Fallout games, The Outer Worlds is an opportunity to enjoy improvements on the systems that made them great. Like New Vegas, the companions of the game, NPCs you meet during your travels who become a part of your crew, have personal storylines and offer substantial in-game boosts depending on who is in your party. Whereas managing their gear and selecting who to accompany you used to be a complicated process, it’s now streamlined through the user menu, where their perks can also be applied and managed with every additional level. Factions are also back, and they too have a spot in the menu, where the player can quickly gauge their standing with every group in the solar system as they progress in the game. A new time dilation ability meanwhile serves as a stand-in for V.A.T.S., slowing down combat and revealing different status effects on enemies based on where they are struck or shot. “Flaws,” reminiscent of Traits in Fallout: New Vegas, create a character attribute in response to certain in-game events, offering a negative feature in exchange for a single perk point. For example, encountering a particular enemy several times may prompt an offer of 25% decreased damage against their type, but with the trade-off of an additional point to invest in perks. The choice of whether to accept is up to the player, and so far, I haven’t picked any, but they’re still a fun bit of in-game responsiveness that makes me feel as though my choices matter.
The writing of The Outer Worlds covers a lot of familiar topics, from interfactional disputes, corruption, free will, determinism, and the sanitized veneer of corporate branding, to name just a few. But beneath the repetition sits Obsidian’s impressive ability to balance several conflicting and often contradictory viewpoints and sympathetically represent them across a world of interacting characters. The many unique interactions of the companions make for delicious drama, and I love walking into a new conversation and seeing how my crew members will respond and interact with the dialogue. I especially appreciate how they talk to one another, talking shop about shared interests, offering competing points of view or commentary on the history of a new location. The reactiveness makes it easier to take an empathetic interest in the local politics and the differing perspectives of each character, despite their lack of explicit real-world parallels. It’s also fun to choose a companion based on how they might respond in an individual situation, rather than their combat skills. Orchestrating specific scenarios (like the alcoholic Nyoka accompanying Parvati and me to the bar for a girl talk session) always pays off, often in ways that I did not expect.
Despite my fondness for the companion NPCs, however, the game does falter in a few areas. The first few hours are a rough start, thanks to an initially cheerless combat experience and some worn-out narrative territory. Many of the quests are repetitive if you play a lot of CRPGs (especially those directly and tangentially touched by Bethesda and Obsidian) and if you’re tired of fetch quests and running errands, you’re out of luck. There are a lot of small, impoverished settlements, greedy capitalists, and imperiled deserters in need of your help, and from the get-go, you’ll be solving a lot of problems that are not your own. And while in other similar games there might be a lot of impulsive exploration to make up for the grind, I don’t feel the urge in The Outer Worlds, despite how imaginative and bizarre its planets may be. The garish, high-saturation hues of the landscapes tend to hinder my motivation to travel off the beaten path, and the limited size of each environment doesn’t reward it.
And while I’m happy to engage with the skill system and see how my build affects my options in-game, it feels as though some playstyles aren’t fully supported. While the stealth approach is an option for solving missions, for example, there aren’t any XP points awarded for avoiding an enemy instead of killing them, and there aren’t any stealth-specific attacks to supplement. Ultimately the quickest option is often to fight your way through. That said, there are still lots of opportunities to talk your way out of conflict with the right skill investment, and it will take more time to establish the extent of how all of these skills affect dialogue and mission completion options.
Obsidian is on to something good with The Outer Worlds. The writing has an irresistible humanity, and the factions, skill system, and dynamic companion interactivity offer a beautifully complicated depth that makes me mourn the loss of Fallout 4 all over again. With it, I don’t have to miss Fallout: New Vegas anymore—I can just enjoy what its core features have become. So far, this new horizon looks promising.
The Outer Worlds was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Private Division. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.