To start off with, I did not finish Outbuddies. It is completely outside of my normal gaming habits, and even then takes a while to get the hang of. However, I did sink around 15 hours of my life into this game, so while the story aspects may change, I feel confident in my grasp of the gameplay.
For those unwilling to read a whole review, I do recommend Outbuddies. I don’t find the length or difficulty off-putting, and I believe that many people are clamouring for a challenging Metroidvania to sink their teeth into. If you are one of these mad people then please check this game out, but if not, I still think the art and soundtrack are worth seeking out.
Without a doubt, this is the biggest pitfall of the game. The intro is incomprehensible in its imagery and wording, the story delivery is through slogs of textboxes and there is very little in the way of motivation. The way Outbuddies chooses to tell its story seems, in most part, to be through environmental storytelling.
This is the best method of telling stories in any game. Let us not forget that for all the text-based adventures and visual novels, games are an interactive medium. Environmental story telling allows a company to give you insight into the world around you without breaking gameplay flow. Outbuddies, however, tends to break its ankles with the aforementioned textboxes.
I personally don’t have a problem with textboxes. They serve a purpose, adding context where necessary and are often used to build a story rich world around you. Outbuddies tends to use them for instructions, or to occasionally mention the ancient society that left treasures everywhere. This is not the correct way to use environmental story telling.
Take other games that use this method, Dark Souls or Hollow Knight, that use their environments to let you know that something tragic has happened. They use item descriptions to tell stories or give snippets of flavour text that add to the atmosphere of the world. Outbuddies simply gives a vague reason for you to be here, in the form of a truly incomprehensible legend, and plops you down in the game world.
These thoughts constantly badgered me as I played, until another more sinister thought entered my head. A thought common amongst programmers and literary critics, “was this intentional?” This creates a free pass for any story foibles the game has, as you wonder whether the designers created it this way for a reason.
I came to the eventual conclusion that, while it might in fact be intentional, it certainly is effective. The lack of story, the lack of context gives the game an atmosphere of the unknown. Much like the oceanic theme of the game, the atmosphere feels like staring into a dark ocean. What mysterious lie in wait there, and will you ever know everything about it?
So perhaps the lack of story was meant to create this feeling, but what the game is crying out for is an audience surrogate. If you robot friend had asked some questions, it would have felt like this was all on purpose. A simple “what is this structure?” or “how did it all get this way?” would have gone a long way in atmosphere building.
I was unable to finish Outbuddies, as I have deadlines and a human existence to get back to, so maybe the story opens up as you go. I did manage to clock in around 15 hours on this game, and any game that doesn’t give even a hint at the larger plot after 15 hours needs to go back to the writing table. At the very least I should have at least a clear idea of my goal, or my context, or even my characters motivations. Not having so made it very difficult to come back to Outbuddies.
Gameplay starts off clunky. It takes some time to get used to the characters movements, as they seem offbeat at first. For a while it felt like there was a delay between button presses, just big enough to be noticeable. I am happy to report that you do in fact get used to it, and afterwards movement becomes fluid and wonderful.
This game takes its platforming seriously. The player can jump, roll, long jump, swim and even wall jump, not to mention any other movement abilities you may unlock further on into the game. Everything works in a sort of rhythm, and even though you need to push on until you get into that rhythm, once you do it all feels so natural. You begin to see treacherous jumps as an absolute pleasure, something less in your way and more a fun new skill based challenge.
That being said, the level design also takes some getting used to. While it was clearly made for moving around in, the platforms often seem higher than your jump reaches. It can really throw you for a loop when you look around for something to jump off of or another way around for about an hour, only to come back and jump on this platform.
It’s also very difficult to get out of water sometimes. I can’t tell you how many times my character gleefully summersaulted against the side of a platform and dove straight back into the water, rather than just getting out. These little quibbles aside, the platforming is generally fluid and fast flowing once you get the hang of it, which is exactly what platforming should be.
The unique selling point of Outbuddies is the robot friend, or buddy, you get at the beginning of the game. I have no idea why you have a robot or where it comes from, or why it’s telekinetic, but there we go. You use the bot to scout ahead in rooms, move large blocks telekinetically and scan rooms for enemies, bombable locations and the aforementioned large blocks.
Mostly, this is used for puzzle solving. A recurring scenario is: a high ledge sits between you and your goal. You must find a large block, or 3, to help you jump up to this ledge. You cannot lift the block while the player character is on it, which can be annoying, but the block has enough mass to kill enemies and weigh down switches. This puzzle solving is often why I stop playing Outbuddies.
Killing bad guys is fun. Jumping off walls is fun. Figuring out where you need to go, fighting a boss and getting a reward is fun. Trying to navigate a block around a level filled to the brim with platforms, using a pulling system that changes to a push system if the block changes angle or gets to close? That isn’t fun. That is so not fun that I needed a large snack and many, many soothing beverages before I could continue.
It isn’t puzzle solving if the only thing stopping me from solving it is misbehaving pieces. Sure, it’s very satisfying to solve the puzzle in the end, but that’s only if you don’t give up halfway through to rearrange desktop icons or make sure your family isn’t on fire. This is without a doubt my biggest gameplay problem, and what makes it worse is this is used so frequently! It’s pure padding for time, and randomly so!
Audio and Visuals
The sound design in this game is wonderful. As I said previously, it can be difficult to determine exactly what the story is in Outbuddies, so an atmospheric soundtrack is essential. I could really see that Outbuddies is meant to be a dystopian/desolate experience from the beginning, purely from the ambient music. The slow, slightly techno music really does make you feel trapped and alone in an oceanic cavern.
Good sound design can save a game, and I would certainly be scoring Outbuddies lower if it didn’t have good sound design. Every hit your character takes feels visceral from the noises made alone. There are a few snags here and there, like your blaster sounding like a cheap Christmas toy and the ineffectual noises your robot friend makes when you control him doesn’t really highlight his place in this game.
One aspect of Outbuddies I truly struggle to find fault with is the visuals. The cavern designs always look interesting, even when you run around them for hours. I spent so long in this game trying to figure out where I was supposed to go, but it was never because the rooms looked the same; a hallmark of good level design. Every room is uniquely set out, while following the ancient ocean theme, and the bright colours with dark spaces give a new visual taste to the atmospheric dystopia.
Outbuddies has a minimalistic HUD (or Heads Up Display), which in most games means you don’t get most of the information right away. I can’t express how many modern shooters I’ve played where I lose health, the screen goes black and white, and I have no accurate idea as to how many more shots I can take. Outbuddies uses your robot friend to display damage, gives you an easy to understand heart meter, uses lighting on your suit to display your current health and manages to still keep everything looking clean and smooth.
While I do hesitate to mention this, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t scour for problems. There is an issue with ledges. Ledges can often seem higher than your natural ability to jump, and it leads to more hours spent looking for other ways forward because you write off that ledge as unreachable. This is probably just nit-picking, but if you don’t play this game for hours on end or come back to it after a while, it can be very frustrating to be impeded by a ledge you didn’t think you could jump to.
While I didn’t finish Outbuddies, I don’t really see that as a bad thing. This is clearly a game meant to be played over a while. Even though I feel the environment getting in the way of block moving acts more as an artificial lengthener, don’t put that into Google unsupervised, it still adds to the puzzle and forces you to think outside of the box.
I mentioned earlier that I never felt the need to continue playing Outbuddies when I left it, the game does have a way of drawing you in while you play. I found it challenging and fun, combining an action platformer with the Shadow of the Colossus appeal of simply wanting to see how the next area is laid out or how the next boss works.
The only problem I have with Outbuddies is the story, which can be a fairly big problem for most. I have always held true that games are equal parts story and gameplay, with one being able to counterweight the other if necessary, and with Outbuddies that is certainly necessary. I have been paying attention since the get go and I have no earthly idea why this person is in this place or why I should care.
However, that allows the gameplay to shine in comparison. It’s not new, and it isn’t polished, but it is somewhat realistic; inhuman jumping capability aside. The fact that you know nothing adds to the atmosphere of being in a hostile place, alone and on a mission. Perhaps that was the purpose, or maybe the story simply took a backseat to the rest of the game in development.
Either way, I can recommend Outbuddies to anyone who enjoys Metroidvania, exploring and unforgiving environments. If you are craving an experience that makes you feel like a lone explorer in an unfamiliar setting, accompanied only by a psychic CRT monitor and a lovely soundtrack, then check out Outbuddies. If you need coherent storytelling to keep you going, then maybe give this one a miss. For all its faults, I eventually had fun with Outbuddies, and maybe you will too.
A copy of this game was provided to Brutalgamer for review.