Review: Outlanders – Not Quite a Brave New World

Sometimes, I like to take my work home with me. By day, I’m an urban planner, handling subdivisions and variances and rezonings. At night, I come home to my video games and relax by playing… city builders. There’s a part of me that loves doing my job in a way that actually affects tangible change, as happens in some of my favorite games in the genre like Airborne Kingdom and Against the Storm. Outlanders has proved to be sufficiently relaxing and cozy, but with the unfortunately huge caveat that many of the systems are busted to the point that I was constantly softlocking myself into failure. 

The controls are similar to most other city builders, with the large exception of no ability to reverse the rotation direction of the map. I never quite got used to the way they mapped it, and I think it’d be a great quality of life feature for a future update. Using WASD to scroll around and the mouse wheel to zoom, you’ll help your villagers grow, complete objectives, reproduce, and sustain the work force for a certain number of days per mission. There is the usual fast forward button, but only with a 2x option. I’m used to games like this having a multitude of speed options, so that’s another feature I hope to see in an update.

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Gorgeous artwork and blissful music unfortunately only carry this game so far.

Outlanders is a pretty simple game, and I mean that as a compliment. There are just a few meters you’ll need to keep watch on for your village, and about a dozen total building types you can create. You’ll need to keep an eye on your village’s happiness, determined by a multitude of factors, as well as their hunger and how many are housed. Each level starts you off with a blank slate: just a few houses, a useless village leader, and a builder’s house. Hunger, as in all these games, pretty much comes first and foremost. You can either collect mushrooms and fruit from the woods or farm about a dozen different crops to meet your villagers’ needs, and later on even make food such as bread out of these ingredients by constructing a bakery.

The basic kinds of buildings for employing your villagers are as follows: the builders’ house for construction, the lumberjack hut for cutting wood, the forager’s hut for gathering food, the sawmill for turning wood to planks, the quarry for mining stone, and the farm for growing and harvesting food. There are a few more advanced kinds of buildings that you can work with, but this is your arsenal to gather raw resources and build. Every ten or so days, some of the villagers may reproduce and have children that will eventually grow up and enter the workforce as the older generation dies. Echoing the simple gameplay, the polygonal art is pleasantly designed to lull you into a state of relaxation. The colors are beautiful, and the art can really be appreciated across the several different biomes and landscapes in Outlanders.

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The archipelago is not an ideal format for a village, but I love how it looks.

You can either dive into the sandbox mode, which seems to be the meat of the game, or play the simple campaign to familiarize yourself with the mechanics and controls first. While I enjoyed the first few levels of the campaign, it wasn’t long before I ran into my first dumb softlock. I began the level, and by day six my entire village had died of hunger all at once. It was unbelievable. I restarted the level and paid more attention to gathering food this time, and once again on day six my villagers all simultaneously died.

Outlanders has no difficulty options in the campaign. Growing impatient, I ran a test. I restarted and built two extra foraging huts right at the start, and immediately set my villagers to work 100% gathering food. I then turned on a decree, commanding everyone to ration food and eat less. Lo and behold, by day eight they had once again all died of hunger. I was stumped. I devoted every resource possible to gathering food, and it still wasn’t enough to keep them alive for more than a few days. Something in the coding is completely broken in Outlanders.

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The sandbox mode allows you to play around with some of the features and rulesets.

After going through the campaign, I moved on to try out a few sandbox worlds. There are a nice suite of options to customize the experience, including world seeds, so once I set up a fairly standard ruleset I jumped in. While I enjoyed it for the first few in-game days again, I suddenly hit another softlock. The lumberjack cabin I had placed had run out of wood, and I had no more wood since I had already built houses for my eighteen settlers. I could therefore not build another lumberjack cabin to gather more wood. I could not build anything, and I wouldn’t be able to again. In the time it took for me to tear down my (needed) houses to recover a little wood, all my villagers starved and died simultaneously again.

It was on my fourth sandbox run I started to realize there was only one way to play the game. Place a single forager hut, then build a house, then move a few builders to the forager hut, then build a farm, then move villagers to a quarry for stone, and send one lumberjack to the sawmill, etc. Outlanders leaves essentially no room for players to play their way. While experimenting in these kinds of games is usually my favorite part, in Outlanders it felt as though I was hitting wall after wall telling me “you’re doing this wrong.”

What do any of these icons mean?

I also must comment on the UI, which I think is one of the poorest I’ve seen in a while. Nothing is labeled. While the screen and menus are displayed in a gorgeous minimalist style, I have no idea what any of it is. What’s the blue icon? The game doesn’t tell you. Why do I have zero of it? Should I have more? It took me a solid hour to understand the brown stick was a plank. Even understanding the game flow is a process at the beginning because it’s all so minimal it just has lost its function entirely. I beseech the developers to add labels for all these icons in a future update and maybe try a function over form strategy next time.

I didn’t particularly enjoy my five hours with Outlanders, but I can see what the idea was. A very, very simplistic city builder with relaxing music and art and animations to chill out to. Simple objectives like “gather 50 wood.” It truly feels like an extension of a mobile game, and I just recently found that it is indeed a port of an Apple Arcade exclusive game from last year. If you’re looking for a relaxing poly-art city builder, I highly recommend Islanders instead.  I like a lot of the intent behind Outlanders, but unfortunately the systems are too busted to allow freedom to play as you’d like or even experiment. I would also await a UI overhaul and some more settings and controls options before recommending it even for fans of the genre like myself.

Nirav played Outlanders on PC with a review code. 

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