Developer Julian Laufer and publisher Headup present OUTBUDDIES for review. OUTBUDDIES aims to freshen up action-exploration platformers by adding a partner that can be controlled by a second player. The lengthy, labyrinthine, and hostile world hides secrets aplenty. Exploration requires creative use of the player partner to create platforms or hack enemies to power up the primary gun-toting doctor players control.
The player character, archaeologist Nikolay Bernstein, is going to have a difficult time in OUTBUDDIES. While health and ammo refills are easy enough to come by, they have to be obtained through the claustrophobic darkness. Screens have a sickly feel to them as bloody red and oozing green provide the most striking contrast to the dark blue that otherwise dominates. It’s easy to get lost, even with a map that provides some detail about the path through the environment, and the enemies range from aliens on the ceiling to brawlers with menace in their eyes throwing fistfuls of hurt. Game mechanics are explained with subtlety, perhaps too much subtlety as the visual tutorials often aren’t clear enough to give even the general gist of what the player needs to do to proceed.
It’s a battle long lost, but I am not a fan of the genre term Metroidvania. There’s too much history lost and assumptions made about games that get tagged with the label. OUTBUDDIES is a phenomenal example of the importance in accurately describing how other action-exploration platformers paved the way to its unique difficulty. It’s more like Axiom Verge with its sickly alien palette, but the bulbous cartoon designs are all OUTBUDDIES. The same goes for how easily it is to get lost when playing OUTBUDDIES, and the sparse clues more closely resemble La-Mulana.
OUTBUDDIES emerges from these more contemporary comparisons as a unique challenge. The bulbous character and enemy designs make it a children’s sci-fi animated show gone bad. I never felt fully uncomfortable or threatened playing it, but the aesthetic experience is still satisfyingly “off” enough to fuel its own unique tension. The tiny bit of cuteness never leaves my brain long enough to drown the game in isolation or hostility. It aids the sensation that your protagonist isn’t supposed to be here, exactly, but still enthusiastically embraced the idea of the unknown at some point. Even the friendly creatures, with their sharp eyes, never felt fully helpful considering the aggressive contrast of their bright eyes with the darkened environment.
The general movement and gunplay of OUTBUDDIES rides this same give-and-take of comfort and unease. Shots arrive just slow enough that I ran into terrifying situations where the enemy just wasn’t dying while charging right at me. So then I’d move, running as quick as I could, and take a leap of faith only to land and roll right into another dangerous situation. I love that roll, which occurs when you jump from a high enough location, as it’s a reminder that movement is more than what gamers trigger on their gamepads. Bernstein’s movement has quirks that require me to know the character and environment alongside good platforming skills, lest I continue rolling or falling into further danger.
Less fulfilling, though creatively interesting all the same, are the various other mechanics and mechanical partner. I learned to create platforms, move blocks around with tractor beams, find hidden passageways, hack enemies for power ups and improvise climbing pieces. This is all communicated in limited animations that are often too difficult to decipher. While the difficulty I felt learning these skills was addressed outside the game in the form of a developer-backed Wiki page, I’d be remiss in not pointing out that if the basics of a game require their own Wiki then they’re too complex for their own good. This also hampers some of the potential fun in co-op play as, instead of puzzling out a room, I just sit there growing more frustrated with a partner who is getting angry at their inability to grasp OUTBUDDIES‘ basic mechanics.
It’s not a big negative, just one that tailors OUTBUDDIES to players looking for a difficult game. Having noted that, I found it extremely rewarding. The lack of a guiding hand plus OUTBUDDIES‘ commitment to crafting individual challenges in each of its rooms makes for an engrossing gameplay experience. I’m always leaving one set of hostilities, be it a tight corridor with angry monsters spitting explosives in-between aliens falling from the ceiling, to another set of challenges, like trying to quickly map a water-filled maze in my head while dodging schools of fish looking for a snack. Boss fights also keep OUTBUDDIES fresh as I went from towering biomechanical threats that required solid platforming skills to avoid, and moving next to a much smaller ball of twitchy death that had me nervously searching for places to dodge. In all cases, the more knowledge of Bernstein chunky movement I had, the more satisfying it was to down these bosses in their special circumstances.
OUTBUDDIES is definitely too complex for its own good. Anytime an outside-the-game wiki is needed to make sense of basic techniques of a game, there should be some consideration from the devs about how to simplify or more clearly communicate what to do. At the same time, if that complexity was not there then OUTBUDDIES would not be nearly as satisfying to play as it is. I'd much rather have a complex and fulfilling experience than one where the path is clear and the gameplay streamlined to the point where I'm going through the motions. OUTBUDDIES doesn't please immediately, but stick with it. By the time you've killed your first boss, you'll wish more games packed as much complex interest in their gameplay as OUTBUDDIES does.
- Aesthetic rides a delicate line between oppressive and cartoony, pulling it off with colorful menace.
- Progress is incredibly satisfying with unique challenges to each of its many rooms and mechanics that necessitate creative platforming creation.
- Mechanics are far too complicated to learn well in game with tutorial images that don't communicate what needs to be done.
Prognosis is Good