Space, as the late Douglas Adams famously told us, is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.
Ahem. Anyway. Out There, a new iOS game from French studio Mi-Clos, aims to replicate the feeling of being lost in the aforementioned vastness of space through a charming and atmospheric combination of pulp sci-fi comic-style art, Vangelis-style synthesized backing music and a procedurally generated adventure that will see you struggling just to survive as you crawl your way across the galaxy in an attempt to make your way home, and perhaps discover some of the mysteries of the universe along the way.
The most obvious comparison to Out There is recent indie classic FTL, but Mi-Clos' offering is actually a very different affair. There's no combat, for starters, nor is there anything chasing you, pushing you ever-forwards -- your main opponent in Out There is scarcity of resources, since your full tanks of fuel and oxygen and your pristine hull won't last for long in this hostile universe. The lack of combat isn't to say you won't come across other life-forms, however; on the contrary, you'll encounter a number of weird and wonderful alien races on your journey, and part of the challenge when dealing with them is figuring out exactly what they're saying -- a gradual process that unfolds across a number of different encounters.
Space exploration games can have the potential to get extremely complicated, but Out There keeps things straightforward and intuitive -- ideal for a touchscreen-based platform. You have three different views of the action, such as it is: a galaxy map, where you can plan your long-range movements between solar systems; a system map, where you can see what planets and other structures there are in your current location; and a view of your ship, from which you can construct new modules to enhance your capabilities or make use of the raw materials you've acquired to boost your fuel and oxygen supplies and repair your hull.
Exploration within a system involves searching for likely-looking planets and then entering orbit around them. Depending on the planet type, they may yield different types of resources -- gas giants tend to yield fuel-producing gases like hydrogen and helium which you must collect with a probe, for example, while planets with a solid surface can be landed upon and then mined for minerals such as iron and silicon. Likewise, landing on a "garden planet" with an atmosphere allows you to immediately refill your oxygen supplies.
It isn't just planets you'll encounter, though. Space stations provide a convenient means to repair your vessel and occasionally yield blueprints for new technology you can construct on your ship. Derelict spacecraft can be boarded and taken for your own, too; different ships have different cargo capacities, shapes and statistics, the latter of which affect how quickly they chew through your precious resource reserves. Sometimes it can be in your interest to pick up a smaller ship with inferior technology purely to use your cargo reserves in a more efficient manner; at other times, you'll need the increased cargo capacity to fit all the modules you want to build in your ship and still have room for storage.
Your ship's interior shares its space between constructed modules and blocks of cargo, you see; one "square" in your ship can either hold a single module of equipment or up to 20 units of a single type of cargo. And some of that equipment is essential to progress; you won't be able to hop between planets within a system without an interplanetary reactor, for example, and you won't be able to jump between systems without a "space folder." However, if the worst comes to the worst and you find yourself short on resources and at risk of annihilation, asyphyxiation or simply being stranded without any fuel, you can dismantle your modules and salvage a few raw materials in the process. It's a last resort, but the option's always there.
Encountering aliens unfolds as a comic book-style dialogue sequence in which the aliens babble something in an indecipherable language, and you're given the option to "approve" or "disapprove" of what they say. Consequences, naturally, follow, but regardless of what you pick, you'll learn one of their words for use in a subsequent encounter, which will be automatically translated from that point onwards. Eventually -- assuming you survive that long, anyway -- you'll be able to communicate with the aliens, understand what they're saying and hopefully get some help from them.
Out There is a beautifully presented game, aside from a few textual errors presumably the result of translation from the developers' native French; its pared-down gameplay, meanwhile, can sometimes feel like it's a little simplistic, but things are kept consistently interesting through random events that trigger as you travel around the galaxy. Much like the text-based random events in FTL, these can be either good or bad for you, and can often have a significant enough impact to force you into coming up with an alternative strategy. Or, at times, they can even back you into an unwinnable situation; the universe is an unforgiving place, after all, and setting out on your journey isn't a guarantee you'll survive it. This may be frustrating for some people, but anyone familiar with the basic "roguelike" formula -- a randomly generated environment in which you only have one chance to survive and must live with the consequences of your decisions -- will be ready for the inevitable failures along the way. All you can do is pick yourself up and try again.
The question on FTL fans' lips will undoubtedly be whether or not the lack of combat hurts the game, and I'd say "no" -- there's a stiff enough challenge here without having to contend with battles against powerful battleships. The game has obviously been designed from the outset as a non-violent experience rather than a quick and dirty FTL clone; as such, it unfolds with a rather different feel to it. Rather than the constant feeling of panic that FTL tends to engender in its players, Out There is an oddly pensive, relaxing experience, even when it's confronting you with seemingly certain death. This is helped along enormously by the '80s sci-fi style soundtrack from The Stanley Parable's composer Siddartha Barnhoom, but also through the visuals, which are simultaneously colorful and understated, often taking on an almost dream-like appearance that stirs the imagination.
$3.99 is a steal for such a grand adventure through the stars, particularly since there are no in-game adverts or microtransactions to distract you from the marvellous atmosphere. If you've been looking for something worthwhile to play on your iOS or Android device, Out There is well worth your time; pop on a good pair of headphones and get lost in space for an hour or two.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: A wonderful "pulp comic" style is perfectly in keeping with the game's theme. The only slight letdown is a few errors in the in-game text.
- Music and Sound: The Vangelis-style background music by Barnhoom is fantastic; other sound is minimal, but complements the action well.
- Interface: Well-designed and intuitive; it's clear this was designed from the outset as a touchscreen game.
- Lasting Appeal: How long you'll stick with it will depend on your patience for roguelikes; the challenge factor will keep you coming back for at least a few attempts, though, and its procedurally generated nature means every playthrough is at least a little different from the last.