It’s surprising to think that Joy Way used to be location-based entertainment (LBE) specialist PlatformaVR, transitioning into a full-time virtual reality (VR) studio a couple of years ago. During that time the team has released a selection of Steam Early Access titles with the latest to arrive being Outlier. This joins the ever-growing roguelite genre VR developers are loving at the moment, continually fighting and dying, trying to inch closer to the finish line whilst incrementally improving your stats.
Outlier very much has this at the core of its DNA with a basic narrative to give it some structure. You’re the captain of a spaceship looking to find humanity a new home, along the way getting sucked into a black hole that imbues you with powers whilst offering a potential planet. However, that planet is being attacked by hostiles that need clearing out first, so with new said abilities you get to unleash a little mayhem.
As an Early Access release Outlier doesn’t offer many bells and whistles, to begin with. All the VR basics are present, smooth locomotion only, you can grab ledges to climb and guns can be housed over each shoulder (nothing on the hip). There’s no manual reloading, simply pop the gun near your hip to reload making for a quick arcade-style experience. Early on there seemed to be some inconsistency when it came to dropping the gun. Rather than popping it over my shoulder, simply letting it go generally left it there although on the odd occasion it seemed to auto-return. Ahh, the vagaries of an early access videogame.
Planetside, Outlier looks great, fighting through what look like ancient ruins and temples, giant monoliths stretching skywards with plenty of undulation in the level design; keeping most of the enemy encounters in small areas. Joy Way has also used a trick where the environment is entirely contained within canyons (so far at least), presumably because levels are procedurally generated. In any case, it doesn’t feel confined, with plenty of room to manoeuvre.
And you’ll need to, the first opponents encountered are fast and deadly accurate with their throwing axes. It takes a moment to actually keep up and track their movements as they flit from side-to-side, unusually tricky for introductory foes. They’re actually a bit too erratic in all honesty and there were times where it felt easier to just run up and gun butt them, only to find I couldn’t! I’m also not a fan of the ragdoll effects when they die, definitely seems out of place in this style of VR experience.
Physical violence may have been off the cards but thankfully Outlier doesn’t just provide guns, you can unleash some telekinetic rock throwing. Thus you’ve got the option to dual wield two guns when you’ve found them, a gun and helpful rock or just go full-on Jean Grey and start hurling boulders around the place. Alas, you can’t just rip them out of the ground, only certain rocks and pots can be lobbed but even so, it makes Outlier physical, interactive and fun.
Now, as mentioned this is a roguelite which means gaining loads of useful stuff, death, losing all your stuff and then upgrading core abilities to go back at it. Outlier achieves this in a number of ways, the first being the in level buffs. Every so often you’ll come across a glowing pedestal with 2 or 3 items, usually 3 buffs or 1 buff and a gun. Buffs can range from improving your grab distance and walking speed to upping the number of times you can dash in succession or adding perks like Death from Above where you gain a 10% damage improvement when airborne.
These are all your temporary boons, the permanent ones come from killing enemies to gain some sort of magical energy. This is the good stuff, only usable onboard your spaceship once you’ve died. At the moment the ship doesn’t look as good as the rest of Outlier, very bland in its aesthetic and user interface. There’s also the less than inspiring voiceover for the story narration and gameplay tutorial. It’s not the only thing that needs some more polish whilst inside early access, enemy wall glitching and game crashes were two of the more prominent issues.
Outlier also seems to have been influenced (partially) by Joy Way’s biggest VR title Stride. The jump/dash mechanic takes a little getting used to, as it’s a physical flick. You have to hold the A button down then flick the controller in a direction, releasing the button at the same time. It is a gameplay fundamental learning to quickly dash sideways, backwards, or jump across chasms.
All of this combines to make Outlier an intriguing prospect. It could possibly become Joy Way’s biggest and baddest VR game to date, with some wicked looking enemy design – especially the boss – and variety when combining gems to upgrade yourself. However, this is the studios’ fourth early access videogame on Steam, begging the question as to whether they’ll all stay in this EA limbo or actually come to fruition. There are some excellent roguelite videogames available for VR headsets and Outlier could well join this group, eventually.