Video game developers are some of the most impressive people in the world. It takes substantial amounts of time, effort, and persistence to create a quality game, as many will relay. That’s why games (and fan games) such as Axiom Verge, Iconoclasts, and AM2R are all the more impressive for merely existing. Years upon years of commitment, the likes only true passion can provide, to create something from scratch for the world to enjoy, on the same vein as AAA products. It’s a pleasure, and perhaps an honor, to review games of this caliber—enter Outbuddies.
From the words of developer Julian Laufer, Outbuddies was a six-year project. Six years, while not as soul-crushing as a decade, is still a mind-blowing amount of time to dedicate to a single video game project, especially for one person. Imagine what could happen in a six-year stretch: new life, new loss, the expansion of experiences that shape the way one views the world. To clench residual motivation to create something like this is something I find awe-inspiring. And if nothing else, Laufer should be commended for his determination alone. But does the effort bear sweet, delicious fruit? The answer may come with a little patience.
There seems to be a trend in Metroidvanias where the story is left up to the player’s interpretation. While some detail is provided through an opening cutscene and (limited) dialogue with in-game NPCs, Outbuddies‘s story is generally pretty hidden. The synopsis provided on Steam speaks of a “adventurer and maritime archaeologist” named Nikolay Bernstein, yet the player doesn’t receive this information in-game. For all they know, “some dude” gets shipwrecked and wakes up “somewhere.” With a strange contraption by his side, Some Dude embarks on a journey to discover the obvious: where he is and how to escape. And as these stories tend to go, something sinister awaits him multiple times along the way.
When I prepared to review Outbuddies, story was not an aspect I expected to get much traction from. While it could definitely help, it’s something that I’ve come to find second nature to Metroidvania titles. As predicted, I feel the narrative aspects of this game are among its weakest qualities, with a lot of it spread between hours of gameplay and blissful exploration. One could argue it’s a “show, don’t tell” style of story, but from my point, there’s very little to tell. Some measure of mystery, ancient creatures, and a quest for freedom are all things well said and done in the genre. Not to say I think it suffers for it, just that one won’t be enthralled enough to venture forth.
One other detail that doesn’t help is Outbuddies‘s unique dialogue spread. Our hero does not speak, he emotes. Things like “o_O” and “^^” are among the many symbols one will see to signify emotional input from Nikolay and other NPCs. While interesting, it makes the whole thing feel a little too carefree considering the dark and gloomy atmosphere. That… and the multiple typos found throughout conversations. Perhaps it’s the English major in me, but nothing breaks immersion faster than an easy typo. For as little dialogue as there is, there’s a disturbing level of mistakes. It hurts the credibility of the overall polish of the game.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty, a confession: the first hour was a nightmare. I could picture the opening paragraph in my mind as I struggled to get acclimated to the controls: “This is a review of Outbuddies through the first hour of the game because it’s bad and I couldn’t force myself to continue further.” All the swirling negativity seeped into my intuition and patience, suddenly highlighting every negative quality imaginable. I was lost, frustrated, and couldn’t find the exit, much like the hero. But patience persisted, as is necessary for a game reviewer. After all, Mortal Manor, another game I initially hated, is still the highest-rated game I’ve reviewed for this site. It paid off, but not before some continually nagging issues.
Many of the details I didn’t care for very early on carried on throughout the rest of the game. Most notable is the controls, of which are, at best, semi-frequently reliable. Many, many times throughout my adventure, I’ve received damage (or died) due to the character not doing what I wanted them to do in a certain situation. When I wanted to jump once, it jumped twice. Wall climbing is almost never a sure thing, especially with some space between walls. Farther along, when one is equipped with a number of items, there are so many different button inputs that it’s easy to lose track of what does what. Outbuddies throws so much at the player almost at once, then builds on it continuously. It can be unrelenting, especially early on, which may very likely scare players away. For that, it’s better to recommend as a veteran expedition, as casual players likely won’t charge through as I did.
Perhaps more ominously, Outbuddies is in need of an internal review. One person and six years, impressive as it is, it also shows with the game’s performance and bug rate. After dying to a specific boss, the game loaded it with half its appendages on the other side of the screen. A few areas I’ve managed to squeak into with careful character placement (through walls). Slowdown tends to occur when too much is happening onscreen, and it runs very poorly with Bandicam (which I use to collect screenshots). These things, like the typos in the dialogue, aren’t terribly common, though prevalent enough to cause some concern. Almost like being in a dream-like state with subtle clues to your mental awareness.
Again, I persisted. I mashed buttons, shot enemies, and strafed around like an idiot until it all became second nature. Eventually, it happened, and my experience playing became much more appreciable. Again like Mortal Manor, Outbuddies‘s internal score shot well above its original position, only getting stronger as the adventure ran its course. While its flaws persist and make things harder than they need to be, there’s a spectacular charm under the surface (ha). Being able to wield all sorts of weapons and tools provides a healthy amount of options for exploration and combat. Each collected item feels unique without being restricted to a single use (except bombs), which provides better understanding of one’s arsenal. What was at one point a cluttered mess became an entourage of different ways to succeed. In a Metroidvania title, that variability is key to great fun, as Laufer understands.
If the trillion button inputs weren’t enough to scare off casual players, Outbuddies also has difficulty as a calling card. As someone who’s trudged through titles like Rosenkreuzstilette Freudenstachel, Deadfall Tropics, and Zero Ranger, this moniker didn’t scare me. For the most part, the most difficult thing about it is getting acclimated to everything in the beginning. That is, until the boss fights. Let me reiterate clearly: Outbuddies is not hard; its boss fights are hell. One will find sweet elation upon defeating any boss past the first two, because a couple in particular, shaped like a goat and another red and gargantuan, can demolish spirits. Oh, that red giant will haunt me for the rest of my career. As a positive, it makes boss fights something to fear and strategize for, in a way other parts of the game aren’t as strenuous in. As a negative, it’s frustrating enough to fear for the safety of controllers.
Like a beautiful plot graph trending upward, what makes Outbuddies shine is through its continual rise. Metroidvanias are most effective when they unequivocally provide a feeling of fragile beginnings to powerful finales. As noted before, my feelings in the first hour compared to after ten hours is almost akin to night and day. The way the details of the journey seep into the mind and suddenly re-invoke the established mechanics of yesteryear is a beautiful, almost mindless transition. To some extent, the best games absorb and nullify all outer emotional capacity, with a transcendent focus that begets Sublimity. When nothing else crosses the mind, that is true immersion. If nothing else, Laufer’s passion prize is worthy of such praise.
Graphics & Audio
Let’s settle back into some negative qualities for just a little while. The world Outbuddies presents looks both good and bad. What is either depends on the subject. Our hero looks pretty bad. Almost on the level of edutainment titles from the ’90s (appropriate era?), it presents a level of detail that pales compared to much of the rest of the environment. The same can be said of some of the starting enemies, with seemingly one coat of sprite work. Animation is much better than the surface-level visuals, which helps to carry some of the hesitation aside. Even so, my literal first reaction to seeing the main character in the trailer was a quiet “Mrmm.” Could certainly use a little touch-up.
Yet, the quality improves as the map is uncovered. Various enemy types are more interesting visually and provide context of their capabilities through their appearance. More than anything else, it’s the environments that thrive most notably. How wonderfully dark and foreboding each area is, with a score (to come) to match beautifully. For some time, I believed the entire map would consist of the dark blues and blacks of underground eerieness, but I was so wonderfully wrong. Such bright, vivid colors of red, purple, and pink create a fascinating array of areas distinguished by the strength of their hues. Like with the items collected, the variable differences in each area, as well as notable amounts of underwater exploration, makes for a trek that constantly keeps one prepared for anything. Enemy sprites aren’t always great, but the accessible areas are borderline breathtaking.
I highly doubt people will be clamoring for an Outbuddies OST to listen to on their own time. After all, the time of ambience associated with the tracks is far better suited in-game. Many tracks are quiet, allowing the player to visualize the area before them with the music establishing tone. Some tracks, which I found most effective, barely say anything. One comes into contact with many long, empty corridors with what can only be described as “the sound of emptiness.” Rooms before boss fights establish growing unease, which became more stressful knowing how brain-abolishing some bosses are. For its genre, the soundtrack does what it has to, and does it adequately enough to provide a boost to its immersive qualities. Outside of that, it’s somewhat unremarkable, but that’s okay.