Bruce Wayne might have been considering a bullet-proof kevlar batsuit when he gave his memorable excuse that he just wanted to borrow it to go spelunking, but I think if he’d seen the heavy-duty, steam-powered diving suit that you get in Outbuddies DX he might have actually used it for its intended purpose, rather than fighting crime in Gotham. I’ve never gone cave-diving, but I think after Outbuddies I may never need to.
A 2D Metroidvania adventure, Outbuddies casts you in the steamboots of marine archaeologist Nikolai Bernstein, who regains consciousness 20,000 leagues under the sea, after a shipwreck. Good job he was wearing said diving suit, else he’d be a pressure-cooked flatbread at this point. Instead he discovers a sunken cave system and lost civilisation called Bahlam, the city of the Old Gods. What’s also fun is that he is connected to a small drone, his survival ‘buddy’, who can scan and map the area, as well as keep him alive.
Outbuddies is a game of exploration, so fair warning, do not expect a game heavy on narrative, or any real answers as to why you are in this city, what the Old Gods did, or who they were. Is the drone part of your ship, or part of the lost civilisation? To be honest, everything remains about as opaque coming out, as going in. The game itself doesn’t even tell you your name, I got that off Steam. Instead it’s a journey of discovery and a satisfying jaunt through a very competent aping of the retro Super Metroid style.
A Metroidvania, especially one with little real story, lives and dies on the strength of its world and the tools and abilities you can utilize to explore it.
Outbuddies has a pretty large and relatively open map of interconnected biomes and cave systems. Some are dark foreboding areas with a good haunting soundtrack to go with them. Others are brighter affairs, with reds and purples to change it up. But when all is said and done, I’m sure you can tell from that video trailer, the majority of locales within the game are very similar. Each one is a cave system built of rocks and bubble walls, but one area is slightly red, another is predominantly blue etc. If I hadn’t been told, I don’t think I’d have registered there were five biomes as I was playing.
It’s also set 36000 feet under the sea, so a lot of the world that you’re exploring is flooded. Thankfully Outbuddies has a great swimming mechanic that plays a lot like those fantastic 2D swimming levels in Crash Bandicoot Warped, even down to having a large helmet/gun that enables you to shoot while swimming. You can lock your direction by holding a shoulder button, so that you can shoot forward while swimming backwards. It’s neat and its crucial for killing the man-eating schools of piranha fish as they come at you.
The first hour or so is a tutorial; it’s pretty clear where to go and what to do, and you get your basic weapons. But about an hour in you’ll stumble upon the Wozan, a tribe of jawa-monkey looking aliens, and their hub village. From here you need to get a number of teleporters working, each one adding further fast tracking to your playthrough. The Wozan are trapped down here and have been for centuries, and once you start opening up different areas, Outbuddies becomes a pseudo Abe’s Oddysee in that you need to find and find 80, yes 80, of these Wozan and free them. They are few and far between and the map is huge and will often unhelpfully show there’s a Wozan to save in a particular room whether you’ve already saved them for not, making going back or finding the last few exceptionally trying. I hope there is a patch or update relatively soon that can make it either one or the other. Either show what I have yet to find with a marker, or show only what I have found.
Controls can be downright infuriating, especially in the menu system. The menu relies on simple directional buttons, left, right and up, to navigate from the map to two loadout screens, one for weapons, and one for suit mods, and up to the co-op opt-in screen. However, I continuously found this unintuitive and was forever trying to move the map, and ending up flicking to another screen. Just a shoulder button instead would have solved this.
The map is also dauntingly large, yet shown on the tiniest screen view. The map is cool but also strangely configured. Areas you’ve yet to visit are shown by placeholder boxes, giving you very basic hints on direction. It shows the colours of the door locks. But it also claims to show you where items were and power ups you collected. At the same time there’s a key symbol for a cleared area, but they appear at the door so you can’t tell if they correspond to the area to the left or right. In short, most icons could mean that an item is still there or that you’ve already got it. It’s very confusing. And the legend for the map? One word explanations, no guidance.
To begin you only have very basic movements, walking, running, shooting in four d-pad directions, and a steam-powered roll. Everything is steam-powered, from your suit, to your roll, to the boots that give you double jump. There is no steam collection or finding mechanic, it refills after every use, it just means you can’t string more than two moves together. Quirky little tutorial animation plaques pop up on the walls throughout the first hour or so illustrating moves and techniques, but they are in most cases far more opaque than just having a ghost do it, which in some cases does happen.
You can collect a series of suit upgrades and ammunition types. There’s a basic laser gun, charged version, rocket upgrade, and bubble gun. Your suit can make bombs to open up hidden areas, roll you into a magnetic ball Metroid-style, and even a hover pack later on. Steam boots enable a double jump a few hours in, followed quickly by the bubble freeze gun that makes platforms out of enemies for a moment before they can move again.
In true Metroidvania fashion, the next hour or so after finding these items is a literal gauntlet of vertical platforming, throwing everything at you to hone your abilities with those two new moves. And I say vertical, it can be a single screen for a long way up, meaning no checkpoints, and you can easily fall all the way to the bottom. Also, get trigger happy and you might kill an enemy that you need to use as a platform.
Every new ability allows you access to hitherto inaccessible areas, but you will find unlike some modern Metroidvanias, there’s little in the way of fast travel beyond the few warps in the Wozan tribal village. You will need to work your way back, but mostly the game leads you to the areas and directions it wants you to go.
Outbuddies looks a little like Celeste with its large pixel art and 2D platforming, but where Celeste was fast and precise, demanding lightning fast reflexes and movement, Outbuddies DX is plodding in comparison. The better comparisons are Axiom Verge and the original Super Metroid games before 3D ruined things. Saying that, 2016’s Axiom Verge had more freedom to gunplay, such as diagonal shooting and auto-aim, and a lot more interesting weaponry like the bug bot and digger. Artistically, Axiom is the stronger game, in that its world is prettier and bosses have more memorable designs.
Those games have the same feel, the same slower pace, although again Samus is faster than this. Here you need to take things more methodically, scan the area with your bot, work out which enemies you might actually need to rely on to reach the next area.
The enemies that you come across are pretty basic, from the mushroom-like crawlers that demand almost nothing from the player to overcome, to the strange bipedal aliens that can rush you and spit bouncing bombs. I never thought any enemy design was interesting much less inspired. With the relatively plodding movement controls, the platforming could sometimes be tough, but only really in a tiresome manner. You have only four hits of health throughout the game and I never managed to pick up a health upgrade.
In Ori for example, the movement is a graceful ballet, and I know this is not meant to be a modern take, its meant to be a Super Metroid right down to the time period controls, but in Outbuddies, movement is exceptionally slow and plodding. When I failed a platforming section I found little impetus to keep me going back through at the same slow pace. What was the reward for getting through the section? More of the same blue rocks, bubbles and plodding controls.
Platforming might be hard but funnily enough the bosses weren’t. Most took a couple of tries, just to get the hang of their pattern. You’re a very slow-moving guy in your steam-powered suit, so there’s little ability to dodge much more than a quick steam pulse left or right. The steam roll makes you invincible for the duration of the roll, which can be useful sometimes. Later bosses find you quite powerful, so you can roll about nonstop avoiding projectiles. There’s also a swimming boss or two, and they are very tricky to dodge because the swim movement is again slow, but that doesn’t mean a good spam with the rockets you’ve saved up won’t usually win the day.
You are joined on your adventure by your little drone buddy, but I have left it until last because it doesn’t really do much. You can take control of it and scan the walls looking for secrets and hidden Wozan, but it’s a mechanic that slows an already slow game right down. It can also use a tractor beam to move blocks and solve a few of the blocks-on-top-of-buttons puzzles, but the tractor beam control based on holding a button to pull the object towards you. This was counter-intuitive to the rest of the game, and again slows the pace to a crawl.
The co-op option allows a friend to play as the drone, but as noted they mainly scan walls and move blocks for you. You’d need a very particular type of back-seat gamer friend, to have A, bought the game, and B, actually want to just be your wingbot. It’s not an equal partnership, which can really ruin co-op for two players who actually want to play.
I went into the game pleased that it would feature a soundtrack by OGRE, a synthwave artist I have liked the work of in the past, and there are a couple of great haunting themes here. However, because Outbuddies is challenging and you will repeat areas a lot, the music can start to grate. There is only one theme for each of the biomes, and they will get old fast. So its good music as an album, but not actually in the game world.
Outbuddies does everything that Super Metroid and Axiom Verge do, but just without a compelling story or much in the way of reward for your exploration. There’s not much originality to be discovered in the depths of these caves. However there are many in the gaming world who will be very happy to play another Metroidvania, and will look on the pixel-art graphics and progression/exploration model with fond memories of yesteryear. For that I cannot judge it too harshly. It does what it set out to do, just with little in the way of flair. I would have preferred a few more modern gaming conventions, such as more freedom to the shooting and faster, more responsive movement.
With a vast interconnected cave system to explore, and all the genre trappings and pitfalls, Outbuddies has the elements most will be looking for in a new digital spelunking fix, just without the flair to find its way back to the surface.
Outbuddies DX is available now on Steam and Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: Julian Laufer
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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