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Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye (XS)

By Lee Mehr 05th Nov 2022 | 3,129 views 

Echoes of the Eye’s surprising deviations wind up enhancing both the main game and its own identity.

Reviewer's Note: It's tougher for me to address the praises & complaints I have without also navigating through more SPOILERS in general.  Given how Echoes of the Eye tacitly expects you to make significant progress through the main game, a deeper discussion feels warranted.  Reader discretion advised.

Despite being a newfound Outer Wilds fan, I can imagine the initial response to Mobius Digital's expansion: many would show reflexive interest for more content to an already stellar game, while others would question its necessity.  Considering all of the intricate systems in the base game, the places to explore, and the succinct story already told, is adding more necessarily the right approach?  More so than getting additional hours of engaging content, Echoes of the Eye excels by re-contextualizing Outer Wilds' themes through its disparate design ethos.  Not every new idea is created equal, but it's nevertheless a surprising expansion that carefully intertwines with the original.

Rather than being a segmented standalone expansion (a la The Last of Us: Left Behind), Echoes is subtly incorporated within this galaxy and the means of discovering it are found on Timber Hearth.  After learning more about Outer Wilds Ventures' newest satellite and its accidental discovery of a strange anomaly, you're impelled to investigate on your own.  Right under everyone's nose lay a cloaked orbital station, tucked away from every other planet.  You settle into its mysterious dock, spot glowing-green words your translator can't decipher, enter through an airlock into a strange wooden cabin, hit a switch, and suddenly begin white-water rafting around a gargantuan ring world.  Welcome to The Stranger.

The main throughline of this expansion, both thematically and mechanically, is like the other side of Outer Wilds' coin.  If you've completed the canonical ending, you've experienced that sublime sense of cosmic insignificance; and yet, those unsettling implications were layered with warmth and an appreciation for existing.  But what if you didn't feel any comfort from that, only sheer terror?  Rather than the fervor of seeking out parts unknown and living a life of genuine pursuit, you retreat back to that which can't be reacquired: the past.

This is the story of Outer Wilds' newest alien race.  They're different from The Nomai, both in anatomy and character.  As you circumnavigate The Stranger's inner ring, you'll happen upon some quaint theaters that house ornate, metallic projection slide-rings elucidating their history.  What they'd deemed the more... "dangerous" reels have either been torched or hidden in discreet locations, making you work to learn more about this enigmatic people.  In keeping with the core game's penchant storytelling, the world-building feeds back into understanding its tougher puzzles.

As the pieces come together, you'll eventually happen upon where these inhabitants were hiding and what they did to avoid reality.  Their self-sustaining dreamscape, perhaps best known as "The Other World," can be thought of as a fusion between Ready Player One and Inception.  Those projections of the race's previous era have become their perceived reality.  The ways in which you uncover more about this second world, their origin story, and so on, the more you appreciate how this structure compliments the main game. 

When thinking about its environmental storytelling and how often your actions thematically connect with its broader message, I can see many fans ranking this among the best expansions ever made.  The only thing tamping my enthusiasm are a couple of design detours.  Gone are the contiguous planetoids where you can explore every square acre, in their place is a more linear means of traversing; even gaining access is limited to a few points of entry.  This perfectly marries with the story being told, but I lost some enthusiasm to return after several consistent resets.  It's hard to replace the genuine joy of open-ended freedom in your space module.

Firmly aware of this, Echoes is eager to showcase new concepts.  The duality of light and dark is consistently played up in its design: the directional inputs on every raft are powered by light, unlocking doors requires your flashlight, a special lantern is necessary to get anywhere in The Other World, but it's also a means of drawing unwanted attention from its unwelcoming guards.  Each of those, plus a few other fun nuggets, show just how thoroughly Mobius wanted The Stranger to have its own identity from anywhere else.

The issue is less of creativity and more execution though.  Given the keen eye of these guards, you'll have to conceal that lantern to successfully sneak past them.  It's initially a decent game of cat-and-mouse; trying to sparingly use the lantern to avoid detection while maneuvering in darkness has some fun moments.  That initial luster is diminished when you pick up some of the patrol gimmicks: sometimes successfully catching you despite being completely hidden, annoying moments of blocking the only path forward while getting hung up by the geometry, and no proper detection gauge.  The atmosphere is extremely palpable, but those pseudo-stealth segments left me wanting.

I'd be remiss to not discuss The Stranger's world design too.  The ring's interior is basically Pacific Northwestern river land with walnut wood buildings.  From any one place you can practically view the entire landscape - each tree, building, and stream.  If you're not too distracted from looking up, you'll also have chances to see the sun through its giant glass window.  Just like each neighboring planet, there's also a sequenced event that alters the ring's topography; moreover, how it's incorporated with The Other World led to a couple of excellent moments. 

Married with its new locales and a heavier horror vibe, Echoes' audio is incredibly detailed and inspired.  It's the subtleties of The Other World's sound design, like when The Strangers raise the alarm or its moody atmosphere, that sell its artificial world.  Andrew Prahlow returns as composer and – arguably – outshines his previous work.  While still incorporating mellow instruments and electronic synth when appropriate, he also plays around with crude distortions and other ideas that map on to each scenario incredibly well.

Despite being one location, credit where it's due for being the most dense.  Naturally, as with the main game, your speed in completing will come back to acquired knowledge.  Although you can't necessarily "beat" Echoes in one playthrough like Wilds, you'll still lose something valuable by sprinting through it.  If relying on self-discovery (as much as possible), you're likely to get nine hours out of The Stranger – which seems perfectly fine for $15.  When looking at its qualitative value, you're also being treated to a great expansion with several of Outer Wilds' best moments to date.

Echoes of the Eye’s best success comes from subverting expectations.  That's been a trite saying for years, but it's incredibly rare to see an expansion diverge so much from the base game's tone and design while still fitting so well.  By contrasting the original's inherent optimism with the dangers of retreating back to convenience and deliberate ignorance, it sharpens the message of both extremes.  While those themes feel perfectly meshed, its rare mechanical pitfalls slightly dampen the overall experience.  Still, what surprises me most about Mobius' latest effort isn’t just that the developer made a great expansion; it was somehow able to make a necessary one. 

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye for the XS

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