The Outbound Ghost Review
A couple of years ago, I serendipitously ran into Bug Fables, a love letter to the Paper Mario series that exceeded all of my expectations. When I first saw footage of a similar indie project The Outbound Ghost earlier this year, I found myself hoping that I could witness lightning in a bottle again. Bug Fables ended up being an absolutely excellent game, one that I find myself recommending whenever I get the chance. I figured that if Outbound Ghost was even half as good as Bug Fables, I couldn't afford to skip it before the end of the year.
Unfortunately, I instead found Outbound Ghost to be a dull, confusing, and ultimately boring experience that is difficult to recommend to even the most diehard Paper Mario or Bug Fables fan.
In The Outbound Ghost, you play as an amnesiac spirit arriving in the town of Outbound, a small settlement that recently saw most of its inhabitants perish due to a poisoned water supply. If that wasn't bad enough, a mysterious serial killer seems to have finished the job, leaving only a handful of remaining ghosts wondering exactly why this fate was thrust upon them. The ghostly inhabitants of Outbound find themselves burdened to live out their afterlives as incorporeal spirits until they solve their respective burdens that leave them bound to the living world. As an outsider to Outbound, the player is tasked to determine what exactly happened to the town of Outbound and... it's actually not very clear what else.
You see, The Outbound Ghost has one of the most incongruent narratives I've experienced in quite some time. Soon after arriving in Outbound, the player runs into a smattering of various characters such as Michael and Mary, ghosts who still habit where they used to live as humans. Once they learn that the player character has amnesia, they suggest taking you to meet Adrian, another nearby ghost that also has amnesia. They figured maybe that this small commonality could help figure out exactly who you are and why you might have come to Outbound in the first place.
I've never seen a game as narratively meandering as The Outbound Ghost. Soon after first meeting Adrian, he begins to run away and leaves the player on a sort of goose chase to try to catch up to the enigmatic ghost. Adrian starts fleeing as soon as you initially meet him, leading to a linear chase where you have to progress through fields of apparitions and obstacles in the hopes of catching up to him. Throughout the entire runtime, The Outbound Ghost barely proceeds past this premise, despite a significant amount of dialogue and inane chatter from start to finish.
Not only does The Outbound Ghost fail to introduce any sort of interesting story premise, but it also convolutes things further as this excuse for a story arc progresses throughout the game. Soon after encountering Mary and Michael and beginning to chase after Adrian, the perspective of the player shifts entirely. Upon progressing into the game's second chapter, the player actually takes over control of Mary once she is separated from the player character. Inexplicably at this point, the former player-character, who had previously been a silent protagonist, ends up speaking without any explanation, and even regains his memories. However, the goose chase of Adrian, the game's other amnesiac, continues.
As a cohesive story, The Outbound Ghost is frustratingly hard to parse. Inconsistent pacing, monotonous dialogue, and unclear motivations made attempting to follow exactly what was happening onscreen and why an absolute chore to attempt to make sense of. The player perspective continues to shift from chapter to chapter, dialogue fails to move the premise forward in any way, and by the end of the game, very little is explained or resolved. To make matters worse, the final main chapter of the game forces the player to relive the prior events from yet another perspective in reverse chronological order, resulting in an abrupt credits sequence after about 15 hours of playtime. It is exactly as inane and confusing as it sounds. I haven't witnessed a game's story that makes as little sense as The Outbound Ghost in at least a decade.
This might have been forgivable if The Outbound Ghost presented an interesting RPG experience outside of its incomprehensible narrative. I've played plenty of games in this genre where a lacking or disappointing story is at least carried by inventive combat or meaningful exploration. Sadly, this isn't close to being the case here either. Outside of its story, the only other meaningful gameplay experience to be found of any kind is rudimentary turn-based combat and nothing else. There is minimal resource management, no questing, no dungeons, no exploration, nor even any sort of interesting minigames. Instead, the player is shunted from location to location, fighting wave after wave of enemy encounter as the game progresses in a near-entirely linear manner.
Combat itself utilizes a collection of characters called Figments, representations of emotions such as Comradery or Fear. Each Figment is given a set of abilities that determine the role that they play in combat. Like most of the characters in the game, each Figment has a unique appearance and the art is generally quite good, but they do not interact with anything else in the game outside of combat -- they are essentially like Pokemon, only far less charming. Often, Figments are provided to the player at arbitrary points in the story, or are unlocked after fighting optional boss fights, usually represented by a gravestone.
There is a meager crafting and gearing system for boosting Figment called Aspects. Each Figment can equip up to three Aspects that typically provide passive buffs to their stats or allow a Figment to use an ability that it typically wouldn't have access to. On paper, this system seems fine, but many Aspects seemed to have very niche use cases or tradeoffs that make them feel underpowered or only marginally useful. It doesn't help that essentially all abilities in combat use a basic timing meter where a button press is aligned with a sliding marker. It works well enough when starting out, but the amount of combat required combined with the lack of variety begins to make the experience wear thin after only a couple of hours.
It doesn't help that the field areas in Outbound Ghost are typically quite large relative to the movement speed of the player. I often found myself openly frustrated at how long it simply took to get anywhere. Luckily or unluckily, there is often no reason to revisit locations or really much of anything off of the primary path at all. Instead, the game simply moves the player from location to location, places a handful of enemy encounters in the way, and then repeats this basic format with a smattering of cutscenes throughout the entire runtime.
To Outbound Ghost's credit, the artwork is relatively charming and the environments are colorful and varied. Even the UI is clean and fits well with the presentation of the rest of the game. Compared to its contemporaries, Outbound may be the most visually appealing, which makes it all the more disappointing that the experience itself is so hollow. However, even this is accompanied by strange and frequent intermissions to a small shack, ostensibly belonging to the murder suspect, where the art completely changes to a more rudimentary style comprised of bland and basic 3D models. While this may have likely been a deliberate design decision, the end result is more perplexing than anything else.
I really wanted to like The Outbound Ghost. Usually, even with disappointing games, I find one feature or facet to rally behind even if the whole package is ultimately underwhelming. However, in this case I struggle to find a single thing to highlight. The Outbound Ghost is a pale imitation that I don't recommend playing.