The Outer Worlds Nintendo Switch Review
The worst version of a wonderful game
Obsidian’s action RPG The Outer Worlds first launched last year on the Xbox One, PC, and PS4. It was a generally-beloved thing that really wanted you to know that it was from some of the minds behind the original Fallout games and also Fallout: New Vegas. Although it looks like a Bethesda game on the surface, with its blend of mechanically heavy first-person combat and menu-driven dialogue sequences, its much tighter scope and scale also fondly reminds me of the original Mass Effect.
It was one of my favorite games of 2019, and I was pretty excited when the Nintendo Switch port was announced. It was developed by Virtuous, a large collection of satellite studios with extensive porting and development support experience. It sells for $60, which I happily paid on launch day and maybe should have reconsidered. Virtuous made the recent excellent BioShock collection ports on Switch, and when I saw how well those ran, my hopes were high for The Outer Worlds in spite of its bigger memory footprint and Unreal Engine 4-powered visuals.
Unfortunately, the Switch version of The Outer Worlds is severely compromised, and it’s equal parts impressive and profoundly disappointing. I understand that the game had to be dramatically altered to run on the Switch’s slower mobile processor and limited amount of RAM, but the scope of the downgrades to every technical aspect is immense.
The game originally occupied nearly 40 gigabytes of storage space on the enhanced consoles and PC, and a little over 17 gigabytes on the base model consoles. The Switch version clocks in at around 13 gigabytes. Every single visual asset in the game has been simplified, and it feels like the conversion was done with a heavy hammer rather than a careful hand. Polygon counts are lower for every model in the game. Texture resolutions are dropped significantly on all surfaces. Most of the shadows and shading effects are reduced in resolution or deleted entirely. The clouds are gone. Level of detail pop-in happens constantly, sometimes grinding the game to a complete stop and greying out the display so a loading circle can display before it fires back up again. In one instance, after this happened, about ten enemies suddenly sprang into view right in front of me.
Resolution and performance don’t fare too much better. The game tops out at 720p when docked in spite of earlier promises to try for 1080p. Handheld resolutions are much lower, and hover mostly in the realm of old standard definition displays. The game has a constantly soft and blurry look and frequently-noticeable ghosting artifacts from the anti-aliasing used. When not in combat, the framerate mostly sticks to thirty frames per second, but the second any action begins the game dives into the twenties, with some of the big sequences threatening to break into the teens. Some of the game’s most- exciting sequences are dynamic combat encounters with several enemies and allies fighting all at once, and although they’re technically playable, their constantly stuttering performance reminds me of the broken larger battles in Oblivion on the Xbox 360 back in 2006.
Sound quality is equally disappointing on a technical level. It’s not the worst-sounding Switch port I’ve ever played (that would be Victor Vran), but it’s only a little bit better. My biggest complaint? Justin E. Bell’s sweeping, epic, awesome musical score has been severely compressed and reduced down to mono audio. It’s sad and tinny now, and all of its careful mixing work and instrument placement are gone. The first things you see and hear in the game when you boot it up are its iconic logo and main musical theme, and the excitement is instantly diminished by how bland and terrible the music sounds.
Audio for the pre-rendered cutscenes is also a mono mess. Dialogue audio and weapon sounds fare a little bit better quality-wise and at least retain their stereo mixing, but it’s so bizarre to hear that laid over the top of music that sounds like it’s being piped in over a bad phone speaker circa 2010. The Assassin’s Creed ports and The Witcher 3 had somewhat reduced audio quality for storage and memory reasons, but at least retained their full stereo mixes. And Dragon Quest XI went from synthesized sound to full robust orchestrated live music in its Switch release.
That hints at another problem here: perspective. If no other PS4-to-Switch ports existed, this might be easy to swallow. It’s a big game made for more- powerful machines, and the entire thing is included here even if it’s a bit daft-looking. But other better Switch ports exist, sometimes running on this same engine. Dragon Quest XI runs on Unreal Engine 4, is massive in scope, and had its assets carefully reconstructed for the mobile platform. It has a higher graphical resolution, better performance, and better audio. The Witcher 3 was a landmark technical achievement, and even got a graphics improvement patch. The just-released Borderlands collection looks and runs so much better than this Outer Worlds port in spite of (and granted perhaps because of) its last-gen origins.
You might think it’s unfair to compare those ports of different games to this one…but they exist in the same marketplace and are all better uses of your gaming money than this blurry jumbled mess. I’m not denying that The Outer Worlds on Switch had some ambition behind it. Character animations and facial details are still expressive and realistic. Even though every character has blocky shoulders and clothes that clip through their bodies, it’s still fun to watch them talk. The game also actually manages to retain screen space reflections in both portable and docked modes, so I know that someone on the game’s porting team worked hard to retain some of its technical aesthetic. But I would have happily given up that costly effect to gain back a little resolution or texture definition. Or stereo music.
This port feels like its assets were fed to an automated software process that was in charge of hacking them away until they fit on the Switch, as opposed to the result of a caring team that wanted to hand-tweak a game for good performance and presentation.
In spite of all of that technical mess…I still spent thirty hours playing every inch of this port. It’s still a really fun game with plenty of character build options, interesting weapons, and branching dialogue choices. I love its design trick of having two distinct main quest lines. I love that its story crafts true camaraderie among your party members through piles of incidental dialogue. I love its attempt to have a proper complex faction reputation system even if that means there’s a high likelihood you’ll have to fight an entire town in the last third of the game.
The Outer Worlds is a phenomenal game that deftly recalls some of the best stuff that Obsidian, Bioware, and Bethesda have made in the past while doing just enough new things to have its own identity. All of that still comes through on the Switch in spite of the blurry visuals and garbage music quality. The game ends with a narrated montage of different still images, wrapping up loose ends based on your choices. In one final twist of irony, this montage uses the original image files from the much better-looking versions of the game, showing you a world that’s much sharper than the one you just spent thirty hours enjoying. That they didn’t take the time to re-create these images with the Switch visuals tells you how little concern was given to the quality and consistency of this conversion.
You should absolutely play The Outer Worlds if you’ve ever loved an action RPG. But you can probably only love the Switch version if you already love it somewhere else…and you’ll constantly see its many flaws and not its small glimmers of technical ambition.