When Outbound Ghost was launched on Kickstarter, it created quite a bit of excitement. Described by the developer as a "Paper Mario meets Undertale" type of experience, its general style and cute aesthetic, as well as its intriguing premise, turned quite a few heads. Its funding goal was quickly reached, with backers and fans eagerly anticipating the eventual release. Flash forward a while and the game comes out, on PC first and then on Nintendo's little hybrid console (as well as PS) in December, but does so to a bit of controversy. The original Dev team, Condradical, publicly apologized to players about the state of the game, saying it was not the version they wanted released, that it was pushed through without their approval, and even went as far as to suggest people purchase the Steam version instead. Further accusations of a difficult relationship with the publisher ensued which ultimately caused an upcoming lawsuit between Condradical and the publisher Digerati to appear. Now while I knew about this happening, I still decided to take a look at the Switch version but made a conscious effort to judge the game on its own merits. Which of course means any likes or dislikes, criticism, or praise, are all my own and have nothing to do with statements/opinions made by any developers or publishers. So with that being said, let's get into my review for Outbound Ghost!
Now I mentioned an intriguing premise earlier, which is probably a good place to start, so we'll knock that part out first. We play as a young ghost that has just entered the afterlife. It has no memories of being alive and knows nothing about how it got where it is now or what it should do. After a brief period of exploration, this friendly little spirit finds itself in the literal ghost town of Outbound, a village where every occupant has also found themselves recently deceased. They too do not know how they all found themselves in the spirit realm but by visiting each resident (and maybe doing some tasks for them) the truth of what happened can be revealed. Help deal with any lingering burdens, or unfinished business, and the residents can even be encouraged to pass on and perhaps doing this will uncover your reason for being stuck in limbo too. Or at least this is how things start. You'll control a few different protagonists as you go, changing viewpoints and motivations as you move through chapters, but ultimately you're dealing with one overreaching question… What happened to the town of Outbound? And how did its inhabitants all die? This setting could be a little dark, macabre and depressing even as it's dealing with all that death, but that's not the case here. The whole adventure has a cute aesthetic, with cardboard cut-out style characters that are full of character, paired with dialogue that's quite funny and charming. Basically, its tone is very similar to the title whose spirit it's channeling, Paper Mario, and this influence runs through the whole experience. Like its gameplay for instance.
The basic moment-to-moment loop will be very familiar to those who've played the series, most notably in how combat works. As you wander and explore the various areas of the world, you'll come across many different enemy types on patrol. If they see you, they'll show an exclamation point above their heads and come racing toward you. You can hide in bushes or long grass though if you want to sneak past, useful for some high-level enemies, you'll miss out on experience points if you choose to skip combat meaning stealth isn't as useful as it could be. What advantage it does provide though is waiting till enemies aren't looking, and then dashing forward and initiating combat without being seen. This starts you off with an advantage in combat and, while not always possible (or even really needed), makes sneaking something worth doing. No matter who starts the battle though, it'll play out in more or less the same way. It's turn-based combat time! Instead of party members though, Outbound Ghost has you control different figments of your character's psyche. Anger, Solitude, Spite, Comradery, Fear, and many many more are unlocked as you go through the story (although there are hidden secret ones too) and each has a separate focus, design, and abilities. Some are heavy hitters, some are healers, and some buff or debuff so you're given great freedom on how to build your party of four. No matter the skill or ability though, its usefulness is reliant on a reflex-based "mini-game" type system. A bar will appear on the screen, marked with different colors, and an indicator will travel along it that must be stopped in the correct section. Doing it well will enhance a power making it more effective, doing it okay will get you nothing, while doing it badly will cause a miss. However, the "Perfect" section to enhance an ability or attack will disappear VERY quickly, you have one pass of the indicator to catch it, so getting a perfect (especially on new skills) can take some practice. How the indicator moves will differ greatly depending on the skill too though. A normal hit will have it travel along the whole bar at a regular speed and is easy to predict, but other skills can be very erratic. They might travel quickly one way, stop, start, reverse or do a combination of them all. As I said it makes getting a perfect very difficult, especially on a new skill where you have a quick second or two before the "Perfect" section disappears completely, and the bar has an erratic pattern of movement. It made me feel that changing figments (of which there were a ton) was a huge gamble as it meant learning a whole new set of patterns for a power I might not find useful.
On top of this system, there's also an "Aether Up" move which changes things up a little. To keep it simple how it works is that it allows you to take no action and save your move for later in the fight. Aether up a couple of times and you can then take many turns at once, unleashing a load of attacks or skills one after another. Why is that useful? Well because of the stun bar. Each enemy has a bar under its health that fills with each hit but recovers on each turn. By using Aether Up you can attack enough to fill the stun bar, stopping the enemy for a turn and having it receive double damage while affected. Many more powerful creatures, or bosses, can only be dealt with using this technique, and carefully using it is the way to victory. And after victory, it's back to the overworld where you explore for crafting materials, look for new figments and just generally explore. And gameplay wise that's about it. It works and is quite fun, it's presented well and has a very cute aesthetic… But it has problems. I mean there is a lot of freedom to the combat once you get a decent ways into things. There's a huge selection of skills to use and pick between, tons of figments to utilize, and a million buffs and debuffs to experiment with. Which was kinda the problem. The combat is actually, at least on normal difficulty, pretty easy and you quickly find a setup that works in every situation. So why change? You end up using a character with new skills to work out AND have to get the timing for their "Perfect" hit down. It's simpler to just keep with the tried and true.
Outside of the combat things aren't much better either. There are resources to find that require some exploration, as well as bonfire save points and books that teach crafting abilities, but I never felt particularly gripped by the world. There also isn't that much to do outside of walking around and fighting. Sure, a simple lock-picking mini-game is included but it's so ridiculously easy and unchallenging that it might as well not even be there. Oh and occasionally you might need to light a torch to open a path but never do these things feel rewarding or inventive. Exploration was a chore with rewards being simple low-level crafting components. The most rewarding thing to find was the occasionally nicely presented vista or set piece. Which is an area where the game shines. The character designs are cutesy as hell, really nicely done, and nicely animated to boot. However, they don't quite live up to their potential on the Switch port. There's this fuzzy look to things (which really stands out compared to PC footage I'm told) that shows up even worse when undocked or playing on a Lite. Skill text becomes almost unreadable in battle especially in this situation, making reading through all the skill descriptions almost impossible. But the most annoying thing I found? Load times… Holy ghost the load times… So bloody long! Every screen transition, every time you move from area to area, or everytime you enter a battle (which in some areas can be a lot) can take a good 10-15 seconds of black screen loading before things start up again. The music cuts out too so the first time this happened I literally thought the game crashed and was just about considering a reset when it suddenly loaded in. The thing is though, I'd have been happy enough to deal with these things for a good story but even here it didn't live up to the promise of the premise. I started meeting all these characters, and while they are used to push the narrative along, there were so many (most of whom didn't matter) and they didn't stick around long enough for me to grow attached. Continual flashbacks, character changes, and perspective shifts also made what could have been compelling into something that never drew me in.
Ultimately, Outbound Ghost tried to be the next Paper Mario but had to give up the ghost halfway. Cutesy characters and a very interesting premise lead to a story that ends up all over the place. A combat system that has a ton of choices ends up feeling very repetitive as the mini-game used is always the same type and, although you can experiment, there's no real reason to change things up. The overworld isn't fun to explore either, with little to do but get in fights and pick up skill-crafting materials. Its real troubles are in optimization, however. Horrible load times, fuzzy resolution, and unreadable text abound and create an annoying situation whenever they appear. And they appear a lot. Cute characters, great music, and a ton of team-building options for battle are the good things but shallow exploration and unchallenging combat, as well as the ever-present optimization troubles, make this a slog to get through.
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5/10
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