The way that Outernauts has been described to me, almost without fail, is as “Pokémon in space”. I signed up after plentiful urging and decided to see whether putting magical creatures that live in tiny balls in a setting as unbelievable as space would make any difference to the core concept. Many thanks to James Giles for actually recording all the data while I rambled about the similarities.
At first glance, there are plenty. Your astronaut (Pokémon trainer) has recently joined the Outernauts (Professor Oak’s gaggle of illegitimate children) on a quest to capture beasts (Pokémon) using Gravity Orbs (Pokéballs) and stop the evil Sludge Co. (Team Rocket). But does this make it a bad game?
Outernauts certainly gives a knowing nod to Pokémon in many respects, such as calling their Ghost type ‘Phantom’ instead. The list of strengths and weaknesses between each of the types is also very similar, given the types – in our thus-far-limited playthough, James identified these relationships between the beast types:
That should look plenty familiar to anyone who grew up in the 90s. However, the similarities aren’t what’s surprising – we are, after all, talking about a monster-collecting game, which comes with certain expectations – but which inventions the Outernauts team didn’t choose to borrow from the beloved franchise.
To begin with, upon choosing your first beast from the list of starters (5, as opposed to Pokémon’s 3), you are allowed to rename it to whatever you desire. Mine is a cat called Ficaprujeolja, because I know a lot of cats and it’s the easiest way to pay homage to all of them. However, given that I wasn’t able to add ‘mrma’ to the end, to signify yet two more cats, the letter cap on the names is 16 characters. That’s fine. Pokémon has a letter cap, too.
But, from that naming onward, in Outernauts, at least, no one refers to your beasts by name, not even your avatar. When my unfortunately-named proxy is defeated in battle, she merely yells “Oh no! Pumaflar KO’d!” It’s like she forgot she even owns it. Given that my supreme delight when playing Pokémon is to give my monsters weird names and then forget I did it, I can sympathise with her lapse in memory, but it does also mean no instances of, “Oh no! Your Mum KO’d!”
To be fair, I can understand. You don’t want people giving their beasts offensive names. However, you can already see your friends’ beasts’ names when you visit. Allowing the characters to say the beasts’ unique names would even make the Sludge Co. goons have more personality, since at the moment the only NPC who names his beasts is Major Stache. Otherwise it just seems like everyone has a terrible memory.
Another idea they could have borrowed without further impinging on their creativity is the ability to choose which beast comes out next after one is KO’d. Say I’m fighting a fire – sorry, flame – type with my fire-cat, and he beats the ash out of it. My next beast is a grass – sorry, flora – type, but the one after that is a water – you know what, I’m just gonna go with it – type. Too bad! You must battle with your eminently flammable pet! Because SCIENCE!
And, along that line, players aren’t able to use healing items in battle, either. One of the worst feelings in Pokémon is when you’re battle a gym leader, you’re both down to your last Pokémon, and they use a Hyper Potion. Man, does that suck. But in Outernauts, if you want to revive one of your beasts in battle, it costs real money, which is my cynical answer as to why they don’t allow you to use healing potions in combat. It seems like an odd choice to make, since you have to pay for the healing items once you finish the battle anyway, or wait for your beasts to recharge by themselves.
There are also no Pokémon Centres, meaning no free healing. Like all social games, the real currency is time. But this becomes a problem when I’m unable to play the game for the aforementioned reason of being unable to choose the order of my beasts and getting KO’d. If I’m out of beasts, I can’t explore, and in many ways having an under-leveled party is worse than just sucking it up and closing my browser until my main three regenerate. And, since it costs fuel to travel to a place where my under-leveled beasts would be useful, it’s not a detour I’m willing to take. There are a lot of negatives involved with having more than three active beasts at any given time, and very few positives.
And, finally, if you want to have more than three beasts active at any time (I’ve been noticing the entire article that they’re not called pets, in an effort to make them cooler, I assume) you have to pay. Oh, and if you want them to have more than four abilities, you can pay for that, too. And for bonuses to make your home planet more useful.
So Outernauts falls into the trap of pay-to-win that so many social games get stuck in. That’s not a criticism by itself, but the lack of choice in battle, the inability to heal and the avoidance of free, time-saving healing are all symptoms of the greater goal – making money. I may be from a generation that’s fast growing old, but I miss the honesty of handing over my $70 and getting my game to treasure and play as I see fit. Having constraints dictated to me because I don’t want to pay real money for what, historically, has been free – i.e. features that make the game playable – just makes me not want to play the game at all.
Leanne C. Taylor-Giles is a freelance Games Writer with 9 published titles. She has worked with companies such as Pandemic and THQ, and currently consults from her hometown of Brisbane, Australia.