Date: April 20, 2023
Games that essentially create entirely new genres are not too common nowadays. There are of course exceptions, such as the FromSoftware-inspired Soulslikes, or how Metroid and Castlevania’s influence spawned Metroidvanias. Such an occurrence is far less heard of amongst smaller, indie developers, and as a whole has become rarer over time. Most released games fall comfortably underneath an existing genre’s umbrella, or a combination of a few. Yet Vampire Survivors dropped in 2022 and defied these odds by quickly becoming an oft-cloned cult classic on Steam.
An action roguelike bullet hell game with a heavy focus on time-based survival, Vampire Survivors’ unique gameplay took the gaming community by storm. Following in its footsteps came other indie games hoping to capture the unique take on arcade-style shoot ’em ups, but many failed to capture its charm. Once in a while, however, a similar title will pleasantly surprise players much like Vampire Survivors did last year. One such game is Outer Terror, which releases today. I got the chance to delve deep into Salt & Pixel’s latest title, and have been left impressed.
Outer Terror has drawn on the features that made Vampire Survivors such a hit, while adding its own 80s-style flair. From the art to the narrative design, this game stood out to me immediately. It didn’t feel like it was trying to impersonate another game, but rather as though it was trying to develop its own niche within an emerging genre. I was instantly enveloped by the surreal hybrid of genres and visuals, caught in a strange throwback trance — a throwback to a time I never really knew, as I was born right as the 2000s began. Despite this, the nostalgia was striking, and it somehow made me yearn for games and movies I had never experienced myself.
As soon as I opened the game, I was struck by an intricate mix of old comic book dialogue boxes acting as menus, and background art that seemed to have been drawn then and there. Loading screens consisted of creepy, corpse-like faces, and the sound effects could be best described as “retro.” The music felt trippy for sure, and definitely one-of-a-kind. This was what arcade gaming would have been if it could have, or at least that’s what I thought.
I quickly looked through the menus and noticed a shop for upgrades (this is where you can buy changes to weapons and the like that act as permanent buffs for any character you cheese). I then picked the first map I saw and faced the character selection. There are ten characters total to choose from, and each one comes with a background story, map that they fit into, and starting weapon. The cast is diverse in both ability and appearance, without being too comically silly as some are in Vampire Survivors. Each person seems to harbor their own unique, gritty past, making for a more immersive gameplay experience (or at least as immersive as a shoot ’em up can get).
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t instantly obsessed with Kaja, a girl who grew up working in the circus and looks like the killer clown babe of everyone’s dreams. Her starting weapon is a set of throwing knives, and I absolutely loved upgrading these. Since the characters all also have their own “special” ability, I never felt too low-level at the start of a map. The special ability does have a cooldown, but it’s easy to balance with the normal weapon usage, and you get new abilities pretty quickly.
Weapons are all have unique advantages, with some being quicker, more long-ranged, or shooting more projectiles. The controls with weapons are also user-friendly, as the game gives you a choice. If you want to play the game as though it’s a twin-stick shooter, you can do just that with a simple press of your “shift” key. If you want to play Outer Terror as though it is more of a point-and-click shooter, just press the key again to switch back. As someone with garbage aim, these options were much appreciated.
Some of my favorite weapons included the mines, weapons which you would place gradually as you moved around. These mines explode as soon as an enemy makes contact with them. Once I fully upgraded those bad boys, I felt invincible! I also found the Aura of Pain to be unique. It reminded me of Vampire Survivors’ garlic ability, where you have a shield surround you and act as an offensive barrier. The Aura of Pain would do damage to enemies that came into contact with it, and would therefore protect me from taking damage. Once fully upgraded, its range was quite impressive and the damage output was good.
Every weapon can be upgraded, and you can pick up other items that share the abilities slots with weapons. For example, the Aura of Pain is more of a shield. You can also acquire passive abilities, like the defensive armor buff or one that increases experience gain. You can have eight abilities slotted in total, and each one comes with its own upgrades. I found myself often mentally debating whether or not I wanted to use my level to buy an entirely new skill, or level up an existing one. In a lot of games, I don’t really need to think about this. In Outer Terror, there were a lot of moments in which I would upgrade one of my weapons after knowing it was pretty powerful instead of grabbing a new one.
There is also the issue of health. You’ll take damage, sometimes a substantial amount. If you have one brain cell rattling around in your head like I do, then you will likely run into cars and explode with them. This HURTS. I often found myself desperate for health, but I could choose to spend my level on some health points instead of an ability or upgrade if I wanted to. While I tried to avoid doing so as much as possible, I definitely needed it more than once. Thankfully, you can also dash by just pressing your spacebar, or decide to choose the movement speed passive — it felt like there were always interesting choices I could make that fit my playstyle.
You can also find health around each level or map as you traverse the area. There will be dead bodies scattered throughout, and each one has a chance of giving a useful item. Some of these are bonuses, like extra experience points for a short while, whereas others give something like health points. I really appreciate the ability to find items around each map, especially as I was used to playing games like Vampire Survivors in which you can only find a certain amount of items and they are always in the same locations. Looting bodies should feel wrong, but Outer Terror makes it feel as necessary and satisfying as a trip to a water fountain when you’re dying of thirst.
The level design itself in Outer Terror is seriously unique, as each stage features its own story, and relates to pop culture media (both retro and contemporary) in its own way. For instance, some of the levels are obviously influenced by 80s horror or slasher films, while others directly allude to more modern content. There are snowy zombie maps reminiscent of old movies your parents would tell you to not watch, and maps appealing to younger audiences familiar with the internet’s creepypasta golden era.
Each level houses a variety of enemies fitting its respective map, from murderous microwaves to killer zombies. I loved the more unique enemy designs, and my only complaint would be wanting to know more about each one. Unrealistic, I know, but I can’t help being a lore-obsessed nerd. Seriously, I need to know more about the SCP map’s story! I would actually love to see full-length comics or graphic novels based on Outer Terror’s levels, in the same art style. The tidbits of dialogue and writing I did get to engage with made me hungry for more.
Aside from its grisly gore, Outer Terror is a genuinely funny experience. While playing, I noticed a variety of amusing references to real life or other media. This took the edge off of an otherwise stressful experience, in a way similar to how comedy is used in iconic horror films like Cabin the in the Woods. Humor is employed throughout, but the spooky core of the game or movie is still prevalent.
Something new that Outer Terror brings to the Vampire Survivor-like table is its co-op system. You can play through the levels with one of your friends, on the couch or online. I tested this out with my partner and found it to be good fun. Silly moments are better shared, and this game has plenty of death-by-bombs, epic boss endings, and laugh-out-loud moments. Plus, playing on the couch also adds to the retro vibe.
I would definitely recommend Outer Terror as a unique gameplay experience that sets itself apart from other shoot ’em up arcade-style titles — where else can you battle both sentient refrigerators and alien masterminds? You can enjoy the experience on your own, or bring a friend. The art is incredible, the music is intense, the enemies are quirky, the characters are gritty, and the maps are well-designed. It all adds up to one hell of a surreal experience, and you don’t realize how much time you’ve lost inside the game’s trance-inducing vintage vibes until you look at your clock.
Outer Terror is available to buy now on the Epic Games Store, Steam, or the VoxPop Store.