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Echoes Of The Eye is sensational DLC for Outer Wilds - don’t let anyone spoil it for you

GOTY 2019 is now GOTY 2021

Echoes Of The Eye, the new expansion for Outer Wilds, is out... now! And I’d like to congratulate Mobius Digital and Annapurna on just how little promoting their promotional campaign did. The reveal trailer did anything but, showing us the familiar solar system of Outer Wilds, only with the beginning of an eclipse followed by shots of murky caves and forests. And take a look at the official screenshots used in this article: obscured to the point of ugliness. Here’s a team so determined to keep their secrets they’d rather present the game in an unflattering light. It was worth it.

These had to be the screenshots used as just about everything else you point the camera at in Echoes of the Eye is a something. And really something. When I stepped into the location hosting the expansion I let out a tiny "oh my", and felt the instant need to show it to someone else. But people who give in to that impulse are not your friend. In a game that has already given us planets crumbling into a black hole core and binary moons sucking the surface from one another, the new addition is somehow even more out there: I stared at it for a good few minutes before realising it wasn’t just some skybox designed to suggest scale, but a fully explorabl- no, I shouldn’t.

Before we tiptoe further into the DLC, let’s address the initial surprise that DLC exists at all. Outer Wilds is a clockwork confection: a solar system trapped in a 20 minute time loop that both dooms its astronaut protagonist and lends them the immortality needed to excavate its secrets. A breadcrumb trail, left by an ancient civilization, leads you between multiple planets, exploiting the changing state of celestial bodies in those 20 minutes to further your investigation. There is not a wasted inch in the whole place and with that, no room to crowbar in more stuff, as DLC often does. You can’t just insert a new planet into the solar system and expect it to play nice.

Only… you can. Sort of. Where I had expected Echoes Of The Eye to lean into the main game’s Quantum Moon oddness to justify a trip to parts unknown, the actual solution is far more elegant. You wake, as usual, at the fire back at home, and are pointed to a new exhibition at the observatory: the hand holding ends there. In the brief period it took my brain to reacclimatise to Outer Wilds’ specific adventuring vibe I panicked I might not be able to find the expansion - but the clues are there and the hands-off approach allows that new area to emerge in a suitably theatrical way. But it’s wisely self-contained enough to coexist with the main game.

So to the location itself: it’s a substantial structure to explore, built around a mode of transport that, like everything in Outer Wilds, has a boisterous physicality that makes it as much a toy as a puzzle solution. In this regard it has a lot in common with Sea Of Thieves, another game built around accessible but flexible instruments that rely on an innate understanding leftover from childhood make believe. This isn’t the terrifying space travel of Gravity or Interstellar, but more like an episode where Mr Benn goes to the moon. The DLC is Outer Wilds at its most wide-eyed and adventurous.

"This isn’t the terrifying space travel of Gravity or Interstellar, but more like Mr Benn goes to the moon. The DLC is Outer Wilds at its most wide-eyed and adventurous."

While it’s tucked away from the solar system, the new world is still beholden to the same time loop and, like the other planets, there’s a significant state change that dramatically impacts what can be done and when. I’m sorry to be so coy, but this really is the most spectacular part of the package, a recreation of a disaster that I’ve seen in other games, but only ever in highly scripted set pieces. Okay, this is scripted in that it always triggers at moment X, but the event itself is wild and unleashed and simulated in a way that you really get to live it. Honestly, it’s a hell of a way to die.

And so you slip into the rhythm of Outer Wilds proper. You use your 20 minutes to poke and probe and outrun the chaos that prevents later poking and probing, all the while filling your ship’s computer with leads for future detective work. What’s neat about the new setting is how it feels like the solar system in miniature, rather than just a single planet. There’s a handful of key sites to explore in the structure, with their own mysteries and story, but also a complex relationship between them that captures the more galaxy-scale cleverness of the main quest.

If there’s a theme to it - in the way that Dark Bramble is about creeping dread, or Brittle Hollow is a race against collapse - it’s one of shifting perspective. Light and dark fuels some stonking new puzzles - squeezing even more functions out of your flashlight and scope launcher - and takes a key role in a society that documents its history in slide projections. I loved the sense of character that bubbled through the Nomai’s living graffiti in the rest of Outer Wilds, and this just as effectively conveys another civilization with drama and trauma to slowly unpick.

But the sense of shifting perspective runs deep in Echoes of the Eye’s bones. The expansion proves a lot more substantial than you first expect, peeling like an onion to reveal new layers to your surroundings, in turn revealing hidden layers to those. The way much of this is hidden in plain sight, to be revealed with knowledge rather than tools, taps into something specific to videogames. It’s the nerdy satisfaction of learning the rules governing Bubble Bobble item spawning, or the rush from hearing about Spelunky’s latest hidden cranny, only designed for you to discover it and feel like Neo finally looking through the Matrix. It’s phenomenally well done.

Only one concept really jars, and that’s the inclusion of spooky stealth sections. There are a couple of moments where you powerlessly shuffle through the dark to sneak by an insta-fail foe like a less intense Soma, but still intense enough to offer a ‘scare filter’ in the options to soften the difficulty (having played it with the option on and off I couldn’t discern an obvious difference). There’s always been a strand of horror to Outer Wilds - the angler fish say hi (also: raaaaargh) - but both there and here I find it muddies the waters: in a game about feeling your way to the solution, experimenting with ideas and theories, the inclusion of any element where you only get one shot at success feels too punishing.

For too long I found myself asking "Am I trying the wrong thing, or am I just bad at this stealth?" I can save you a lot of hassle by saying that if you are finding the stealth difficult, there is a solution, but it took me several stalled hours - and a rather cringing email asking for help - to get that into my thick skull. Fundamentally, the beauty of Mobius Digital’s hands-off design is also its greatest risk: people are free to get the wrong end of the stick for hours on end. I just prefer not to be beaten with said stick by a scary owl monster while I’m figuring that out.

To be fair, we’re talking about a very short portion of Echoes Of The Eye that came to dominate my late game experience. Up until that point, and once I got beyond it, I was in a happy place, agog every few minutes at a new sight, marvelling the holistic genius of a new clockwork world and genuinely intrigued by the maniacs that could have built such a place - both the in-game architects and their real world designers.

The concept of DLC is so tainted by crude content dumps and tired ideas given one last squeeze that I must admit I struggled to imagine what this smart, careful team could be trying to achieve in this space. Turns out they’re making more smart, careful game, in space. Sounds obvious when you think about it, perhaps the only time you can say that about Echoes Of The Eye: a game of rare imagination, and simply too good to spoil.

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