Heading Out review

Heading Out review

This new narrative roadtripping roguelike doesn’t quite get to its intended destination.

I think Heading Out‘s concept is actually pretty cool. A narrative-based, roguelike driving game, it sounds great on paper but there’s just not enough to cohesively bring it together. The paper is just a map. A big map. With checkpoints and races, but still a map.

The game is set in the near future US. There’s a civil war happening. Companies are pulling gasoline out from tanks and just keeping it, truck drivers can’t drive their loads, camps full of immigrants — really political civil war stuff. We have to drive to make our pay, taking on missions and quests around the US, trying to become the top driver in a heavy situation. And that is cool, a great backdrop for a game like this, with a lot of possible depth and intrigue. But Heading Out starts to get in its own way really quickly.

The game kicks off by asking us about our feelings and regrets in certain situations, with the idea that it’ll shape how we interact with others in this world and how it’ll interact with us. Between visual novel-like segments we’re tasked with moving around on a map and driving our car on the game’s roads. The whole map of the US is at our disposal, and we have to balance taking on quests, making money, getting gas and staying awake, with a dual narrative unraveling about us running away from our fears and whatever is going on in the United States. It stay relatively vague as to what that is, but today’s tensions seem to seep into some of the story we come across.

That should all be cool, but the unraveling might be in how each of these ideas are actually executed. While we’re driving we’re listening to people on the radio who are talking, doing Reddit memes basically, which is bad enough in real life that it doesn’t do any justice here either. We’ll hear about riots, about clashes with authority. And then sometimes we’ll hear stories about cookies, pets, relationships, things that don’t add to the experience. All of those interrupt a critical aspect of the game, where we have to track our routes to avoid chaos, or dive into heavy resource management, and it feels like, “why is this here?”

For a game that’s all about driving, it doesn’t handle that part well either. The driving segments take place in between major outposts, on backroads and in towns, and are almost always either a chase or an escape. It doesn’t feel tight, and it doesn’t feel like an arcade experience, either. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough control of the car, and it even comes off a bit “wobbly” when we try to make tighter turns or more precises adjustments. In fact there doesn’t seem to be anything that makes the driving special except for the aesthetic, really, because it’s just about driving as fast as possible. Just get away from the cops, which seems like we can do pretty easily, and there’s no real challenge there.

The driving it basically timed to a song. Depending on how long the song is, that’s what we have to race for. It would be fine if the music was tolerable, which it really isn’t. It feels like Dad Rock, stomp clapping music. I don’t think that really works in 2024.

The roguelike aspect also feels a little shoehorned in here, too. It could have just been a resource management, driving visual novel game, but the runs that are pushed into the game feel like they don’t need to be there. Roguelikes need to have that repeat run built in at the core of the experience, not as a sort of reset ability. Let me just enjoy the plot, and let my failures become a part of that plot.

Heading Out has a lot of ideas tied together, but they’re all so loose that they don’t usually gel. In the end it just feels like, “hey, Zach, you got a car, you’re going to push the gas pedal, just go.” But I don’t really enjoy where I’m going.

This review was based on a Steam code sent to SideQuesting by the publisher. It first appeared on The SideQuest LIVE on May 14, 2024. Images and video courtesy Saber Interactive and Serious Sim.