Heading Out review: Roguelike Road Trip

A death race against your own fears can only go so well.


Heading Out is fascinating. I already played a demo of this racing roguelike around PAX East time, and my initial impressions mostly hold up. After all, that was only a few months ago. But now I’ve completed the game, or at least seen a complete set of runs through to a credits roll. At the end, a lot of Heading Out’s initial hook maintained its grip. But there were a few pot holes, not enough to turn me away but perhaps enough to hold me back from going the extra mile to see all the sights and side attractions.

The next great, American... video game?

The Vanishing Point-inspired car you start with in Heading Out
Source: Saber Interactive

The game’s core concept is cool as heck. Using cult classic film Vanishing Point as a diving board, Heading Out mixes anti-authority road movie vibes with classic American literature, European indie comics, roguelike gameplay structure, and a sort of Crazy Taxi-meets-Need for Speed racing gameplay. There’s some Grand Theft Auto sprinkled on top for flavor as well, which is more detrimental than supplemental. Luckily you can skip most of that stuff.

My beef there is how badly the tone clashes. In Vanishing Point, the radio host was a secondary protagonist, cheering the driver on through his rebellious cross-country road trip and serving as a sort of audience proxy, insofar as the story assumed the audience was on board for the ride. In Heading Out, the radio stuff is largely inspired by Grand Theft Auto’s radio skits, which are little chunks of satirical skit comedy that go all over the place from poking fun at political pundits to non-sequiturs just looking to make the player laugh at something silly.

Radio drama

The rest of the story feels more serious and concerned with building a continuity of events. So it’s jarring and frankly unproductive to have a white-knuckle race end with being forced to listen to a random lady ramble about her wacky dating life or a mysterious garbled voice lecture you about conspiracies. Occasionally the hosts will actually comment on what’s going on in the story with your character, but even then those moments come off as detached. More adherence to the goings-on would’ve nailed the landing a bit more, but as-is the radio gimmick takes up too much space for negative benefit.

Otherwise, the story-building tools are cool and interesting. Your character basically builds a legend for themselves on each run, and how you conduct yourself both in your responses to chance encounters on the road and your prowess on the road itself contribute to a final title. How does your driving style match up with your character’s ethical choices? And how does your skill and/or lack of true control factor in by the end? You can wind up with some wild stories and conclusions each time you roll out to outrun your fears.

While the stories you tell for yourself are neat, the overall story left me feeling a little cheated. There’s so much intensity involved in managing your resources on the map, making careful route-building decisions, and keeping tabs on your fears as they literally engulf the atlas in red ink. The twist at the end makes sense in a way that’s kind of a cliche, but more importantly feels deflating in the way it subverts the game up to that point. It does hit familiar territory in that classic, American lit kind of style. But I walked away disappointed, feeling like the lofty expectations I built while having a good time on the road didn't pan out when I reached the destination.


Normal driving gameplay in Heading Out
Source: Saber Interactive

In terms of the gameplay loop, that intensity was fascinating. I’ve mentioned earlier Heading Out is a roguelike, but it’s more like a driving game that wants to tell a specific kind of story and borrows roguelike affectations to do so. As difficult and stressful as navigating across the country could be, I also felt like the game was invested in helping me get to the end. As long as I could drive well enough, there were ways to push forward even in failure. And if that wasn’t enough, there are actual difficulty settings, meaning I could kick it down to sand down the edge and see the story through if needed.

Of course the alternative was an option as well, so there is certainly a level of challenge the skilled players can ramp up. But rather than something like Dead Cells in a car, Heading Out felt more like an experiment in emotional deception by way of game mechanics. I dug it. There’s some math that could use some tuning, such as how money feels like a binary switch constantly flicking between too much and too little or side offerings that proc and seem literally impossible to attempt (hey, take this path for a bonus that will obviously end your run in the process!), but those pain points don’t get in the way a ton. Especially since failing is harder than it seems after you get the hang of things.

Why is everything blue all of a sudden

A scenario event you can encounter in Heading Out
Source: Saber Interactive

My only other gripes involved a few issues which I couldn’t tell if they were technical issues or problems with communication. There was a list of known issues provided by the publisher ahead of the review for minor stuff I never noticed. But at one point the colors of the game’s whole UI changed, and I kept finding myself unable to get my car to move forward after a non-fatal crash.

The former, after an incredibly difficult couple of races due to the color shift, seemed to randomly right itself. The latter made me use revives in situations that didn’t seem to follow the game rules. Were these parts of the game I failed to understand, or weird bugs? It was hard to tell! Consider this paragraph a cry for help or bizarre hallucinations, depending on how things play out. I’m okay with either, as the color thing never happened a second time, and I got better at driving and stopped crashing as much anyway. Video games, am I right folks?

Heading Out is an intricate, compelling story that mixes modular storytelling and roguelike structure with deeply America-flavored media of the 1970s and on, particularly the “road” genre. I’m not a car guy but I do enjoy some crusty Americana, especially the kind that challenges authority and romanticizes the sheer scale and variety of this unhinged nation. Sometimes it may get a little too cute for its own good, but for the most part Heading Out captures its intended vibe with a shocking level of skill and accuracy, an academic level of cultural understanding through a lens of media and literature. That’s pretty darn cool. Between that and the intriguing, almost insincere roguelike structure, we have a game that doesn’t really feel like anything else in its own space.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
Heading Out
  • Immaculate, almost academia-level vibes
  • Fascinating take on roguelike gameplay conventions
  • Intense resource management and white-knuckle race sections
  • Modular storytelling with cool gameplay intersections
  • Disappointing ending
  • Radio skits harsh the vibe
  • Minor jank
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