Horror is the realization of one’s own fears, for some people. For others, it is a complex concoction of other-worldly, bloody, disdainful, vicious and outright brazen displays of violence. For still others, it may be something as simple as a door shutting on its own, or voices erupting from nowhere (which itself has roots in ghosts, demons and by extension, the devil being real).
But there is always a fear of the unknown, even the slight anxiety of travelling to a new place that affects everyone in all walks of life. Magnify this journey into the ever-incomprehensible unknown to include the depths of an insane asylum, which is actually just the beginning, and you’ll have Outlast, a first person horror game from indie developer Red Barrels where you can run or hide but for which escape from the unknown holds unsurprisingly little possibility.
In Outlast, you play as journalist Miles Upshur, who receives a tip about a rather unscrupulous asylum, Mount Massive that is apparently conducting experiments in secret via a multi-national corporation. As Miles arrives at the front gates, it becomes obvious that nothing is what it seems. Abandoned military trucks dot the entrance. Blood is seen splattered all throughout the hallways. As you traverse deeper into the asylum, you’ll come to face to face with various monstrosities and in-mates. What is going on exactly? Hints throughout in the form of research papers indicate that something came back with the patients, and as disturbing as the imagery can get, nothing carries as strong an intonation of evil as the Walrider.
While Amnesia: The Dark Descent linearly paced the discovery of its mysterious setting and encounters with its monster, increasing the tempo as you went further into the game, Outlast goes balls to the wall fairly early and only ever lets up for small intervals. Not that you’ll find much reason to relax – even the most slightly deviant individuals in Outlast have the ability to make your skin crawl. Even if this is a video game and you don’t die instantly, it instills a fear unlike any felt before that your next unlucky trifle could be your last.
Outlast mixes in several mechanics from games past, including the aforementioned Amnesia, and even Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth which pioneered the idea of closing doors and locking them to evade foes. You’ll be hiding as well, throwing off erstwhile pursuers, sometimes in obvious places and other times behind what looks safe for the moment.
The tension is palpable but dulled somewhat when you have a running start and reach a hiding place well before your pursuer does. He’ll check the locker next to you and even snoop around a bit but you’ll be safe (but not all the time). Of course, considering the number of occasions where you need to run and never stop, shutting doors behind you and just narrowly finding a place to hide before you’re beaten to death, you’ll never forget the fear of being caught and pummelled to death.
The video camera is what differentiates the Outlast from other first person horror romps. The camera can be used to glean different observations when you record specific events, which Miles will note down. It even helps to keep track of the story thus far. But as you’ll encounter plenty of dark areas in Outlast, the camera’s night vision is what gives you an edge. You can see most threats coming from a ways off, aided by the zoom function.
There are genuine moments that will depend on your successfully hitting the night vision on and off in order to escape from a band of raving in-mates. You’ll need to refill the camera with batteries in order to use it though, which leads to some genuinely heart-pounding moments when you’ll be stuck in pitch-black surroundings, each second lasts forever, as you wait to see what’s ahead of you.
It’s to the credit of Red Barrels that it finds a way to continuously keep the action frenetic. Whether you’re wading through sewers, avoiding a big mean monstrosity named Chris Walker, or playing cat and mouse with a scissor-wielding doctor in order to find an elevator key, or feverishly pushing objects in front of doors to slow your attackers down, or shimmying across ledges and fighting off in-mates in the process, Outlast is forever finding new ways to mess with you.
Even the small discoveries – a particularly disturbing one which will make your skin crawl as you enter Block B or a ghostly presence becoming stronger and stronger as the game progresses – are enough to set you on edge. The only criticism is that for all the intensity it brings forth, Outlast does tend to go to the well too many times with objectives such as “find two valves” and whatnot but it doesn’t dull the fear one bit.
The aesthetic of the game brings its dingy, crumbling, blood-adorned surroundings to life. The subtle, film-grainish haze gives everything an ethereal feel, dispensed only in stark white light, itself sticking out among the dank corridors. Macabre is one way to describe it; disturbing is another. But all throughout, there’s an almost twisted beauty to it all that has you staring at in-mates bashing their heads in for longer than you should. Of course, all the little touches such Miles’ hand touching the wall as he peeks around a corner, or his shifting vision and reactions to violence, also help drive the point home that you’re inhabiting a character and not just spectating.
What would a horror game be without the sound? Outlast is made all the more frightening with the chains rattling and scraping footsteps that accompany carnage, not to mention the sound of your heart beat and quick breathing as scary stuff goes down. But the music is also deftly executed.
Pick up a new document and a sudden swell will erupt, and you’ll unconsciously expect something to attack you. The music and sound effects are truly amazing – they become more pronounced and diabolic as the action ramps up, with slow and sudden swells occurring in isolated exploration broken up by thumping orchestrals during attacks. It’s a frightening rush.
It could be argued that some of the set-ups are a tad contrived, and there is only one right way to do everything, thus lessening the replay value. Honestly, once you’ve seen all the scares that are to be seen, it won’t take long to just rush through the game and see how quickly you can complete it.
It could be argued that some functions such as the camera’s zoom are useless more often than not. Also, for all the insanity inherent, the ending feels more like an ellipses rather than an exclamation point. If it signals more such games in the series, then we won’t complain. Nonetheless, it does feel a little disheartening, given all the effort made to survive – poetic, yes, but still disheartening.
Outlast is one of those games you don’t see coming: Something truly phenomenal that immediately grips you, without any concern for the state of your heart. The atmosphere, visual style, gameplay, sound, story and presentation all combine together for an emotionally exhausting experience that could give any big budget title a run for its money. It’s a game you can pop in and enjoy in ten minute bursts – and depending on your endurance, even ten minutes will feel too long – or an experience you can dive into, swallowed whole, with no possible escape.
Outlast may not be the longest or most feature-rich game out there, but it provides a hereto unknown experience in the realm of horror games: A thrilling, psychologically-amped rollercoaster ride of wretched images and disturbing frights that you can run from, hide from, and maybe even escape from but never truly forget.
This game was reviewed on the PC.