We’re seeing somewhat of a horror renaissance, with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Daylight, Dying Light, The Evil Within, Until Dawn… and Outlast. The debut title by Red Barrels – a new studio made up of plenty of developers with intimidating resumes – Outlast sets itself apart as a terrifying experience that is sure to strike fear into the most composed hearts.
Outlast sees investigative journalist Miles Upshur exploring a sinister former insane asylum during the middle of the night, after a tipoff suggested that there were mysterious and illegal experiments being run in said building. Naturally, hilarity ensues.
The story is functional. Nothing is too surprising narratively. The first two thirds would be the most compelling, when the story is mostly in the background. Outlast’s terror comes from the absolute reality of the foe, which becomes diluted when less realistic elements begin to be introduced. The final, obligatory twist is not Outlast’s strongest asset, either.
The best writing is in Upshur’s personal notes. In certain places, witnessing specific, horrific events through the lens of your camera, Upshur will jot down his personal thoughts on the matter at hand. The decline from lucid observations to increasingly mad ramblings is telling, reflecting his torturous journey into the depths of the asylum.
While the story is mostly forgettable, Outlast is, mechanically, a horror game, and it is very good at it.
I’m generally a pretty composed guy. I play a lot of horror games. It takes a lot to rattle me. But Outlast made me do something I haven’t done since Resident Evil’s dog corridor – it made me jump in fright.
The best trick in Outlast’s horror box is how bodily everything is. Red Barrels does plenty to put the character into the game world, starting with the player actually having a body. You can look down and see your feet. Your body casts a shadow on the damaged walls. “Crouching” is actually crawling, and you can see your hands scrabble across the floor as you scurry to a hiding place. Getting close to the walls or a door frame will reach a hand out to rest against the structure. Walking through a pool of blood will squelch, then leave bloody footprints in your wake. I love it when first person characters have bodies, and Outlast does this triumphantly. It really adds to the horror experience, helping you emphasise with Upshur in his tumble through the crazy.
Outlast shines brightest in the shadows, though. Taking a page out of the oldest horror book, Outlast takes place at night. The rationale for Upshur entering the creepy abandoned locked insane asylum that may not be abandoned and may be containing horrendous experiments? It’s easier to sneak in at night. That premise may be wafer thin, but dear bejeebus does the conceit work. Being night, and being an abandoned building with high maintenance overheads, many rooms and corridors are sporadically pooled with black. And it’s real can’t-see-your-hands-in-front-of-your-face darkness, too, not that wimpy stuff you usually get in games. It’s easy to get lost in, or get claustrophobic in, or become nothing in, and it absolutely delivers on the horror.
Upshur has a trick up his sleeve, however – his video camera. You will experience most of Outlast through the green tint of your camera’s night vision lens. Bring up the camera and switch on the night vision and a small green pool of vision will appear, at the cost of battery power. It’s very [REC], and that’s very good. It gives you an edge in the black, allowing you to navigate, and, perhaps, turn it against your enemies. Darkness hides the creatures, but it can also offer you slight, sweet refuge from their reaching hands. Sometimes. Being able to see in the dark, even if briefly and in a limited way, enhances the tension while allowing for occasional respite. It’s a simple mechanic, but it pays off in spades.
And you’ll need every advantage you can get over these enemies. Outlast chooses to forgo the ubiquitous zombies that are saturating our screens at the moment in favour of a far scarier prospect – enemies that are (at least nominally) human. With humanity comes intelligence, and real menace. The deranged pursuers are rare, but unrelenting. Enemies behave unpredictably, as befitting their insanity. Not all NPCs you encounter are combative, but the distinction between friend and foe is never clear. I tended to avoid everyone I didn’t have to, just in case.
Once an enemy has spotted you, they’ll come barrelling down the corridors until you are well and truly dead. There is no fighting back – your only recourse is to hide in the shadows and hope they’re dark enough. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren’t. Environments will occasionally leave you with hiding spaces – inside a locker, or under a bed, for example. It’s absolutely harrowing. Hearing the cry from behind you as you are spotted, the sprint through the dark and into rooms and to the tenuous safety of a hiding spot is terrifying. More so is the search that follows. Watching from under a bed as your pursuer rifles around under the only other mattress in the room, praying that he won’t turn around and check your bed, knowing you’re a sliver away from being discovered and killed is exhilarating. You spend much of the enemy encounters with your heart in your throat, praying desperately that the man in the doorway will look away long enough for you to breathe OH GOD HE TURNED AROUND NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE.
While this search pattern is almost entirely scripted and repeated so often, it very rarely feels contrived. There is almost always a sense of impending doom, of danger narrowly avoided. It does eventually wear a little thin, but that is the nature of linear survival horror.
In fact, the horror only lets up its claustrophobic tension during the few outside segments. While inside, the severe limit on your night vision view distance is effective – outside, it is a frustrating limit on navigation. It creates claustrophobia in an outside space, but the tradeoff in the lack of navigability is a pointless annoyance.
Add to that the nature of the “puzzles”, which crop up every now and again. The typical gist of these puzzle scenarios is that there is a hub area with various branches, and at each branch there is an item to pick up or dial to turn or some menial task to activate. To add tension, a big baddie is plonked in the middle, inconveniently stalking the only thoroughfares.
Outlast looks disgustingly flawless. From the environments splattered with ichor and filth, to the scarified and disfigured creatures in the dark, Outlast positively screams class. The old asylum is appropriately dishevelled, with rust and cracked walls forming the foundation of disuse and decay. On top of that is a layer of blood and guts and human excrement, remnants of the infighting and other horrific acts committed in the dark. And the dark is so tactile. It’s like a heavy fog enveloping all within, and it’s terrifying. Upshur’s night vision adds a filter of grain and grit that textures the dark. Enemies’ eyes shine in the green glow of the night vision light, glinting menacingly. If there is one complaint it would be that occasionally, some of the environments look a little too similar, although that’s less of a graphical problem and more of a gameplay length one.
Likewise, the sound design is impeccable. Environmental sounds, such as screams in the distance, strange creaks, groans, shrieks, stormy cracks of thunder are menacing and entirely appropriate. Night vision has a constant electronic hum and whine to it that just feels right, accentuating the tension of hiding. Miles is perhaps the star, though, in a completely understated way. When being chased and hiding, he’ll let loose frightened, whispered, painfully ragged whimpers. Heavy, broken breathing alone conveys all the fear and tension he must be feeling, adding immeasurably to your experience.
At five hours, it is perhaps a little too long. The environment is not quite varied enough, the puzzles aren’t quite interesting enough to repeat over and over. The horror never gets old, but the game and its mechanics do. Add to that the linear nature of the gameplay, puzzles, and scares, and Outlast reveals itself to be a one playthrough gem. That first playthrough is more than worth the price of admission, but subsequent journeys into the world of Outlast reveal some of the strings that keep everything in motion.
Outlast is terrifying. It’s horrifying. It’s scary. It’s an ordeal. Even the repetitive and mundane tasks of turning valves and finding keys does not dilute the moments of pure terror that come from fleeing blindly away. It’s certainly strings-attached horror, but who cares? It works. Outlast doesn’t stray far from horror archetypes, but it doesn’t have to. Outlast is terrifying.
(Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied on behalf of Red Barrels. Thanks)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 6/10
Gameplay/Design – 8.5/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 9.5/10
Lasting Appeal – 7/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, PS4 Q1 2014
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Ratings: not rated