The best piece of advice we can impart when it comes to Outlast is this; take your time and enjoy the experience. Avoid spoilers, let’s plays, walkthroughs and, to some extent, reviews. You see, when a new IP manages to achieve its goal and provides a unique, rewarding gameplay experience, inevitably the title’s success will encourage the developers to begin the early design phase of a sequel, one which addresses the criticisms of the original and further develops the aspects that were most acclaimed. There’s also a good chance the second outing will lose some of the magic that made the original such an enjoyable experience. Outlast, not unlike the original Dead Space, provides a genuinely unnerving gaming experience, exploiting the mechanics employed by modern horror movies such as [Rec], Paranormal Activity and The Decent, and (partially, at least) abandoning action-oriented set-pieces in favour of extended periods of tension which keep the player in a state of heightened suspense. For now the IP is an example of expertly-realised video game horror, despite its misguided attempts to remind us it is a video game.
Developers Red Barrels are no strangers to the industry, having worked on Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, Uncharted and Splinter Cell, amongst others. It came as some surprise, therefore, that the setting for Outlast proved to be so thoroughly clichéd. The game takes place at Mount Massive asylum, an abandoned institute in Colorado that, for reasons unknown, was decommissioned in 1971, under controversial circumstances. It’s an overused setting, but one which, thanks to an appreciation of its hackneyed status, proves to be fresh, interesting and foreboding. Players assume the role of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who, having received information from an inside source revealing the true intentions of Murkoff Psychiatric Systems (the company which reopened the asylum), decides the best plan is to infiltrate the institute (alone, at night and during a thunderstorm) to record video evidence. Suffice to say, the asylum isn’t abandoned and the remaining inmates owe a debt to Clive Barker and his peers. If you’re willing to embrace the clichés, it delivers one of the most memorable horror video game experiences to date.
In keeping with the opening paragraph, the rest of this review will endeavour to be spoiler free, as the less you know about the story the better. What we will do is attempt to explain exactly why you become so invested in the experience, and why the bleak narrative becomes so personal in its execution. Outlast is played from a first-person perspective, yet from the opening chapter Red Barrels personalises the protagonist. Looking down reveals the character’s body, arms and legs – a well-implemented addition that is used almost immediately to gain entry into the main location. Building on the generic first-person mechanics, here we can climb to higher platforms, strafe across narrow edges (in a manor not unlike Mirror’s Edge), open and close doors as quickly or slowly (quietly) as you chose, all the while witnessing the character’s body movements onscreen. Thanks to early game events, you soon come to care for your wellbeing, and experience phantom pain when your character is injured – a fine achievement when it comes to survival horror.
These additional touches have been seen in survival horror games in the past (Amnesia: The Dark Decent being a prime example), but Red Barrels justify their inclusion time and again throughout the campaign, combining situations and enemies with events and actions perfectly suited to using them. Like the aforementioned Amnesia, here we find ourselves unable to fight back, and each encounter becomes a tense game of cat-and-mouse. The player can opt to use stealth when entering a darkened room or chose to effectively kick the door in and flee regardless of the consequences. While running down the game’s many corridors you can decide whether or not to look back over your shoulder in an attempt to gauge the distance between yourself and whichever mentally-tortured baseball bat-wielding madman is chasing you. Also like Amnesia, you are encouraged to find a safe hiding spot, ranging from lockers, behind furniture and under beds, in the hope that your choice of refuge will be the one place the inmate neglects to search. Impressive as it is, add to this the game’s flawless sound design (panicked breathing, creaking floorboards, subtle music score) and the immersive effect is complete.
Now the video game part. Being an investigative journalist intent on capturing video evidence, you are equipped with a digital camcorder. It’s through this device and its slightly altered viewpoint that the majority of the game will be experienced. Notes will be added to your journal only if captured on video camera (and for once are nicely written and add to the ambience). For the most part Mount Massive asylum’s rooms and corridors are pitch black, and it’s here you have to use the camera’s inbuilt night vision. Once enabled the game plays out as if it were one of the better examples of the many found footage horrors available, and revealing enemies in the dark remains one of the game’s most fraught experiences. This functionality requires batteries, which must be scavenged as the game progresses – in this instance the technique works well, but some of the other familiar video game trappings don’t. You’ll often find yourself faced with locked doors that require a key to open. Locating said keys involves a blind trek, followed by backtracking. While these mundane activities serve to pad out the experience, come the second or third time you’re informed you need “a key” or “three fuses” to progress it becomes tiresome. Applying horror film clichés to a video game is fine when it’s done with an understanding of what makes them work, but applying video game clichés does nothing more than detract from the experience and break the illusion of immersion it’s worked so hard to create. It’s a shame Red Barrels chose to rely on such overused video game objectives, as they add nothing to the experience.
Overall, Outlast is an resounding success. Despite walking familiar ground, the experience is nothing short of an exercise in tension. While somewhat brief (around four to five hours to complete), the campaign has been judged superbly, with enough innovation, dark humour, horrific content and intriguing narrative to keep it fresh and involving. The developers are fans of the genre, taking their time to craft a believably nightmarish scenario. While there are instances of over-familiarity, thankfully they’re few enough not to detract greatly from the overall result. Despite the claustrophobic nature of the game, there are frequent hints of a wider universe and, come the closing credits, you’ll want to explore it (albeit with a shotgun and health pack) in the inevitable sequel. For now, though, Outlast should be celebrated for what it is; immersive, impressive, intelligent and packed with jump scares. You won’t need night vision to see that.