Genre Survival Horror / Platforms Steam, PS4 (Q1 2014)
Developer Red Barrels / Publisher Red Barrels
Platform Played On PC
I will give you one tip: get your heart checked before playing this game. Seriously, go get yourself checked out, because this game has your heart racing and jumping for most of its length. Besides Amnesia: A Dark Descent, survival-horror titles of recent years haven’t lived up to their potential – *cough*Dead Space 3*cough* so I was relieved to see how good Red Barrels did with this game. Also, I urge you not to compare this game to Amnesia, because both games offer completely different horror experiences.
Outlast thrusts you into the shoes of either the most bad-ass journalist, or the most ignorant one: Miles Upshur. Acting on a tip from an inside source, Miles breaks into the “abandoned” Mount Massive Asylum, in the remote mountains of Colorado. While asylums seem to be one of the most heavily used settings for anything horror related, Red Barrels Studio has used it to great effect.
Miles enters the asylum with only one item to shoot – a camera. There are no weapons, and no way to defend yourself but your legs to run, and places to hide. The only forms of life you will see are the crazed inmates, and the not so alive human remains scattered everywhere. This game is gruesome and bloody, but you don’t take any part in the exploding of human bodies.
Judging on looks alone, you can barely classify Outlast as an indie title, it even looks better than a lot of AAA titles. The graphics in this game are absolutely astounding, encapsulating the setting so well to add to the experience. Little details like the rippling of water as you trudge through the sewers, or leaving bloodied footprints behind after stepping in what used to be a human body make the experience a lot more realistic. For most of the game, you will view the environment through the bright-green lens of the night-vision camera, and this feature is arguably the most defining aspect to this game. Venturing into a room blanketed in darkness using your night-vision to navigate your way is much scarier than the occasional well-lit areas. The camera also runs off batteries which you pick up all over the place, there was only one time that I thought I may run out of batteries but they are usually everywhere.
But, this is a horror game, so the main question on your lips will be “how scary is Outlast?” I won’t sugar-coat it: this game is absolutely terrifying for the most part, but the overuse of jump scares became predictable and repetitive. These two things are the most difficult obstacles for horror designers to overcome: predictability and repetition. The first couple hours, while everything is fresh and new, are perhaps the scariest. The line “little pig” will put you on edge every time you squeeze through an opening though. But once you notice certain events, it is fairly easy to stay alive. Throughout my 5-hour play through I died only 5 or 6 times, mainly because of my cautiousness, but also because it was relatively easy to predict when something is about to happen. What I didn’t predict though, encountering who I like to call, the Richard brothers(those who have played it will know what I mean).
There are some nice features that do help tone down the predictability. Outlast provides you with different ways to hide yourself, either by hiding under a bed, in a toilet stall, in a cupboard, or even under the blanket of darkness. This is where you are forced to make a quick decision that will either kill you, or save you. Do you hide in a cupboard and hope they don’t search every door, do you hide under the bed and hope he goes for the cupboards instead, or do you just hide in the darkness and hope they don’t come to your area. And when you are spotted, running away from enemies often made my back tense up from fear.
A nice little addition is being able to look over your shoulder while running, in order to see how close the crazed-maniac is. Also, to further help tone down the predictability is the fact that you never know which inmate is going to do nothing, and which one is going to try to kill you. Even so, the inmates lose their scare factor pretty easily, as the same character models are used quite frequently. I feel the lack of female inmates also affected the repetition of character models, as well as scare factor. Mixing in crazy old ladies, with their high-pitched screams echoing down the corridor would have been absolutely terrifying.
The sound scape in this game is absolutely fantastic, from the screeching of violins, to the humming of a choir. The music is rarely out-of-place and unnecessary, but on a few occasions, I felt that only the ambient noise might have been more effective; that is barely an issue though. Miles must also wear the heaviest boots in the world, as footsteps were oddly loud, but the use of hearing his heart beat race and his breath quicken drowned out the crunching steps. Walking through an abandoned cell block with inmates mumbling words, and the weak hum of a choir sent shivers down my spine. It is arguably one of the best sound scapes I’ve experienced in a horror.
The atmosphere in this game relies on sound and darkness, and it blends perfectly. It ended up like trying to guess when the toast was going to pop up. You know it’s going to happen, but it still makes you jump. Every time I opened a door, or descended down a dark hallway, I knew something bad was going to happen, and most of the time it did, but it still managed to scare the crap out of me.
I really enjoyed the little mechanics of this game too, like seeing Miles’ hand hold the door frame while poking your head around the corner, or seeing him crouch using one arm to support himself while the other hand is holding the camera. Everything feels realistic, and the graphics help so much in capturing that to make it even scarier. The almost parkour-like running mechanics are really well done too. It was pivotal for Red Barrels to nail considering, how many times you find yourself chased. And if you see waist-high objects along the path, you know you’re going to be chased if you’re not careful, or if it’s scripted.
The environments are also varied: from walking through administration blocks, delving into the basement or sewers, while also experiencing a bit of nature, too. The areas are constantly pushing you forward into new ones, and it makes it much harder for you to keep track of where to hide. That is a good thing. They really nailed the feeling of not knowing where to run when you’re in danger, as you frantically attempt to slam the door behind you to slow down whatever is chasing you. I’m also very glad they used the first-person perspective for this game, as it made it a lot more immersive particularly with the use of the camera.
One thing that was a risky, but necessary aspect was not telling the player exactly where to go every now and then. While it got frustrating on one occasion – when I had no idea where to go or what to do – it is something a horror designer needs to do in order for the player to fully experience the terror. It forces you to search the areas thoroughly, and the reward is often documents to provide back story. It also allows you to stray off the linear story for a few moments to let you do your own thing and take in every part of the setting.
There is one aspect I talked about in a previous article detailing what a good horror game needs, and puzzles was one of those. Outlast lacks any form of puzzles, and instead, opts for relatively uninspired mission objectives revolving around turning on “x” numbers of valves or “x” number of levers to proceed to the next area. While it forces the player to try navigating around a patrolling enemy, it became repetitive and annoying. Luckily though, there are only a few occasions where you are forced to do that, but I feel like if Red Barrels had mixed it up with different objectives, it would have worked much better.
The main premise of Miles’ investigation is to find out what is happening, and expose Murkoff Corporation. To aid with the back story and tie things together, the game uses various documents and notes. The more you explore, the more you find out about the asylum from documents placed in areas off to the side, or along your path. The note system revolves around personal notes that Miles jots down when he witnesses something through the camera (you can only obtain notes when the camera is used).
The documents are obviously filled with a lot of medical jargon, and can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not paying attention, but they provide a detailed description of different time frames in the asylum. It is a good way to ensure that players are taking in what is happening, but I would have liked to see an indicator as to how many documents I had, and how many I had left to collect. While I racked up a lot of documents and notes, there is no way of knowing if you found them all, which is disappointing because they provided such detailed accounts and were often interesting.
There is one event which had me questioning what happened, and whether it was on purpose or something that I interpreted as; something which captured the insanity perfectly. After escaping a bandwagon of knife-wielding maniacs, I encountered an even crazier “doctor”. While trying to escape from him and obtain the key to the elevator, you are led through a terrifying chase through the medical ward, clambering through air-vents and hiding in toilets. But every time I thought I was away he was right there, and even when I knew I had descended to another floor, he appeared again. My first reaction was, “What the hell?! How did you get there!?”
Now the story itself – while it could have taken some clichéd approaches – as a creative writer myself, I was glad to see it didn’t. As mentioned earlier you gain a lot of back story through documents and notes to help you understand what is happening. I was glad to see they didn’t do a sloppy effort at creating some generic horror asylum story. They did the exact opposite; they created a highly detailed and intelligent story with an ending which could lead to into another game. But as a gamer, the ending left me with mixed feelings. Everything fit perfectly as to what was actually happening, but there was something that didn’t satisfy me. It is very much one of those things where some people will like it, and some won’t. Not to say it’s bad, it actually really works given everything you encounter.
It is hard to fault this game; it is an absolute must buy for anyone who loves a good horror game. Coming up to release Outlast was my most anticipated horror, and while it fell flat on a couple of aspects it didn’t hinder the overall game too much. It is a great horror game, and leads the way for a strong year of horror titles set to be released down the track. If there was a bit more variety in the type of scares in this game, and some mission objectives were different it would have added a lot to an already impressive game. Details small and large, an excellent sound scape and a creepy atmosphere make up for lack of variety in character models as well. I hope people don’t just burst through the game by trying to run through everything, because this game is designed so well that it would be cruel to not take in all of it.
+ Highly detailed environment, with outstanding graphics
+ Chilling soundscape to set the atmosphere
+ Night-vision camera setting to immerse you even more
+ Well structured story
+ Scary as hell
+ Excellent gameplay mechanics
– Overuse of jump scares
– Repeated use of character models
– Uninspired mission objectives
– No number tally for how many document’s you’ve collected