There is someone in the other room that wants to murder me. I’m not paranoid; I just ran away from him and hid in a locker that he thankfully didn’t search. There are a few buttons I need to press to reset this generator and restore the power but I know he’s there. I’ll just peek around this corner and…yep, there he is. It’s dark so I flip the night vision feature on my camcorder on to get a better look at him and his movements. He’s deformed, deranged, and looking for me. I sneak past him and manage to get everything up and running but that doesn’t mean much when I know someone else is just around the corner.
Outlast is an independent horror game developed by Red Barrels; a team with a pedigree of great games including Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. One look at that list of games and the commonality becomes quite clear, movement. All of those games have a similar focus on moving around the environment in a free and fluent fashion. Outlast takes those core mechanics and puts them into the first-person perspective while dousing the entire surrounding in a survival-horror color of paint. In Outlast you play as journalist Miles Upshur who receives an anonymous tip (aren’t they always?) that a leading corporation is doing some shady stuff over at an asylum. Being the great journalist you are you head to Mount Massive Asylum and start poking around but soon Mount Massive pokes back.
Turns out there are a lot of crazies living in the asylum and most of them are on murderous rampages. Your weapons against these folk include, well, nothing. Outlast is one of those no weapon horror games that some horror fans seem to freak out about. That’s probably due to the fact that in Outlast having no weapons means having to run and hide which makes every encounter potentially fatal. The rush you get from these encounters, and the brilliant ways Red Barrels have designed them, makes the game consistently feel fresh and frightening. Jump scares are a cheap tactic when used in an overdone manor and if that’s the case than Outlast is filled with the most wealthy and luxurious scares imaginable. It’s obvious that the designers have studied their craft because the timing of the scares and the ways in which they happen are always unexpected and well thought out. I don’t want to go into too much detail on any of them but just imagine knowing what’s going to scare you and then having it scare you when you least expect it. Outlast always gave me a sense of “I know what’s going on here” only to have me say “Nope, dead wrong” minutes later.
The main gameplay mechanic, running and hiding, is easily Outlast’s biggest strength and, at times, biggest weakness next to its story. Movement is controlled using WASD and by pressing the spacebar you can vault over objects. By using the lean buttons you can also look behind you while running, something that takes practice, and close doors while running out of them. When the game is at its best these commands come together in a fluid chain that makes you feel like the ultimate hide-n-seek champion. However, there were a few times where I got caught up on a desk or a door didn’t close when I thought I pressed the command. This often led to awkward moments where an inmate would hurt me but not kill me, leading to yet another runaway. The movement controls reminded me of a closed in Mirror’s Edge at its finest. The running and climbing feel smooth in their animations and squeezing through tight spaces, like bookshelves, has never been so fun or terrifying. But it must be noted that, like games in the developer’s pedigree, when those controls fail things become frustrating.
Outlast is a beautiful game to look at, if one can call sewers and insane asylums beautiful. The things coming after you are highly detailed and every surface looks and feels terrific. Outlast doesn’t tell you where to go but I often found myself wandering around, taking in the scenery, and finding my way on my own. Visuals are important in Outlast and it’s not just for vanity’s sake. Outlast uses darkness quite often and it’s not afraid to put you in a pitch-black room just to freak you out. As mentioned earlier Upshur is equipped with his trusty camcorder that has a night vision feature on it. Taking out the camcorder and switching it to night vision is a process that takes but a moment but in that moment a lot can happen. Walking into a dark room sets the stage for a wonderfully designed scare that involves nothing more than a startling visual thanks to your camcorder, perhaps ignorance is bliss after all. The camcorder works on a battery system, batteries can be found throughout the asylum, and running low on juice means a quick recharge. This is all random but swapping out batteries for your camcorder just in time to hold it up and see an inmate is quite possibly the scariest thing I’ve experienced in a game.
There is a story in Outlast but I didn’t find it particularly interesting. That’s most likely due to the fact that the gameplay was so fun and intense that having a story to back it all up means having one suffer to propel the other. In this case the gameplay takes center stage and the story falls by the wayside, especially the ending which I felt was rather flat. That isn’t to say that Outlast has an awful story, just a plain one as far as horror games go, but who comes to horror games for story? Regardless, my favorite bit of story in Outlast has to be the documents Upshur finds as he’s exploring. These are often found throughout levels and provide bits of back story to things like; the company that owns the asylum, inmates, Upshur’s reason for being there and so on. They’re all optional reading material but I highly recommend reading them as their information is quite interesting. What Outlast lacks in compelling story it makes up for in tense atmosphere.
Outlast is the pinnacle of a less is more design philosophy. While other horror titles use jump scares and musical cues Outlast utilizes startling imagery and precision timing to make you call for mommy. There are certainly jump scares and musical cues in Outlast but the timing is so perfect that their effects are duplicated. Walking past inmates who whisper to themselves is terrifying and having them not chase you is even scarier. However, when they come running the adrenaline surge you’ll get is second to none. The controls and movement can be a wonderful experience that gives you the feeling of running outdoors but when they hitch up for a second that usually means your life. That slight problem, along with the weak story, do little to take away from the terrific game that Outlast is. In the end, you come for the scares and you stay for the inmate shoving a knife through your back.