Developed and published by Red Barrels Studio, Outlast is a horror survival game set in a terrifying lunatic asylum, called Mount Massive. As a reporter, we receive a tip stating that something wrong is going on here. Something illegal. The “research and charity” division of a large multinational corporation has secretly reopened it. And we make the horrible mistake of driving there in the middle of the night… with just our camcorder as our safe angel.
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Version reviewed: Xbox One
Also available on: PS4, PC
There is something special about Outlast. Something different. From the very beginning it is clear it won’t be your typical game of skill. You don’t have any special moves. You don’t have any weapons. All you can you do is run away and hide from the many dangers you will be drawn to. And it makes sense. It is really hard to set up a terrifying atmosphere when you have access to all sort of weapons and special moves. But the game goes a step beyond and recreates a once-functioning facility where unspeakable horrors have occurred, and it is scary. It is so scary I was only 10 minutes in the game when it made me scream like a little girl. And I loved it.
Drawn by an anonymous tip, we come to Mount Massive to investigate allegations that an unscrupulous corporation is doing horrible things to mental patients in the pursuit of profits. Our first person view is only helped by our camcorder’s night vision, which allows us to penetrate the dark by artificially bathing everything on a green glow that makes a perfect job at making our surroundings scarier.
Our weighty movements doesn’t make things any easier either. Most of the time we will feel physically grounded in the environment. Sure, we can run, crouch and climb, but we can’t do, no matter how desperate things get, is fight back. And this is exactly why Outlast is so special: The core gameplay experience is about no combat. It is designed to make us suffer. There are many atrocious monsters that will sniff us out from far away, but we can’t fight back, and we can’t always hide.
Unfortunately, this design has some consequences. The first time you fail to hide and a massive man rips your heart right out of your chest, you won’t know what to think. And this is good. By the third or fourth time you will only feel frustration, as your only choices are to hide on not so obvious places or to memorize the asylum. And this is bad. The story only lasts about 5 hours, which is good enough to not suffer this rigidly linear setup, but it will eventually kick in and take you out of the immersion, since watching the same thing over and over again can only wash out the experience pretty quick.
While Outlast has an intriguing backstory, it doesn’t include an overt narrative. There are no cutscenes. Instead, all of the game’s story is told through our own investigation, discovering paperwork, finding clues and occasionally recording specific events with our camera. No one is forcing you to learn anything: once you find yourself trapped, your only objective is to escape alive. Finding notes to learn more about what is behind the experiments, who is behind these experiments and what is going on with the patients is somehow optional, but it becomes second nature as we will need to venture off the main route to find some batteries for our camcorder’s night vision.
There are also some clever touches that amp up the tension. The game slowly teaches us to play a “stealth horror” game. As we slowly progress and learn from our own mistakes, we will start peeking around corners to slip past enemies. But seeing the silhouette of “something” looking for us in the darkness will quickly accelerate our hearts. I know mine had to work extra with this game. And when “it” spots us we can only run, hoping to survive by squeezing through tight spots, finding a locker to hide in or a bed to slide under. These kind of situations are so threatening that our own breathing become ragged on par with our character’s.
Add that to the many effective jump scares. They never feel cheap and opportunistic. On the contrary, the atmosphere of Mount Massive is so well done that it gets inside your head no matter what. It doesn’t make any difference if you see something coming. More often than not I was able to spot a fishy patient. I didn’t suspect -I KNEW- exactly what was going to happen. I took a deep breath and decided to man up by facing it. And I got scared anyways. The atmosphere is that good.
Outlast is a hell of a journey. Every now and then some design choices will take you out of the immersion, but the creepy atmosphere will throw you back in immediately. I was looking for something to be scared of and I got exactly what I wanted. Now I can say it is one of the most frightening games I have ever played.