Outlast is a horror game for the PC via Steam (with a PlayStation 4 version coming out in 2014). Red Barrels Games developed and self-published the title. The developer was founded by ex-Ubisoft employees with much of the talent at the studio responsible for crucial work on various major video game franchises. Outlast is a game about non-combat and hiding, the player has little power and the world around him/her is extremely dangerous, so to be safe, it is best to be out of sight. With various survival-horror luminaries losing the thread of what makes a truly terrifying game, Outlast seemed poised to deliver a horrific experience preying on player’s fears? Does the game manage frights or does it simply make whimpers in the dark?
An anonymous tip sends investigative journalist, Miles Upshur on a mission to uncover the truth behind the recent re-opened Mount Massive Asylum. Miles learns of shady business going on in the Asylum from the tip. Armed only with his camcorder and wits, Upshur goes off to vet the tip to see if there is any merit to claim. If there is something not right going on at Mount Massive then chances are it has to do with The Murkoff Corporation, whose Research and Charity branch funded the re-opening of Mount Massive. It is a hell of a story if it is true, one that can make a career. However, as soon as Miles arrives at Mount Massive things seem off. There is no guard and the Asylum looks abandoned. So, he has no choice but to sneak inside. Once inside the validity of the tip becomes apparent that something wrong is happening at Mount Massive Asylum. It is clear from the blood, overturned furniture and lack of people that whatever is happening in Mount Massive is extremely dangerous.
Outlast has a great hook for its story in making Miles an investigative journalist. Placing the player as someone out for the truth adds an impetus to uncover the truth in this asylum; especially when basic survival instincts of fight or flight would impel anyone (even a tenacious journalist) to run out of the place, the way they came in, the moment an ominous shadow appeared in their peripheral vision. Even when going through the circuitous escape route, there is something compelling in trying to find out as much about the place as possible despite the dangers lurking the dark corners. This simple set-up helps add some freshness to the horror trope of the insane asylum with something not quite right lurking beneath the surface that prevents things from being cliche. Plus, there is amazing work done to create an oppressive and terrifying atmosphere on multiple levels of the game including its story.
The tension in Outlast is not isolated to a short segment where the player has to keep his/her wits while waiting to find a weapon to fight off enemies. There is not going to be a moment when the player can relax because they found an automatic weapon allowing them to unload clips on clips into a psychotic inmate. Outlast packs tension into the core of gameplay because the player’s only recourse when facing enemies is hiding. Enemies are dangerous and frightening that only want to kill the player. So staying out of sight from the powerful and menacing inmates is the key to moving around the asylum when trying to escape. Players can run from enemies when discovered, but that generally will only prolong an inevitable death. The best method of completing objectives is crouching and sneaking around the world in the hopes that objectives can be completed without alerting an enemy.
Outside of the tense moments when either directly avoiding an enemy or worrying about the possibility of an enemy discovering you, the core gameplay is exploring the asylum interacting with objects and finding information about the asylum. Collecting information ranges from picking up documents around the environments to recording specific moments with Miles’ camcorder. In camcorder mode, players can record moments that will help in the story that Miles will write about the asylum. The camcorder has a night vision mode too, which is extremely helpful in mapping out dark areas. It also helps to keep track of where the player needs to go and what might be lurking in the darkness. Night vision holds greater gameplay uses later into the game. While night vision is useful, players need to keep track of battery life because when using the camcorder batteries drain constantly. This adds the survival-horror inventory management to the game. Despite how odd it is to find batteries randomly during intense and terrifying moments, it is a video game mechanic that works to serve the gameplay’s goal by limiting a useful item.
Everything about the look of Outlast is unsettling, it perfectly captures an ominous and uninviting atmosphere and setting. The look of Mount Massive Asylum is creepy, dingy and tells a story of great horrors throughout. Floors are sopped in blood, bodies hang limp and lifeless from the ceiling and everything has gone to seed and ruin indicating the chaos unfolding throughout the layers of the building. Everything about the visuals tells the player not to continue on because things will only get worse, but there is a sick curiosity to see how grotesque and horrifying things can get. Even with the deliberate dilapidated look of the setting, the game is pretty looking. Red Barrels have created a great looking game. More than that though, the sound design is great in the game. Everything from the squish of blood under Miles’ boot to trees tapping slowly against windows to heavy breathing and mutterings of asylum patients help solidify the vibe that Outlast aims for.
Outlast is a great horror game, it creates an atmosphere that is creepy, scary and unpredictable. Its story has a good hook that propels the player to take on the identity of Miles Upshur as he and they search for the truth of Mount Massive Asylum. It is a pretty yet grotesque game with incredible sound design that all reinforce the horrific vibe of the game. There is plenty here that fans of horror games should love. For those looking for a game that tests their nerves, Outlast is more than willing to do that.