This year has been a renaissance of sorts for horror games. Within a span of a month we have a rather impressive line-up of spooky titles and many more to follow. The best part is that none of them seem to involve excessive shooting, hacking or slashing. At least definitely not the game I am writing about today – a first-person horror game called Outlast that comes from a newly formed independent studio, Red Barrels. There’s a considerable talent behind it as Red Barrels includes veterans from EA, Ubisoft and Naughty Dog. Outlast is created with a single goal in mind and that is to scare the pants off the player. Despite a few missteps, for the most part it does so quite successfully.
Horror games were a dying breed until some indie developers started to chip in with unique ideas which didn’t involve bashing or dismembering monsters. 2010’s indie hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent proved that there is still an audience for true survival horror. You had no weapons and your only defenses against the horrors stalking you were running and hiding from them. Outlast takes this to the next level. Much like Amnesia, the focus here is on exploration, careful use of resources and running away from the occasional creature. Where Outlast shines though is its setting and the visuals accompanying it.
You play as a freelance journalist out to investigate an abandoned mental asylum where a shady corporation might be up to something nefarious. What starts with a routine investigation quickly turns into a nightmare as you find yourself trapped in the asylum with its crazed inhabitants among other nasty things. Armed with nothing more than a night vision-equipped video camera and your wits you’ll have to brave through some of the darkest and creepiest sections of the asylum. Red Barrels takes a minimalistic approach with the story, allowing you to soak in the atmosphere. The story pretty much takes a backseat to the survival aspect of the game.
The sense of isolation and helplessness is captured perfectly. I have rarely felt more vulnerable in a video game than in Outlast. The only pockets of security are rooms lit with bright lights. The game is designed to be as oppressive as possible almost as if it’s daring you to venture just a little bit further before turning it off. This is further enhanced by the excellent sound design and eerily realistic visuals. Despite coming from a small studio, Outlast features some of the best graphics ever to grace a PC game, especially when maxed out. Impressive lightning and detailed textures create a very convincing and immersive environment.
Some areas are completely devoid of light and your only option in these cases is to use the night vision mode on your camera. Basked in a creepy green hue, night vision creates an unsettling effect. Ever wanted to star in your own found-footage horror film? Neither did I, but Outlast gives you the chance to do so. Exploring dark corridors and basements with only night vision is a nerve wracking experience as it severely limits your field of view. Batteries found scattered in the environment are used to power night vision. I found plenty of them without much effort and almost never ran out completely.
Besides batteries and the occasional keycard, there are no other items to find (not counting the many notes and journals you’ll pick up). This is somewhat unusual for a survival horror game, but it also keeps things simple and focused. This is reinforced by the smooth and responsive controls. Whether you use a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad, Outlast controls like a dream. The game also has one of the best representations of the first person viewpoint. Too often first-person games feel like controlling a floating gun or a hand but movement in Outlast feels weighty and realistic thanks to full body awareness.
So far Outlast sounds like the perfect horror game but about halfway through its brief four hour campaign, the game starts losing some of its appeal. This happens once you begin spotting patterns in the levels. Too often, the only means of progress involves turning valves or throwing a set of switches to open the next area, all the while an enemy prowls around. You can either stealth your way around the enemy or make a mad dash for it. You can take a few hits before dying so sometimes running seems like a quicker solution. You can also lose enemies by hiding in cabinets or under beds. Be warned though, sometimes they can and will check in those places.
Dying sets you back to the last checkpoint so you can try again. Reloading checkpoints makes everything predictable and robs all tension. At this point, you can simply run to your objectives with the enemy flailing behind you. Most of them will not cross certain barriers and will give up the chase. As a result enemies feel more like a minor annoyance than a terrifying presence.
The other minor gripe I have is the overreliance on jump scares. I prefer to be scared by atmosphere more than sudden noises and scary faces popping up, and unfortunately Outlast has quite a few of those. While some of the jump scares work and are intelligently placed many of them feel contrived and predictable. There were a number of instances where I literally saw them coming a mile away. But like I said, it’s a minor issue and it certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying the game.
Clocking in at a little over four hours Outlast is a short game but it is also appropriately priced. As a horror game, it definitely succeeds in what it wants to be. It’s already a pretty intense game and I’m not sure if many players will be able to take more of it (in a good way). The short time I spent with it was more memorable than many of the long 15-20 hour games I’ve played. I would definitely want to visit it again once my memory of it starts getting hazy.
It’s best to approach Outlast as an interactive horror experience than just a video game. We’ve all seen abandoned mental asylums, inhuman experiments and creepy corporations in horror fiction before. As a video game it is serviceable with its rudimentary puzzles, exploration and stealth elements. What really makes Outlast special is its impeccable atmosphere and a lingering sense of dread throughout. It perfectly captures the feeling of complete isolation and hopelessness. It will constantly dare you to see what horror lies beyond the next corridor. In other words, Outlast is some scary sh*t and you need to experience it.