“Outlast contains intense violence, gore, graphic sexual content, and strong language. Please enjoy.”
You have to love a game that announces all its best features up front.
This survival horror from Red Barrels games is currently only available on PC, but is to be released on the PlayStation 4 in 2014.
From the start, the atmosphere in Outlast is set in a vaguely clichéd yet still effective manner. It’s a dark and, if not stormy, very definitely cloudy night. You are Miles Upshur, freelance journalist, investigating a tip-off from an anonymous source. From the moment you get out of your car you should feel a certain amount of unease. Small hints; a broken lamp, a hole in a fence, the state of the gardens; suggest it’s been some time since the asylum in front of you has received any proper care. A cheap enough trick, but an effective one: if there’s one thing more instinctively frightening than an asylum, it’s an asylum that’s broken free of order.
Still, there’s probably no way poor Miles can predict the ordeal he’s about to go through, so you enter the asylum anyway.
The entire game takes place within Mount Massive Asylum, yet while certain aspects of the game do repeat, things usually change just often enough to prevent a comfort zone of boredom and plunge you back into a constant uneasiness that borders dread. At first, you are merely a journalist investigating a scary place filled with scary lunatics, but this isn’t a simple “monsters bad, stay away from bad monsters” game, and it doesn’t just use the fact that sometimes you need to run and hide or die to strike fear into you. The inmates are not all the same, and, as can be expected in anarchy, certain strong “leaders” heading up their own little gangs and projects have emerged. Of course, they can’t help but feel interest in the newcomer. Apart from the fact every person you meet is well and truly messed up in the head in usually the most alarming possible ways, your own character shows signs of mental strain, particularly in stressful or dangerous circumstances. This doesn’t even take into account the unavoidable and sometimes terrible things that happen to you.
The basic dynamics of the game are straightforward enough. You do not fight. You do not own a map, though you might occasionally see one on the wall. You do not use weapons, armour or medi kits. You have one possession: your camcorder. When it is dark, you use your camera’s night vision to see for as long as you have battery power. You collect only two things: Batteries and documents. Your skills are running and hiding and you need to be adept at both to stay alive.
UI was kept as simple as possible, a factor that contributes massively towards a sense of realism, and instead of complicated inventories and upgrades systems you can find only two things in your menu: the documents you’ve picked up and the notes your character automatically makes. These do nothing to help your character but they do reveal the basic story in exactly the right way to keep you both a little mystified and severely disturbed.
There are save points rather than the option to save anywhere you want. This can make the game more frustrating, but also more frightening as you become really invested in keeping your character alive for as long as possible. The save points are also not so far spaced apart for rage quitting to become too much of a risk. While you never really fight, you’re constantly having to adjust: sometimes you need to run, barely registering what’s going on around you, until you manage to find an open air vent, window or hiding place. Other times you need to crawl or peer around doors. Night vision doesn’t just stay on; besides the fact that you need to conserve batteries, night vision becomes a blind brightness in areas that are lit up. The AI is decent enough for enemies to be able to hear you if you’re too loud and know where to find you if they see you hide. As visibility is mostly low, sound can be important to your character’s survival, and as a result you begin to really appreciate the detailed and complex sound effects. You shouldn’t feel spoon-fed, and there are enough different challenges to make the game interesting, but you’re also not trapped in an incomprehensible and tedious maze of puzzles. All in all this entire game feels like the makers have considered every aspect of gameplay and how they can contribute best to the effect they want to have on the player. Most of all, I like the attention to detail. From the filtering effects of the night vision to the overheard conversations that should make you want to stay as far away as possible from “The Brothers” before you’re even on the same side of an iron gate as them – nothing about this game feels lazy.
That said, this game is not very long. If you know exactly where to go and what to do, it should take you no more than a few hours to play, and once you’ve found out all there is to know, second time around is unlikely to impress. This is not a game you will replay many times over – it’s a game you play through once. Of course, this all just makes the announcement of the upcoming DLC, Whistleblower, a prequel to Outlast’s events, that much more exciting.
If a sense of helplessness, playing a character that takes a lot of punishment, and the things nightmares are made of are your ideas of a good time, Outlast is a game for you. I have only one piece of advice: switch on the subtitles. There’s nothing quite like the ramblings of an insane man who is trying to kill you; it’d be a shame if you missed them. Perhaps just one more hint: look up.