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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
During an E3 interview this year, Co-founder and President of Red Barrels Games Phillipe Morin uttered an emphatic statement that constantly rang true in my head while playing Outlast; “Our goal is to scare the s*** out of players”. All I have to say is mission accomplished, for Outlast is a demented experience that returns the survival horror genre to its purist roots.
It goes without saying that this current generation of gaming has seen an evolution of sorts in the mechanics of survival horror, shifting from a more helpless approach to action oriented horror. I enjoy games similar to Resident Evil 6 and the Dead Space franchise for their more cinematic and blockbuster presentation of horror, but the inability to fight back like a trained slaughterer of monsters is what truly elicits anxiety and hysteria. Outlast is an independent love letter to survival horror experiences of past, lifting elements from recent independent brethren such as Amnesia with the absolute inability to defend yourself from the terror lurking around every corner, but rather forcing you to either run, hide, or die.
Players assume control of a journalist named Miles whom is tipped off about a remote mental asylum (Mount Massive Asylum) that may be conducting inhumane experiments on its patients. Not very surprisingly, there’s some twisted and disturbing stuff going on rendering its patients deformed, seemingly hulkish, freakish, but above all else violent and murderous. Lunatic priests, satanic and brainwashing rituals, and a complete lack of anything normal after initially finding yourself trapped spark the fear, but it’s once again that helplessness and total inability to fight back that really get your hands sweating and heart palpitating.
Your only source of anything advantageous is a camcorder with night vision toggle, and Outlast has no qualms with punishing you for not approaching every situation smart and stealthily. Run out of batteries for your camcorder? Then you had best better pray you can find some in the surrounding immediate areas otherwise you may find yourself reloading past saves.
Darkness engulfs the asylum along with a sense of dread and isolation. The only exit is sought by pushing forward through hallway after hallway of mutilated corpses, rivers of blood, strung up bodies, and unnerving insane patients that may either attack or silently bash their skull on the nearest wall repeatedly in a trance. The tension rarely, if ever leaves the game but it’s when you’re spotted that Outlast transcends itself into an even higher pulse pounding level of horror, shifting everything into a frenetic and claustrophobic game of hide and seek.
Miles is able to lightly sprint, jump, and parkour his way through tight and narrow environments in ways that take advantage of the first person perspective similar to Mirrors Edge, resulting in motion playing an integral part of the suspense, full of varied animations that seem almost too real in the thick of things. The one glaring difference is that instead of climbing buildings and hopping over rooftops you’re stumbling over waist high desks and shimmying through narrow passages. Should you manage to actually break the line of sight you can hide out in a locker as you catch your breath knowing that you are alive, for now.
Enhancing the suspense even further are Mile’s pants and hyperventilating as you aimlessly run your ass off in any direction like a headless chicken because once again, this is survival horror of the purest form. There are no conveniently placed maps or magical green arrows guiding you along the proper path. Whether your objective is to navigate the wards, sewer, outside, or any other hellish area that awaits you it’s up to you use your peripheral vision and search for building directions along the walls.
Along with the aforementioned panting and hyperventilating, Outlast boasts some of the most chilling sound design in recent horror video game memory,full of multiple tempos and distorted noises sure to wreck your composure. The feeling of temporary solace that the fading musical score brings after sneaking past some patients or successfully evading your pursuers inhibits an exhilarating rush that has sadly disappeared from more modern and mainstream survival horror games.
Outlast unfortunately has its own share of flaws though, most notably including bland level design that has you fetch questing silly items in pairs of threes. When Outlast is forward moving it’s a rush, these interludes break that palpable immersion though and will undoubtedly be received with groans from players.
It’s also a bit dated graphically too as unfortunately up close and personal the crazed patients kind of look silly and poorly detailed. The game’s environmental effects including pouring rain were always impressive however. Overall though, it’s not up to snuff so hopefully this is an area that is improved upon with the upcoming PS4 version.
Finally, while the story offers loads of collectable files to find that admittedly do spike intrigue in what the hell happened, mute protagonists in 2013 are an archaic example of narrative design. Sure, Miles sporadically comments on events in your notebook but it’s nearly impossible in this day and age to connect to a character that does nothing audibly but pant. The game’s ending is also rushed and leaves something to be desired.
Drawing inspiration from similar independent titles such as Amnesia along with the atmospheric approach of the genre’s glory days, Outlast is five hours of pure terror that while faulted, is a breath of fresh air into the modern era of gaming as a whole. I am stoked that sequels are planned because there’s a hell of a lot of tantalizing spooky and demented mystery still left to explore in Mount Massive Asylum.
Outlast is available now on PC and coming to PS4 free of charge for Playstation + members in early 2014
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