In an increasingly jaded and desensitized society, it takes a lot to scare people. However, the original tactics for generating fear remain the most effective, as the great masters of horror would tell you. You can only see so much gore and disgusting, shocking imagery before you’re not grossed-out, and you’re not shocked. You’re bored. Creating fear in another has always been about preying on the imagination, because what we can dream up is a million times worse than the goriest, nastiest thing you can splash across the screen. Developer Red Barrels understood all this when they set out to make Outlast.
A pure survival/horror game, the terrifying experience relies heavily upon your freakish atmosphere. You are exploring Mount Massive Asylum and there’s dark, twisted intrigue at every turn. Blood smears walls, damaged individuals sit staring at blank television screens, and all manner of creepy, unsettling visuals assault the senses. Whether you’re seeing it via the night vision of your camera, or you’re creeping along in the shadows, you’re always on edge. This is due in large part to your forbidding environment, which is meticulously designed for one purpose:
To scare the sh** out of you.
That all being said, when you get up close and personal, these graphics don’t necessarily impress. It’s not about the visual fidelity, though; it’s about the overall presentation, which is vastly more important in a game like Outlast. The audio complements the horrifying backdrop with plenty of subtle, ambient effects. A cry or scream in the distance, a piece of furniture being overturned, the sound of running footsteps; it’s all there to quicken the pulse. Your character starts to breathe heavy when things are getting especially dicey, which is another great addition. The score is a little too subtle and doesn’t play a big enough role, but that’s a minor complaint.
As I said, Outlast is a survival/horror game, through and through. You have no supernatural abilities; you don’t even have any weapons. And when I say no weapons, I mean absolutely nothing. Nope, not even a blunt instrument you might be able to use in self-defense. As an investigative reporter intent on solving the mystery behind Mount Massive Asylum, you’re going in armed with only a camera and your very human senses. You can use the night vision on the camera but that’s the only benefit you’re going to have. Your goal: Capture on camera the utter insanity that’s occurring within the asylum’s walls.
Well, that’s actually a secondary goal. The first goal is to survive, because within minutes of stepping foot inside this evil-infused structure, you’re aching to escape. There are lingering victims of some diabolical experiment, and some of those victims have mutated into nightmarish denizens of the night. All you can hope to do is run and hide. You grasp the desperate nature of your situation within the first hour; a hulking brute is hunting you and at first, your only option is to hide in a locker. That’s when you realize that facing anything would be suicide.
Herein lies a glimmer of absolute greatness. Such a premise makes you feel the fear. It makes you appreciate the fact that your chances of escaping alive are slim to none. It forces you to act cautiously and by the way, when you’re being cautious, you’re giving your brain more time to imagine a myriad of terrifying situations. To combat this, you try to move faster; you just want to escape, so you start to run. However, you’ll soon learn that nobody survives when they panic, so your only option is to be extremely careful, and pay very close attention to your surroundings. Even then, though, there will be times when you jump a foot out of your seat and end up dead.
It happens fast. This brings me to one of my complaints, which involves the game’s design. Basically, you’re trying to avoid just about everything but many times, it’s impossible to initially elude the latest crazed creature. Therefore, there’s a bit of trial-and-error involved, which I normally wouldn’t mind. Heck, I tend to like that mechanic, which is why I’m a big fan of stealth games. However, in a survival adventure that thrives on the sudden and unexpected, trying to escape the same situation several times over diminishes the original impact. Really, only that first encounter really hits home; after that, you’re just trying to figure out where to go.
Still, that fantastic atmosphere always draws you back. It also helps that there’s a paper trail you can follow, as you’ll find various notes and documents that shed more light on the events that plunged Mount Massive Asylum into hell. This is a surprisingly intriguing aspect of the game, and you find yourself reading each piece of evidence you come across. Not only does this give you a much-needed respite from the horrors that stalk the hallways, but it also adds to a deeper fear. Understanding what happened won’t ease your terror; it will only exacerbate it, which is what a decent story is supposed to do.
I think my biggest problem is the general restrictive nature of the game. Firstly, while I understand and appreciate the concept of having only a camera, this tends to get a little tiresome. You’re always worried about the battery dying, for instance, and you’re never really sure exactly what you should be capturing on film. This makes the game feel somewhat aimless and even makes the camera feel superfluous at times. They just don’t do enough with that mechanic and more could’ve been done; remember Fatal Frame? The other issue is that because the game is so very linear, you can’t really explore at all. I love linear adventures but this is too cramped, even for me.
Other than these small gripes, though, Outlast remains a memorable and incredibly effective survival/horror quest. There are so many moments that will make you feel legitimate fear, and that’s no easy feat. It’s also worth noting that despite the game’s constant desire to make you jump, none of them feel cheap or contrived. This is a pulse-pounding game that makes its presence felt. It challenges you to remain calm in extraordinarily terrifying situations, and it presents us with one of the darkest, most frightening atmospheres in recent memory. Play if you dare!
The Good: Fantastically freaky environment. Excellent ambient audio. Solid control and pacing. Gives you an unparalleled sense of vulnerability. Thrills and chills are legit, not cheap. A firm understanding of fear, and how it works.
The Bad: Repetition of events tempers the fear. Camera mechanic is somewhat vague. A little too linear.
The Ugly: “As is the case with all true survival/horror games, it’s the ‘ugly’ that makes it great!”
2/19/2014 Ben Dutka