I’ve been a fan of the survival horror genre of video-game for some time. I can still remember having my mind blown by Alone in the Dark on the PS1 and hiding behind my hands every five minutes whilst preparing for a good scare. Since then, we’ve had games like Dead Space and F.E.A.R attempting to scare our socks off but, of late, there has been a real lack of quality survival horrors on the market. Outlast made some real waves when first released, even more so when it was offered free on the PS4. I watched the first five minutes of gameplay on the PS4 and was instantly hooked… in a ‘can’t take my eyes off of the screen due to paralyzing fear’ kind of way. For me, Outlast was one of those games that I couldn’t put down. So I shut myself in a room late at night, turned off the lights, drew the curtains, plugged in my headphones and got to gaming.
In Outlast you play as Miles, an investigative journalist who received a tip off about the inhumane experiments being conducted on patients at the Mount Massive Asylum. The asylum has a very ‘classic horror movie’ vibe, it’s exactly how you would imagine an asylum based in a building constructed in the 30s and kitted out in the 80s – creepiness at its best. As Miles, you must uncover the truth about the goings on at the asylum, documenting everything with a camcorder; your only weapon in the darkness. When I say ‘only weapon’, I mean only weapon. There’s no combat in this game, with your only three options being hide, run or die. Within minutes of entering the building, you notice that not all is right. I mean it wouldn’t take a genius to recognise that there’s sinister goings on in the asylum, considering that one of your first obstacles is a room full of hanging decapitated corpses. After you’ve escaped a giant brute who’s dragging chains around the halls, you’re quickly snapped up by a deranged priest who informs you that you’re the key to uncovering the events at the asylum. From then on your only objective is to escape the building, and you’ll be doing it mostly under your own steam. Miles doesn’t seem to have the best of luck in Outlast; picture Saw mixed with Hostel coupled with Nightmare on Elms Street, and then imagine that, rather than there being multiple characters sharing in the suffering, all of the horror is being directed solely at Miles. Poor Miles, hey.
The use of the camcorder is a genius move by Red Barrels as it acts as a lifeline, allowing you to view the horrors lurking in the darkness with the use of the camcorder’s night-vision setting. However, this really drains the camcorder’s batteries, so searching for replacements in every nook and cranny becomes somewhat of an obsession. For me, at least. The sensation of finding a fresh battery was only rivalled by the euphoria of spotting a light in the distance. Having Miles stand in a well lit room or underneath a street light, if only for a few seconds, made it feel as though you were bathing in pure sunlight. That’s a real testament to the game, that the darkness, fear and suspense is built up to such a climax that you honestly need to take a break somewhere bright, just to collect yourself and prepare for the next scare. The camcorder is your saving grace in Outlast, and I can’t stress enough how lost a person can feel the second the batteries run out in the darkness.
The first thing that you notice about Outlast, other than the sheer darkness, is the atmosphere that Red Barrels has created. The mood from the outset is tense, with the perfect combination of sound effects and music to create an aura of creepiness. You can hear each door creek, each tree waving in the wind, every floorboard wobble underfoot and the occasional footsteps in the distance. The audio drags you into a sense of insecurity, constantly putting you on edge. And, when you finally feel safe, there will always be a moment of doubt cast by the occasional door slam, clink of a chain or conveniently placed corpse that looks about ready to spring out at you. It’s chillingly brilliant.
There are one or two aspects of this game that I absolutely love, and some of them are so little that some might not even deem them worth mentioning. One of them is the soundtrack and the audio in general. Another is the animations and design of Miles. When you walk close to a wall or doorway, he will reach out a hand to steady himself. When you look down with the controller, you will not only see his feet, legs and arms, but his torso, chest and shoulders too. So few first person games give you the sense that you’re controlling a full human body. But this sense is integral to Outlast as, with every movement, every outreaching hand for a doorway or pained limp as you look down to see Miles drag his battered leg across the floor, makes you feel like you are Miles. His nervous, petrified breaths seem to intertwine with your own as the suspense builds and, when the final moment comes, when that patient jumps at you or you catch a shadow in the corner of your eye, that’s when you realise that Miles is almost an extension of yourself and you’re trapped in this asylum with him. This sensation is really aided by using good quality headphones, rather than your TV’s audio, and if you’re going to play Outlast, which I really stress that you do, you’d be a fool not to use them.
Below is a link to a video of me playing Outlast on our Twitch account. I apologise for the language, the lack of video quality and my scaredy-catness. Hopefully, it will give you a sense of how terrifying the game can be and how intensely absorbed a person can get into the setting. At some points I forgot that people were watching me play (hence my lack of talking, through a combination of fear and forgetfulness).
The characters are fantastic, with a real mix of the clinically insane, the battered and broken and the misunderstood. Some patients might win your heart, others might just be out to tear it from your chest – either way, I was never quite sure whether a character was going to beg me for help, jump at me but cause me no harm, or chase me down the corridors whilst wielding a machete. There were so many instances where I was unsure as to whether a character was dead or alive, ignoring me or watching me or just preparing to attack. I was pretty much on edge for my entire play-through.
I haven’t been very critical in this review, and it’s for good reason. I do have one or two complaints though, like your inability to defend yourself, the very occasional audio glitch and the sometimes repetitive tasks that you’re faced with. But, overall, I absolutely loved this game. At times it terrified me, and I often had an overwhelming want to put down the controller and take a break, just because of the game’s intensity. But Outlast never failed to impress. It’s not a visually stunning game, and there won’t be any exhilarating fire-fights. Miles, his camcorder, a building full of asylum inmates and staff that are slowly loosing their minds, and you, is all there is. Oh, and the occasional crippling fear that forces you to move on, or hide in a corner waiting for it all to end.