Survival horror has always held a special place in my heart, but recently the genre has had a lackluster showing with titles such as Resident Evil and Dead Space focusing on more action, and the horror staple Silent Hill being reduced to a handheld dungeon crawler. But with the release of Outlast my faith in the genre has once again been restored.
Conjured up by indie developer, Red Barrels, Outlast delivers quite possibly the most stressful and frightening experience in the last decade: a first-person survival game that forces players to run and hide rather than fight in order to survive.
Set in Mount Massive Asylum, a psychiatric hospital owned by the mysterious Murkoff Corporation, players control Miles Upshur, a freelance journalist who receives a letter from an anonymous whistleblower within the asylum, informing him of the atrocities that have befallen it. Upon arriving at the asylum, Miles discovers that things are in disarray with the inmates running free. Unfortunately the game’s story isn’t explained in great detail. Also, Miles is a silent protagonist who only communicates with notes he writes down in his notebook. The rest of the cast of unique characters are presented and introduced in great ways but never evolve much throughout the story.
Characters like ‘Father Martin’ and inmates like ‘Chris Walker’ seem to serve no purpose besides moving the story along and stalking Miles throughout the game. This is unfortunate as I enjoyed the varied inmates that I encountered and wish that more interaction was present with them. For example I happened upon a doctor – or who I assume to be a doctor, running experiments on staff and inmates – who stalked and chased me throughout an entire chapter, but why he was doing what he was doing was left a mystery to me. Though players will find documents that speak of some of these inmates, players may miss them and be left in the dark about who they are or why they were placed in the asylum in the first place.
Armed with nothing but a video camera, Miles moves through the asylum recording and documenting everything he sees. The video camera is Miles only saving grace throughout the adventure. Using its night vision mode, players must move throughout the dark corridors of the asylum finding more batteries for their camera, documents that reveal more of what happened in the asylum, and watching out for pursuing inmates. Though the concept is interesting and works well it is hindered by the cameras surprisingly low battery life. Finding batteries was never an issue for me as I explored as much as I could, but for those less inclined to check every door and every corner may find themselves in the dark sooner than expected.
There is nothing like the tension of being stalked and chased by inmates, looking around every corner only to see the shining bright eyes of inmates staring at you through your night vision camera; it leaves a terrifying impression – running for your life looking back as the inmate chases you hoping to find a locker or a bed to hide underneath can get extremely stressful. Unfortunately a lot of these moments become repetitive, and although your pursuer may change, the tactics to evade them always remained the same. A lot of the time players will be given an objective such as flipping three switches on to restore power to an area or finding a key to open a door. These situations appear often in the game and are always accompanied by an inmate, whether it’s the big brute Chris Walker or the random inmate with a baseball bat, these pursuers act the exact same way. After the first few encounters I was able to simply run around in circles until I had lost my pursuer and was able to finish my objective without any problems.
Although the game starts off strong especially with the scares, these scares become less apparent and are mostly replaced with stressful chase moments and supernatural elements reminding more of F.E.A.R. rather than the game I was playing an hour ago. Although these work in a different way to induce fear in a player, they just don’t offer the same impact. The final chapter in the game also leaves a lot to be desired, and also seems to end up being the most boring part of the game.
Outlast is one of the most atmospheric games out there, with great lighting and sound design. Hearing the sounds of inmates cry-out throughout the asylum and walking through darkly-lit corridors had hairs standing on the back of my head throughout the adventure. The asylum itself is massive in scale making the varied locations that players explore seem different and unique. Every part of the asylum feels frightening, from exploring the blood-soaked sewers to the pitch-black courtyard, every environment players explore has a life of its own and its own type of inmates that inhabit it.
Though Outlast is an indie title, it has proven that the dwindling survival horror genre still has life. It’s worth noting that the blood, gore, and male genitalia may seem excessive at first, but simply serve to show the horrid conditions and treatment these inmates received and lived in, and indeed what they are capable of. Although its story and characters could have used more time and attention its phenomenal presentation, atmosphere, and its ability to stress me out (in a good way) to the point where I could only play the game in small bursts says a lot for how much the human mind can handle.