It’s become clear that modern AAA studios can no longer produce truly scary horror titles, instead opting to make their protagonists as battle-ready as possible. And no matter how big or creepy those monsters get, they’re a lot less frightening when you’re laden down with more weaponry than Iron Man and Rambo combined. To get the truly terrifying experience, one must look to smaller studios that aren’t afraid to send their players into hell with nothing more than a sense of self-preservation and a flashlight. The latest offering from this indie corner is Outlast, the debut title from Red Barrels. With jump scares and gore aplenty, Outlast may not be quite as subtle or scary as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but it comes closer than any other horror title since.
The premise of Outlast is fairly simple: You are Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who makes the largely regrettable decision to investigate the Mount Massive Asylum after receiving an inside tip that all is not what it seems on the inside. Mount Massive has recently been taken over by the Murkoff Corporation and, like pretty much any large corporation in horror titles, their motives for running an insane asylum are highly suspect. After climbing in through an open window, Miles finds bloodstains and broken furniture greeting him. Then a room filled with severed heads, hanging corpses, and an impaled security officer telling him to “get the @#$% out of this terrible place.” Having likely already come to this conclusion, Miles turns his attention to escape rather than journalism. But while breaking into the asylum was rather simple, leaving turns out to be far more challenging.
Shortly into his escape attempt Miles meets Father Martin, a fanatical inmate who seems to feel that Miles has potential as a disciple. Father Martin’s method of “enlightening” Miles is to leave messages scrawled on the walls in blood, the first one reading simply: “Witness”. Along this twisted path are several more escaped inmates, including a hulking giant who seems to be the one responsible for all the severed heads earlier. Many of them are physically deformed to the point of resembling Batman's nemesis Two-Face or the Cenobites from Hellraiser, and even the asylum staff members seem no saner. Father Martin’s motives and the reasons behind the chaos aren’t ever directly explained in full, so it will be up to you to find files and documents throughout your journey, using some educated deduction to piece together what really happened here.
In addition to the scattered documentation, Miles also makes personal notes on his experiences and observations, though they understandably include a lot of profanity. These notes are only made if you witness something while holding your camcorder, which is the lone tool you’ll have throughout your ordeal. You may find yourself filming anything that looks unusual just in case Miles has something to add, but this seems in character. After all, isn’t this exactly what a reporter would do? At least, when not running for his life, I mean. The camcorder has one other critical function, which is its night vision mode. Around 75% of the asylum is pitch black, and the camcorder becomes crucial simply to navigate the darkened hallways and rooms. It’s the most useful “flashlight” in horror game history because, unlike other ways of seeing in the dark, it doesn’t help the bad guys see YOU.
The night vision is so important, it will come as no surprise that you aren’t allowed to rely on it too often. The only resources in the entire game are the batteries for the camcorder. Fortunately, simply using the camera to record or zoom in to see down a hallway doesn’t drain power, but using night vision will drain a full charge surprisingly quickly. There are batteries scattered all over, and they provide another reason to be thorough in your explorations, but the game only lets you carry up to ten of them at a time. I found myself fully stocked much of the time, and I don’t think my collection ever went under seven in the latter half of the game, but I was extremely frugal in my night vision usage.
One of the things that makes Outlast so frightening is its lack of predictability, at least on the first playthrough. When I started, I made the somewhat reasonable assumption that every inmate, with the possible exception of Father Martin, would be rabidly gunning for me on sight. When I saw a group of patients watching static on a TV set, I pondered how to sneak past them. But then I realized that these men were all but catatonic. Other inmates I walked by were simply sobbing in a corner or muttering cryptic (but not hostile) words to me as I passed. Still others whispered how they would kill me eventually, but not yet, or called me a pervert because I accidentally observed their act of necrophilia.
The true fear comes from not knowing if one of these patients is going to try to throttle you as you creep by, or become violent on your return trip through the same room you safely crossed earlier. It’s almost like the final scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where the protagonists are walking through a flock of calm seagulls, not knowing whether at any moment the birds will change their mood. You’re surrounded by insanity at Mount Massive, and the fact that not all of it is dangerous ironically means you never truly feel safe. As effective as it is, there are a few holes in this lack of predictability, mainly the game’s habit of throwing a murderous psychopath at you nearly every time you accomplish something. I found myself automatically hiding every time I pulled a lever, found a key, or pushed a button. Not because I heard an approaching attacker, but simply because I knew there was an excellent chance one was on its way “just because”.
When you do encounter one of the more violent inmates, the more visceral gameplay commences. With no weapons available, the best option is avoidance. Hiding in dark corners and sneaking past when your assailant’s back is turned is the ideal scenario, and some of the scariest moments are spent creeping around praying the big man with the knife doesn’t suddenly see you. If you’re spotted, the game’s music rises to a crescendo and you’d better start running. You can slow down your pursuer some by closing doors behind you and picking hallways with obstacles to vault over, but you’d better find a place to hide soon and hope that you remain out of his sight long enough for him to lose track of you. In addition to darkness, you can also hide in lockers or under beds, but these don’t mean you’re safe. Clever psychos will check some of these hiding places. There’s nothing like listening to your heartbeat as a killer walks closer to the locker you’re hiding in, hearing him open the locker next to yours, and hoping to God he doesn’t decide to open just one more.
In addition to the occasional chase, every once in a while you’ll struggle with an unarmed but rather aggressive inmate. This leads to a simple Quick Time Event where you’ll need to quickly move the mouse back and forth, or toggle your right analog stick on a gamepad. I had so much trouble using the mouse for the first one of these that I died literally seven times in a row, long after the scene had stopped being scary and started being annoying. I switched to the gamepad for the event and easily passed it, then continued using it for the rest of my playthrough. My mouse has never let me down before, but it certainly did in this case, so I recommend a controller for this one even if you, like me, tend to prefer the mouse and keyboard.
If I can criticize one aspect of the horror in Outlast, it’s that it can be heavy-handed at times. The game has a huge number of jump scares, and while they’re generally quite well executed they become a little overused at times. Horror titles like Eternal Darkness (which has one, and ONLY one jump scare) have proven how effective restraint can be in this area. The other elements of horror here are based mostly on gore and the psychopaths who chase you. I’m not saying it’s ineffective; the game scared me more than any other in recent memory. But the title lacks the subtlety of classic horror gems like Amnesia and Silent Hill 2, which provided a sense of creeping dread and desolation in addition to the base fear of being murdered.
It’s worth noting that exploring, running, and hiding are pretty much all you’ll do while playing Outlast. Your objectives vary, from finding a switch to turn power back on to locating a key to unlock a critical door, but they all amount to exploring until you get what you need to move forward. There are no real puzzles to solve or riddles to unravel, other than deducing the plot along the way. The navigational challenges are limited to finding the right window to climb out of, or the right pile of boxes to jump onto to reach a high ventilation shaft. There’s a long history of survival horror games using mental challenges to flesh out and vary gameplay, so it’s almost surprising that Red Barrels chose to break that mold. Still, no puzzles is better than bad puzzles, so perhaps they made the right decision to play to their strengths.
The graphics in Outlast may not be on a par with all the newest blockbuster titles, but they’re excellent for a budget release. The level of detail in the environments, from the bloodstains to the grainy television sets, is of superior quality. And the visual effects of the camera, especially the green-tinted night vision, never disappoint. The inmate animation is excellent as well, though the lip synching is fairly basic in execution. The only time something felt off was when I was fleeing from two psychopaths who were trying to bash down a locked door. They acted in perfect unison, somewhat shattering the illusion of two separate entities. The tradeoff for this quality is the lack of variety. There are administrative offices, prison cells, courtyards, and maybe one or two other areas in the complex, but a lot of the environments feel familiar after a while, from identical looking hallways to the same glowing computer screens in every office.
Considering how many residents of Mount Massive you encounter, it’s impressive how different they can look. They all have the same sort of facial deformities, but the game does a good job of adding diversity to the different misshapen faces, my favorite being an understandably silent inmate who had so much cutting and stitching over his face that his eyes were the only features that remained. Sometimes monsters in games aren’t as scary when you actually see them up close, however, and this is as true for Outlast as it is for any other horror game. But when I was cowering in a dark corner barely able to see a stalking killer through the green tint of my night vision, watching him walk closer and closer to my hiding spot did not make him less intimidating.
Audio is incredibly important in any good horror game, and Outlast nails it perfectly. The soundtrack runs the gamut from ominous tones during exploration, to tense strings while being stalked by an inmate, to high-pitched bursts of music when you're spotted. The style of the music never really varies throughout the game, but it doesn’t need to. It’s more about setting the tone and the mood than anything else, and it never feels repetitive. Sound effects are exceptional as well, from the footsteps and heavy breathing of Miles to the crashing of thunder to the shink sound of the scissors being wielded by a particularly nasty doctor. When you’re cowering in a closet with nothing but your ears to tell you what’s going on outside, you’ll grow an appreciation for the work Red Barrels has done with their audio. Voice acting is good as well, though it’s hard to understand some of the inmates through their garbled faces. As a result, this is one of the very few games I played with the subtitles turned on, as I didn’t want to miss any clues to the overall plot.
While certainly not an adventure game in any conventional sense, Outlast is a game that true horror fans with steely nerves should love. Your helplessness against enemies, combined with convincing graphics and sound design make this easily the scariest game of the year so far. Even minor issues like repeating environments and excessive jump scares can’t keep this from being an easy title to recommend. There’s nothing quite like running for your life, listening to Miles panting as you search desperately for a place to hide. So download it tonight. Play it in the dark. Use headphones. What are you, scared?
The scariest game since Amnesia (if not quite reaching the same standard of excellence), Outlast is an adventure no horror fan should miss.