Before I begin, I’d like to point out that I don’t do well with survival horror games. It’s not that I dislike playing them it’s just that I’m an easy mark for jump scares, psychopaths gnawing on my ankles, that sort of thing. So when I sat down to play my review copy of Outlast I made sure to turn the lights off, the volume up and had my girlfriend–a veteran of all things horror who’s been through everything from Silent Hill to Amnesia sit next to me as my litmus test for how scary things got as I ventured into Mount Massive Asylum.
You play as Miles Upshur, a take-no-prisoners journalist who’s willing to go after the stories nobody else will. You’ve arrived at the asylum to investigate reports of unethical practices released by an anonymous source deemed ‘The Whistle-blower’. The game doesn’t take long to get you into the fear, action and depravity of it all. Within minutes of gaining access to the asylum I was witness to a myriad of intense and gory set-pieces, getting me good and jumpy right off the bat. Something horribly wrong has happened and it’s made abundantly clear that the guys with the guns tried to stop it and lost. The story is uncovered through a clever combination of personal notes and official documentation you come across throughout the facility. Notes are only created when something of interest is caught on your trusty handheld camera. This worked well in helping me identify with the silent protagonist as he actively scrawled down reactions and thoughts about whatever horrific event we both just witnessed. The documents you collect help to unravel the mystery of what went wrong. This simultaneously lends flavor to your role as a journalist while building the impending terror of what could be lurking around the next corner.
Outlast offers an absolutely stunning level of graphical fidelity; crisp visuals and top-notch textures were so good I had to remind myself that I could touch things without fear of contracting tetanus. Red Barrels has also done a wonderful job of making us aware of the character’s body through subtle use of his hands in the first person perspective. You’ll see Miles gently lay his hand on door frames as you peek around a corner, pull himself through tight crevices and press himself against narrow ledges as he shimmies across them. It’s a nice touch that happens naturally during exploration and doesn’t feel clunky or come off feeling like a gimmick.
Another standout feature of the game is its choice of enemies; rather than being constantly pursued by random loonies, most of the time there’s a handful of superhuman freaks that you continuously encounter and try to avoid throughout the game. I liked this approach because crazy as it may sound I started building relationships with these monstrous meat-bags as we played hide-and-go-rip-my-head-off. Whether it was the hulking Chris Walker muttering about how he could smell the little piggy (me) or the twins’ bantering back and forth about who gets to keep my tongue when they catch me. The threats in Outlast are given real authenticity and each offers its own unique brand of fear when they’re after you.
Aside from evading the clutches of Massive Asylums denizens, the handheld camcorder represents the beating heart of survival management in Outlast. You basically keep it equipped and look through it at all times (I haven’t found a legitimate reason to pull it away from my face yet, although the option is there) but the real utility it brings to the table is night-vision capability. A battery status bar is located in the corner of the screen at all times, while normally this isn’t affected by operating the camera, the moment you flip on the night-vision mode it begins depleting rapidly. Because so many parts of the Asylum are bathed in darkness it’s almost impossible to navigate for long without it. Extra batteries are always in short supply so coming across every one of those little alkaline bastards feels like a godsend. You have to be extremely judicious with your night-vision usage or risk sprinting down pitch-black hallways with no idea where your going or what you might be running into. Moments when you’re forced to swap out a new battery in the inky blackness while a deranged patient searches the room for you are absolutely butt-clenching. Viewing everything through that grainy, pale green filter imbues Outlast with the quality of a really well made shaky-cam horror flick. Even though having the ability to see in the dark is a helpful feature, night-vision still has its limitations like visibility distance and zoom functionality to keep it far from feeling like an overly powerful tool.
During my time with Outlast I ran like mad down badly lit corridors, looking over my shoulder at the lunatic pursuers hot on my heels. Strings of expletives flowed from my mouth as I vaulted out windows, frantically slammed doors behind me and slid under dirty medical cots to hide. I would flip on my handheld camera’s night-vision and pray the babbling, teeth-gnashing psychopath wouldn’t see where I was when he burst into the room. Built with energy, action and frightful delight this game doesn’t miss a beat. There is a renaissance of quality horror titles right now and Outlast is leading the snarling, blood-crazed pack of them.