Indie Review: Outlast
Outlast is one of the biggest indie horror titles to land this year. It comes from Red Barrels, a team of veteran developers who are out to prove just how good the horror genre can be. Do they succeed?
- Worth The Time?Yes, Outlast gives you a hell you'll remember.
- Things LovedIntriguing story, incredible graphics and sound, the atmosphere is phenomenal, it is genuinely unpredictable, plenty of memorable scares, it constantly finds new ways to make the experience more intense, you never feel truly safe, it's true survival horror, the night vision camera effect is amazing, the game is challenging, it's demoralising.
- Things HatedSome elements of the game can get repetitive, a few enemies don't look intimidating up close due to bland or repeated models.
- RecommendationTo any horror fan out there, Outlast is a no-brainer. Definitely not recommended for the easily squeamish though.
- Name: Outlast
- Genre: Horror
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS4 (2014)
- Developer: Red Barrels
- Publisher: Red Barrels
- Price: $19.99 (about R200)
- Reviewed On: PC
Red Barrels Games, the developers of Outlast, are certainly an interesting bunch. The team is made up of veterans who worked on big-name franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Army of Two. While this definitely boasts a high pedigree, it’s intriguing to see that there is no solid horror background there. That then is part of the reason why Outlast has blown me away, surprising me to no end when it presented itself as one of the best horror experiences I’ve had. I guess that spoils the surprise of the verdict of this game, but hey, I have a job to do and you can always decide to read on ahead anyway if you want to know exactly why I’m praising this game.
In the game you take on the role of independent journalist and
the world’s biggest moron Miles Upshur, who breaks into Mount Massive Asylum, which is situated in the remote mountains of Colorado. The reason for Miles’ apparent retardation is that this asylum, a long-abandoned home for the mentally ill, recently re-opened by the supposed research and charity branch of the huge Murkoff Corporation, and has been operating in strict secrecy. Until the present day of course. Miles gets a tip from an inside source that something big is going down there and he, in his infinite wisdom, drags his suicidal butt alone and unarmed to the facility to find out and record what’s really going on in the asylum.
The story of Outlast is certainly intriguing, and it gets pretty compelling within the first half an hour. As is typical in games like this, notes and documents make up a large portion of the information you’ll receive about the backstory and setting, but Outlast adds a tiny twist to it to make it more interesting. You’ll only get notes if you record certain events, which basically means you view them through your camera. It doesn’t do much to affect gameplay, but it adds a little bit more immersion to the experience and importance to what you see. Otherwise, the story stays in the fine line between background and foreground, and most of what keeps you captivated is just wondering what’s around the next corner. In this way, Outlast is really like a destructive drug, in that you want to see what happens next, but at the same time you’re dreading it, which is a powerful tool for a horror game to have.
Many indie horror games of today use minimalism for gameplay, as in there’s very little of it. Horror games of today are often more on the interactive narrative side of things, or leave you with just very little interaction. This is not a bad thing at all, but at times you do crave more by means of gameplay. Fortunately Outlast is more traditional, and while it does remain simple, it provides a challenging and well rounded gameplay experience. In true survival horror fashion, you cannot fight your enemies. You can’t even shove them or deter them in any way, and that means your only means of defence is to run or hide. Your only available tool is your camcorder, equipped with night vision for navigating dark areas, and this casts an eerie green hue on the world. But the catch is that your camcorder is a resource, because it works on short-lived batteries, of which you need to find in the environment. Inability to fight and resource management? This is what survival horror really is.
Immediately, this sets the stage for a very intense experience. You can’t be wasteful with your camcorder, but at the same time it’s not limited to the point of frustration, unless you’re a really slow or negligent player. Your main way of staying out of trouble is by sneaking and using the darkness to your advantage, but enemies in Outlast are relentless. Once they get sight of you they’ll hunt you down, and you’ll need to run, try to outsmart them, vault over objects, shut doors in their faces to slow them down and hide to save yourself. But here’s one of the best things about the game. Often the words “never feeling truly safe” are exaggerated, but in Outlast it’s much closer to being true. Enemies don’t just give up the moment you disappear into a hide spot. On many occasions, an enemy saw me enter a room, and actually began to open locker doors, one of which I was hiding in. You can only imagine how nerve-wracking this is. If enemies find you under desks, they’ll grab you and throw you out. If you slip into a narrow space and an enemy catches up, they can throw you out. If you slam a door in an enemy’s face and find out you’ve got into the wrong room, well they’ll bash the door down and get to you.
This really makes Outlast such an immersive and constantly nervy experience. It also makes it feel more “real”, for lack of a better term. The game uses a variety of scare tactics, from jump scares to great scripted moments to fully organic sequences, which means they’re up to you rather than predetermined. But the game always succeeds because of its phenominal atmosphere. The darkness is superbly done, with your night vision camera really giving you a fear-inducing view of the world, making you feel more vulnerable than ever. It never feels like the game is trying too hard, and finds the perfect balance between subtlety and in-your-face terror. But most importantly, the reason the atmosphere is so great, is because the developers understand how horror fans think. I play them by the dozen, but most of my predictions were off in Outlast. When I thought something was going to happen, it happened two minutes later when I least expected it. When I thought I was out of danger, I got thrown into a worse situation literally at the next moment. In this way, it’s demoralising and it’s genuinely unpredictable, and I love it.
It really is entertaining, now that I think of it, that the game tried to break me down as much as it did the protagonist. It’s filled with plenty of memorable scares and highly intense moments of which I absolutely won’t spoil. But there were times where I got through heart-racing and terrifying sections, breathing a major sigh of relief at being in the clear, only for something horrible to happen that left me in disbelief. You’ll come to relish the quiet as much as resent it for unnerving you and making your mind start to wander off to when the next scare will be, and all of this boils down to exactly what horror is all about. Your mind. Haunting it, manipulating it and messing with it. Outlast does this aplenty. There is never a moment in the game where you don’t at least feel nervous or unsettled. And what’s better is that the game constantly finds new ways to outdo itself and make the experience more tense. There were two or three occasions where I felt that I had just experienced the most hectic part of the game, only for something worse to occur later. At the end of this game, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
And that’s why I appreciate it so much, because honestly even if I act like a tool in my Let’s Play videos, I am rarely scared. I laugh at horror movies and love it when others get scared. I enjoy gore, although I get annoyed when it’s done in excess just for shocks. I play all my horror games with headphones and in total darkness. I am a junkie for the adrenaline rush of a great horror experience. But it’s been a long time since one affected me as much as Outlast, messing with my head, genuinely frightening me, keeping me guessing and impressing me more the longer I played. But for all this praise, there are small issues I had with it. For starters, it felt like later on certain elements, mostly with quest design, got a bit repetitive, as activating or finding a certain amount of switches or objects for instance got overused. Secondly, a few enemies don’t look that intimidating up close, due to bland or repeated models, which reduces their scare factor. These aren’t major, and there’s enough variety to carry the whole game easily, but they are flaws. Fortunately, because you’ll most likely run like a crazy person the moment you encounter an enemy of any kind, the select few who are less detailed and scary won’t be noticed that easily, and can be somewhat forgiven throughout the game’s four to five hour duration.
Outlast features absolutely incredible graphics. It really is one of the most gorgeous horror experiences I’ve had, presenting itself as near flawless in this area. The darkness and lighting is simply astounding, and the night vision camera effect in particular is amazing. While the design of the asylum itself could have done with more colour variation, it’s a stunning place to navigate with fantastic attention to detail. Little things like leaving bloody footprints behind if you step in a puddle of human red goo or seeing your camera light start to distort and dim when the battery is low add to the immersion and are appreciated. Performance-wise as well I can’t fault Outlast for anything. Just in case, it’s worth mentioning that on maybe three or four occasions I experienced my frame rate dip and stutter, however I can’t reliably state this as a fault because I recorded my entire first playthrough for my Let’s Play series. So it most likely was due to that strain that my frame rate chugged in select, loading moments. Finally, the audio is tremendously well executed, and the game knows exactly when to be subtle and ramp up the tension. Often, I found it hard to believe that Outlast is an indie game, and that’s testament to its quality.
Outlast is simply a masterpiece in survival horror. I can’t remember the last time a horror game made such an impact on me. It really is one of the most intense, thrilling and fear-inducing experiences I’ve had, clearly demonstrating the potential, and in my opinion superiority, of horror in interactive video games over other media. Indie has truly brought horror back, and I could not be happier. This is an absolute must play to any fan of the genre, although the squeamish among you should steer clear.