Videogame Review: ‘Outlast’
Available on: PC, PS4
Played on: PS4
I’m a little late to the game, if you’ll pardon the pun, when it comes to Outlast. As a mac user, I’m often behind the curve on Windows only and Windows-first releases. So I waited until Red Barrels’ recent survival horror game hit the Playstation 4, hoping that the console’s high fidelity as well as my own particularly great 1080p setup would offset the waiting period.
It’s taken me a while now to get far enough through the game to warrant a review. As sorry as it is, the game is pretty much the scariest thing I’ve encountered in years, far beyond the likes of Slender or Amnesia and so I have been playing it in bursts of a few hours at a time. While this may seem unnecessary given the game’s purported length of 5-6 hours, the fact that I creep everywhere, all the time, and spend inordinate lengths of time hiding in cupboards or under mattresses ensuring that my enemies are out of range has lead to a lengthy gameplay experience.
So what do I think? Well I think the game is gorgeous; the graphics engine renders the asylum setting in glorious detail, with atmospheric effects from the storm and wonderfully lit, or unlit as the case generally is, environments. The building looks well lived in, grotesque in parts and gorgeous in others. The exterior of the building is beautiful, and masks the horror within well. Although you understand pretty much what you, the player, are getting into, you can understand why you, the character, would expect less than you get. Horror wise I mean.
The game opens with you, an investigative reporter, arriving at the Mount Massive Asylum, having been tipped off about civil and human rights violations within the hospital. Your first goal is to sneak in, climbing scaffold and entering through an upstairs window. Very soon you are shitting yourself; indeed the character himself is prone to bouts of abject terror in which he shudders, breathes heavily and mutters to himself. This atmosphere only increases the heart rate of the player, leading to a relationship of synchronicity between the two of you.
This is helped along by the games most novel mechanic; in order to collect the evidence he needs, the player has brought along a camcorder to record footage of various happenings around the property. It’s Found Footage Horror Movie: The Game and while most of us spend the majority of found footage horror films like V/H/S, Evidence and the upcoming Willow Creek wondering incredulously why these people keep grabbing the camera instead of just running for their petrified lives, the fact that you require the night vision to see for much of the game means you are frequently switching between the two modes.
The asylum is filled with dark places, the dynamic lighting helping with the pushing of shadows. These shadows are helpful as the patients can only see in the dark as well as you can, which is that you cannot see at all. Without the camcorders night vision mode, and the batteries you must find to power it, you are, without exaggeration, royally fucked.
For the most part, the asylum is populated by patients in dire need of assistance. They mutter and cry, rock and scream. They huddle in corners and whisper to the darkness. They’re largely harmless but you can never be sure which inmates of Mount Massive are going to ignore you, and which are going to try and bludgeon you with a length of steel pipe.
Indeed many of the patients are incredibly dangerous, from the everyday crazies who chase you through the darkened corridors, to the naked twins who pop up now and then to comment on raping you and eating your innards, to the big guy, Chris Walker, an immense creature who stalks the halls of the hospital / prison / experimental torture facility / house of terror with the sole apparent goal of crushing your skull between his meaty palms.
As there is no combat in Outlast, your only choices when confronted by one of these predators is to run and to hide. Running is easy enough, although made more complicated by the previously mentioned total darkness found in many parts of the facility. In one sequence we are near exiting when suddenly the power grid crashes and you must venture in the pitch black of the basement to find a way to restore it.
You can hear the enemies, but without the night vision you cannot see them and once in the glow of emergency lighting they can see you. When they see you, they will attack and this frequently leads to the player running blind, lacking any knowledge of the building’s floorplan (there is no map), and stumbling from one room to the next, desperately searching for a hiding place, your battery warning light blinking, the night vision your only hope at survival.
It’s an intense experience, made all the more dire by the heightened state of anxiety the game places the player in. You know, 100% of the time, that there are men in the building who want to kill you, to defile you, to destroy you. You know this, and the game reminds you of it just often enough to keep you on edge, punctuating that anxiety with moments of pure, pants wetting terror.
Outlast is not going to be a game for everyone. I have a friend who was so emotionally wrecked after the original Silent Hill that for him this game may in fact induce a breakdown. If you don’t like games like Amnesia, Slender, the original Resident Evil games (back when they still counted as horror) and Silent Hill then you’re probably not going to get much out of here except a heart attack and a fear of dark places. But for the rest of us, for those of for whom fearing for your life and sanity is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend an afternoon this is a game you should definitely look into.
It’s a brilliant combination of first person exploration, without the complications of many modern titles – only two things to collect, batteries and documents, for example – and a wonderful narrative that weaves the mundane horror of humanities inherent cruelty and a thin ribbon of vaguely Lovecraftian homage to become what I think is the most exciting, horrifying and genuinely frightening game of the last decade.
It’s also got a few days left as the free game this month for Plus users on Playstation 4 so get it while it’s free.