I was unbelievably nervous the entire day before Outlast’s release and my subsequent livestream of the game. From everything I’d heard, it was being heralded as a GOAT in the horror genre which meant it had the capacity to scare the poop directly out of an unsuspecting player’s bowels and ruin both their reputations and their pants. Being that I’m not exactly the bravest guy on the planet, offering to review the game live in front of people seemed quite foolish but I pushed on, doing my best to summon the strength of my ancestors who most likely had loads more courage than I ever would.
Curious Miles, The Most Curious Little Journalist
Taking on the role of investigative journalist Miles Upshor, you travel to the Mount Massive Asylum, a rather large and foreboding facility in the remote wilderness of Colorado. Miles, evidently has balls of steel but the common sense of a drunken teenager as he decides to check out the facility by himself, armed only with a camera that happens to have a night vision function. Outside of that, he might as well be a lamb in a forest full of wolves as he has absolutely nothing in the way of self defense outside of quick feet and being a pro hide and seek player.
The camera turns out to be your most important tool due to its night vision mode as Miles has no flashlight to speak of and this being a horror game, well lit areas are few and far between. The camera is also used to record certain important events and clues, though I’m not entirely sure how they impact the game outside of revealing more of the story to you. To add to the tension, the camera can run out of power so you’ll need to pick up batteries throughout your time in the game or risk wandering around with limited vision.
Scares Out the Gate
As I made my way towards the facility during the game’s introduction, I couldn’t help but stall before making my way inside. While some of that had to do with the hype surrounding the game, I felt utterly defenseless and alone as I walked towards the hellish building. Outlast is oozing with atmosphere and has an amazing ability to scare you with little more than a shadow and a creepy sound effect. The graphics didn’t help my anxiety either as I have never played a horror game that looks this good. In the past, I’d relied on low quality visuals to give me an air of safety, as crappy models and low res textures could be comical at times. Neither of these escapes are to be found in Outlast.
After I finally made my way inside, I had to remind myself to breathe as I creeped forward, unsure of what I’d find or what would find me. Outlast is at its best during these initial moments as your hyper vigilance begins to work against you. You begin to wonder where everyone is and when you finally find them, you start to wonder why they’re in so many bloody pieces. You could cut the tension with a knife during these moments as you finally come to the realization that things are about to get super scary.
You eventually come face to face with the residents of the asylum, most of them benign lunatics that pace back and forth, rambling about experiments and other strange topics of one sided conversations. There are a few, however, that don’t buy into the whole sanctity of life thing and as a result, will chase you down and try to murder you. In these situations you only have a few choices; run, hide or run then hide.
The hiding mechanic, unfortunately is the thread that begins to unravel this truly frightening experience. After a while, evading your pursuers becomes pretty simple, almost to a comedic level. Don’t get me wrong, the initial chase scenes were absolutely horrifying. As I got comfortable, however, I stopped playing like a panicky little rabbit and discovered that all of the enemies function more or less the same. By crouching and moving slowly, I could avoid most conflicts. Even when enemies managed to damage me, they always gave me enough time to escape and recharge my health. Death never felt like something I should be afraid of as the checkpoint system is quite friendly, which is a double edged sword given the emotions the game was attempting to evoke. The enemies themselves are also a bit dumb as I was able to crouch down mere feet from them and they’d lose me. There are a few scripted events that got the jump on me, but other than that, the sense of danger dissipated after the first hour or so.
The residents of the asylum are a bit too talkative in Outlast. While the utterances of the truly disturbed can be quite chilling, knowing that these chatty individuals wouldn’t attack me eliminated any fear I may have had of them. It is too easy to figure out who wants to eat your face and who is perfectly content with rocking themselves back and forth. Even the ones that chase after you lose their edge once their vocalizations get out of control, especially a certain scissor wielding madman that called me “buddy” as he came after me.
That being said, Outlast is not without it’s frightening moments. While it had its fair share of jump scares, they aren’t its sole source of horror which I respect as cheap scares take little effort. For example, another standout moment is when your character is forced to wander outside into a pitch black courtyard and your night vision struggles to find any light to enhance. The panic I felt from the beginning of the game started to regain its hold on me, but unfortunately it didn’t last very long. Regardless, Mount Massive Asylum is a very scary place and deserves a spot amongst the creepiest environments in gaming.
I may sound like I’m being harsh on Outlast, but I want to be clear that it was an enjoyable experience, just one that turned out to be a bit of a one trick pony. Red Barrel Games deserves a ton of respect for going against trends and making a true horror game, but their mechanically simplistic approach ended up being counter productive to the goal of the game itself. I just get the impression that the designers relied on players being panicked for the entire game, which would have been quite the accomplishment. Once my panic subsided and escaping from maniacs became routine, there was really nothing to focus on outside of getting to the end and discovering the source of all the madness. While I don’t think every game needs combat, exploration and puzzles, they do need other qualities in case the primary hook isn’t enough.
Big Blunt Reveal
One such quality that Outlast could have benefited from is having an engaging story as gameplay be damned if I’m engrossed in the plot. The game does begin with quite a mystery, utilizing collectable documents that flesh out the backstory, thus allowing you to come to your own conclusions about what was really happening at Mount Massive. Outside of stocking up on batteries, finding these logs was my only real motivation for exploring off of the path the game set in front of me. I didn’t know what to expect and that was enough to keep me interested. Unfortunately, Outlast decided to just go ahead and tell me exactly what had happened as opposed to maintaining the secrets that hooked me to begin with. While the finality was unexpected, it wasn’t exactly original and that was a bit disappointing.
In terms of value, I’m a bit torn. At launch, Outlast is only $20 but it’s short length and lack of replayability does make that seem a bit expensive. While I think Outlast is definitely a game that horror aficionados need in their library, that price may alienate those who have to be a bit more cautious with their spending.
It’s games like Outlast that make me happy we’ve ditched our review score system as this one is a bit difficult to nail down. I wanted to love it and lavish it with praise, and while I do think it did a lot really well, I don’t think Outlast should be the blueprint for horror games to come. Outlast starts out extremely strong but putters out quicker than it should due to simple mechanics that rely far too heavily on the player being intoxicated with fear.