Pixel Perfect – The Birmingham Press

Fez Windmill
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A brief introduction to the world of pixel art for the Birmingham Press. The article looks at the resurgence of the blocky art style, using Super Time Force and Mercenary Kings as good examples of retro pixel art style games with modern twists, with a brief mention (due to word count, otherwise I’d have happily rambled on for longer) of the likes of FezLone Survivor and The Secret Of Monkey Island.

The Birmingham Press started life as the online twin of an eponymously named local weekly newspaper. The site covers ‘News, views and comment from around the West Midlands and beyond’ from a dedicated and varied team of contributors.

Entwined Review

Entwined Title
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(Reviewed on PS4)

Entwined is one of the few games that has been simultaneously unveiled and released at the same time. Announced as part of Sony’s E3 2014 press conference,the game, made by a small team of graduate developers known as Pixel Opus, was shown off on the big screens onstage, and, in a surprising and very pleasant move, was revealed to be immediately downloadable for the PS4. Sony fans had a way of getting a piece of the E3 action right here, right now.

This was a pretty exciting and inspired move on the part of Pixel Opus and Sony. Entwined being available to download that evening (very early morning for us Brits actually) was a welcome contrast to the announcements made for other upcoming games, which for the most part,are still a long way off in terms of the development cycle. Having stayed up ’till the wee small hours to watch the Sony press conference, this was a nice little morsel of E3 goodness to get into my greedy mitts and start playing in an effort to feel like I too was in LA fawning over the demo booths, and lollygagging around with the rest of the world’s gaming press.

I liked the look of the simplistic style and vibrant vibe (good alliteration there if I do say so myself) of the game, so before hitting the sack that night I hopped over to the PlayStation Store, flung the contents of my Sony wallet at Entwined to get the download going, ready to tackle it later. Here are the findings from said wallet-flinging for you to examine in written form.

Which came first, the Fish or the Bird?

Entwined First Lifetime

Entwined is an on-rails racer of sorts, where you control two characters simultaneously, an orange fish, and a blue bird. The character designs are bright and colourful with intricate parts and very origami-like style and presentation. The game’s story, about two souls – said fish and bird – in love but “forever apart, always together” is apparently based on an ancient Chinese myth, and you can see the influence of it in almost all aspects of the design.  The result is an interesting portmanteau of ancient Japanese and Chinese cultures, which is pleasantly unusual.

The main gameplay on offer here is simple, yet quite absorbing. Each of the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 controls one of the characters. The left stick controls the fish, the right stick controls the bird. Each character can only move on their half of the screen; the bird can only move around on the right half, and the fish on the left. Using both sticks simultaneously, the player has to move the two characters, as they continually move forward, through colour-coded shapes that appear in each level, whilst collecting orb-like…well, orbs, on the way.

The game is, overall, incredibly emotive. It feels engaging and enthralling throughout the nine levels, or lifetimes, as the game likes to call them. However, before I go into more detail on the emotive aspects of the game, these simple controls quickly became one of the game’s biggest annoyances for me personally, so I thought it would be best to expound first and foremost on the issue of the controls pretty early on as it is THE main mechanic of the game.

Entwined Main Menu

 Sore thumbs and sore losers

You are told in the ‘how to play’ section that you are supposed to hold the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 by lightly resting the edges of your thumbs on the outer edges of each stick, as opposed to normally firmly planting the pad of your thumb over the centre. Okay I thought to myself, not a problem. This at first does feel like a good tip, as you can move the characters around much quicker and with less effort. However, while this gives you a slight advantage to rolling the fish and bird around the screen at faster speeds, I found that the trade off you get by lightly resting on the edges of the sticks is both imprecise and uncomfortable after only short periods of play. Having your thumbs poised lightly on the outer edges of the sticks can quickly become quite a strain for your hands, even for a lifelong gamer like me, who has probably spent more time wrestling with gamepads than I’ve had hot dinners…no wait that’s probably a lie, forgive me. Playing for anything longer than about 20-30 minutes can feel like agony on your thumbs, so I advise players who don’t want to take a trip down the carpal tunnel of love with their stinging, distended digits in tow to play in short and sweet sessions.

As a result, it can be hard to settle in and get into the game’s evocative mood, when your thumbs are practically screaming at you to stop – I personally would have liked to have played through the whole of story mode in a single evening, but I found I had to stop and take a break after each level or two. As someone who can (and will, don’t tempt me) spend days sitting around in nothing but my pants, wallowing in my lack of personal hygiene and filth whilst playing games till the wee small hours, the process of taking breaks from playing a game was quite a change from my usual modus operandi.

Time for a minor but relevant detour; Entwined isn’t the first game to use both sticks as a means of controlling two separate characters in, excuse the paradox here, a multiplayer singleplayer game. Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, a fantastic game by Starbreeze Studios, tasks the player with controlling the two (yup, you guessed it) brothers by assigning each brother one half of the controller, in a similar fashion to Entwined. The older brother is controlled using the left stick and performs actions using left trigger, whilst the younger brother is controlled with the right stick and performs actions using the right trigger. What was utterly genius about Brothers was the fact that the designers recognised and accounted for the fact that players would have a leading/stronger gaming thumb than the other – typically the left, which normally controls a character’s movement in games. This was perfectly mirrored in that game’s story and mechanics by having the older brother’s control on the left, and the younger on the right; the result of this configuration was that players would let the older, more mature brother lead the way without consciously thinking about it as it would be their stronger thumb controlling the left stick, and have the younger brother (being controlled by the weaker thumb) follow. Without going into spoilers, this paid off HUGELY in the story, with an incredibly powerful delivery that arose directly because of the game’s asymmetrical control scheme.

Entwined Fourth Lifetime

Unlike Brothers though, the controls in Entwined just feel downright awkward at times – I was always stronger with my left stick, AKA the fish, but even after sinking several hours into the game’s story and challenge modes, my right stick controlling the bird never really improved. I would routinely perform agile quick movements through difficult patterns of shapes with my left stick, and continually cock-up even the most basic of manoeuvres with the right.

The controls in Brothers took into account the imbalance of your thumbs’ preferences, habits and strengths and used those tendencies to craft a well-thought out control system. In contrast, during its most difficult sections, Entwined insists that you have equal strength and dexterity with both of your main gaming digits – something I don’t have, and something I’m sure most gamers won’t have either. Pixel Opus might well have designed it this way intentionally, perhaps suggesting through player’s asymmetrical and unequal control over the bird and the fish, a metaphor of sorts along the lines of the asymmetrical distribution of a couple’s love for one another. But if so, it’s not very apparent or particularly conducive to the style of an on-rails racer.

Freebird

Entwined Green Hills

Story mode sees you play through nine lifetimes, each one themed around a different element and emotion. The environments are abstract and relaxing in their simplistic yet elegant beauty, and whilst there are few chances to properly take in the background visuals whilst playing, when you do, everything looks suitably impressive. The lighting and particle effects amongst other such graphical wizardry really bring what would otherwise be dull endless tunnels to life.

The mood and feel of each section is varied too; I expected most of the levels to feel sad and lonely due to the longing Romeo and Juliet style love story angle of the two characters, but there’s a full gamut of moods and feelings that run throughout all nine lifetimes. Often you’ll find yourself just drifting off (in a good absorbed way, not a tired sleepy way) and just drinking in the mood of a level without consciously thinking about it, and these are some of the best bits of the game. When you find yourself lost in a zen-like sense of flow, the game excels, whilst also taking your thoughts away from your aching thumbs.

At times, the game delivers some truly exhilarating moments to experience – a testament to the game’s simplistic visuals and design. When you’ve passed through enough coloured shapes and orbs in a lifetime, you are prompted to press L1 + R1 to start the eponymous entwining process between the fish and the bird. Cue flashing lights, a dramatic increase in speed and thumping drums and music – the game shifts up a gear, and you now have to navigate through the final sequences, with each successful motion threading the two characters closer together with intertwining strands of colour and light.

Entwined Entwining

These sections feel extremely powerful; with my headphones turned up loud and my eyes glued to the screen, the overpoweringly emotional sensations these entwining sections would stir in me would often send the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and have me break out in goosebumps – in only a good way of course. The sensation of going faster and faster, and with the rousing music swelling around you and in your ears, it feels absolutely electrifying. Think the trippy ending sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with more fun and exhilaration rather than ominous alien obelisks and giant foetal space babies. Powerful stuff indeed for a simple on-rails tunnel racer.

Entwined Green DragonOnce you’ve completed the entwining, you find yourself controlling a big majestic green dragon, which, upon closer inspection, you can see is made up of the component parts of the fish and bird in a cool Lego/Meccano sort of way. The sections with the combined dragon are really emotive – I found myself feeling peaceful and relaxed, yet with bittersweet undertones of melancholia upon completing each lifetime. In contrast to the intense build-up of the entwining sections, here you can peacefully glide around a picturesque scene as you collect more orbs to start the next lifetime. It’s often quite nice to just spend some time quietly drifting about and taking in all the scenery; simply being able to drift around the open world sections as the dragon felt surprisingly special and stirring.  The controls are slightly different for the dragon, requiring both sticks to turn and manoeuvre it around in the sky, but it feels effortless and smooth, and it’s certainly a good opportunity to let your aching thumbs rest for a while. You can swoop and soar around to your heart’s content before making a beautiful sky trail to the next lifetime.

Entwined Dragon First Lifetime

Pulling off the required shapes and patterns in the on-rails sections is incredibly satisfying as they come towards you, when everything is going well control wise. The game’s sound design is tailored to the style of each level which is a nice touch; passing through a water drop shape on the water themed lifetime makes a nice drip effect, whilst passing through a squiggly cloud-like shape in the air lifetime makes a satisfying yet appropriate squeaky pop. Each sound effect and note is suitably co-ordinated to the onscreen visuals rapidly hurtling towards you.

Speaking of sound design, the musical score is rousing and dynamic – it responds to how you’re playing à la Rockband/Guitar Hero style, with more layers and timbres joining in when you make progress, and dropping out when you make mistakes. It feels lively and emotive, both overwhelming and symphonically massive, yet knowing when to take a backseat and provide moody and simplistically introspective pads and tones. Like I mentioned earlier, particularly impressive soundscapes come into play during the entwining sections; as a bass guitar player, hearing the low powerful bass tones lock in with loud drums that appear dramatically from the ambient aural landscapes as the speed increases made me grin from ear to ear at times. Nothing musically ever gets in the way of the gameplay experience; it’s there to enhance the gameplay experience. The music itself, the overall effect of it on you as you play, combined with its execution and responsiveness to the player’s actions is nothing short of fantastic, and contributed massively to my personal emotional connection to the game.

Entwined Dragon Ice

The overall story told is emotional and stirring whilst remaining abstract and minimal. The fact that the game gets you to run through a wide palette of varying tender emotions whilst playing, just through gameplay and without a single line of dialogue is very impressive. Whilst there’s not much here that particularly stands out as exceptional storytelling in itself, the moments you’ll experience while travelling through the nine lifetimes are memorable and evocative; you’ll remember the moods, spaces and thoughts that your mind drifted off into whilst playing rather than any major specific events themselves…except, perhaps, you might remember a couple of unpleasant things of course…

Swimming with the fishes

Entwined Rock SpiralWhy such a pessimistic subtitle and change in direction I hear you ask? Well, the major downside that I found to the story mode is the odd pacing and structure of it. Specifically, the game can quickly spike in difficulty in places, in sudden unexpected and startling points for a game with such a simplistic premise. It makes for a disjointed feeling experience, where you don’t feel a sense of progression or accomplishment at getting further, usually just an overwhelming sense of relief after major roadblocks of frustration.

The difficulty can spike arbitrarily, and not on a nice steady upward linear incline. Rather than starting off easy and gradually increasing the challenge as the player progresses through each of the nine lifetimes, the difficulty can suddenly shoot up in certain sections, and then fizzle out whimperingly in the places where the game feels as though it’s building up to a natural cumulative climax of sorts. Sections either feel controller-destroyingly frustrating or almost too easy, with no happy medium in between, and what’s more, they come in the wrong order, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying experience.

Maybe this is what they were going for with the story mode, to break up the difficult sections in an unusual or different way…or maybe I just suck at Entwined. I’m not sure. I found that I would breeze through some of the later sections of the game with nary a mistake from my colourful duo, whereas I consistently hit some serious roadblocks very early on in the early lifetimes. I soared through some stages which upon first glance, looked like they would give me a sudden apoplectic fit due to the number of shapes bombarding the screen at once with their sheer visual complexity and speed, whilst struggling immensely and repeatedly with what looked like easy and overly-simplistic groupings of shapes in the very early levels. A gradual ramping up of the complexity in each lifetime would have been more to my liking, with more of a concerted gameplay challenge coming at the denouement of the game rather than within the first few tentative steps of the journey.

Having said that, there’s no penalty for missing the shapes in story mode, so thankfully there’s no way to lose and there’s no lengthy reloads to go back to a checkpoint, the game just keeps on rolling. However, because of this, you can quickly end up in a demoralising loop of frustration after a while of repeatedly missing upcoming shapes. Every time you miss a shape, you lose a small chunk of the progression bars at the top of the screen (orange and blue for the fish and bird respectively), which means that continued mistakes will send you backward – both in terms of game progression and mental state. This means that on difficult sections, you can feel your will to keep playing drain almost as quickly as the progression bars slowly dwindle back down to the start.

Entwined Dragon Sunset

The core problem I found when playing Entwined was that the game asks you to pull off movements with the two sticks that feel either too fast or too precise for you to pull off with both sticks going at once. I know this sounds like a tedious or perhaps mistaken point for a gamer to argue about, but I would find myself repeatedly struggling to pull off the manoeuvres necessary to get through the shapes the game thrust towards me, with the speed and level of accuracy that it demanded. Factor into this the fact that the controls feel distended and awkward on your precious thumbs after only a relatively short period of time and this can quickly convince you that you’ve fallen into some Dante-esque coloured circle of hell, albeit with blue and orange obstacles flying at you instead of, presumably, flesh-eating demons. Your thumbs get tired from gripping onto the edges for dear life, so your precision to navigate through the next obstacles diminishes. You grit your teeth in frustration, and grip on tighter to the sticks, only for them to further ache in disappointment after yet another dropped shape which sets you back even further.

This might be again just a personal preference thing; for me, I find the Xbox One controller, with it’s higher offset left stick far more comfortable to use than the Dual Shock 4. The Xbox One controller makes playing for hours at a time feel very comfortable and easy on your hands, and as I’m more familiar with the Xbox consoles, this unsurprisingly feels most naturally to me. The central low down placement of the left and right sticks, positioned right next to each other on the Dual Shock 4 is often quite an uncomfortable playing position for someone like me who has more of an Xbox playing heritage; I feel that holding my thumbs consistently on the edge of the sticks in this position for extended periods just didn’t agree with me (or my tendons) if I wanted to play for longer than about 20 minutes.

Entwined Circle Shapes

If I were not such a black-hearted achievement/trophy hunting scumbag, I would have quickly lost the will to get past lifetime three, which for me, quickly became the bain of my existence whilst playing this game. Each lifetime has it’s own visual style or traits to set them apart. In my case, which I’m sure others have found out playing Entwined for themselves too, that the levels where I got stuck repeatedly, such as that pesky rock/earth themed fouth lifetime, were ones where I had to make short sharp jerky motions with the sticks to reach jagged pairs of shapes set at sharp angles away from each other, as opposed to lifetimes that required smooth controlled motions.

To this day, that fourth lifetime continues to give me grief each time I’ve gone back to replay it, and it becomes an irritating roadblock to my enjoyment of what is overall a very relaxing and enjoyable gameplay experience. I could cope with the longer twisting curving tunnels sections of repeated shapes where regular small minute adjustments were required for extended periods of time, which are in theory harder to pull off as there’s more shapes to pass through, whereas I never got the hang of those which required single rapid angular movements, usually from one extreme of the screen to another.  The speed at which you are required to spin your thumbs around the edges of the sticks feels near impossible at times to successfully pull off.

Other more minor things that got to me were that on some levels, it can be extremely hard to see past one or two shapes in advance of your current position. Obviously, this is what makes the game challenging to some extent, but it can get to the point that there’s so many layers of shapes going on it can be extremely hard to see what you need to do or where you’ve gone wrong. Whether you get through them or not feels more down to fluky panicked jerks on the control sticks rather than your skill/responsiveness at navigating through the hordes of shapes flying at you during the difficult sections.

Entwined Dragon Fairground

However, to play devil’s advocate with myself here (try it sometime, it’s pretty good fun), as I got more acclimatised to the game, my thoughts on the difficulty fluctuated somewhat. Having spent a decent chunk of time with the game, playing through the story mode several times, I’m a bit more forgiving of the problems I had in comparison to my initial frustrated impressions.

I’m writing this review bearing in mind that a large part of what could be considered difficult or frustrating for me will undoubtedly differ from player to player, and therefore may not apply to your own experience. As the majority of my gripes with Entwined are rooted in the control system and with analogue sticks of the PS4, and my inability to move said analogue sticks at the required speeds without whinging and moaning about getting cramped up thumbs, I’m perhaps going too far off into the realms of dogmatic rambling, somewhat close to diligent verbal self-flagellation rather than critical reviewing. Like I say, this could all be total poppycock as it were when you play, and you might not have any such issues, you supple thumb warrior you.

As the game is extremely visual based by nature, and simple and clean in the design of its user interface, I can see that including on-screen prompts and tutorials would somewhat clash with the game’s desire to be taken as an experience or journey first and foremost. In addition, despite how frustrating it can be when you are faced with a tricky section that you just can’t seem to get past, the game doesn’t stop or force you to start over, you can just keep on going, which does help to keep the experience feeling seamless and smooth even though you might be consistently struggling.

Entwined Tornadoes

However, to best draw a line under this ugly clump of paragraphs pontificating on the game’s controls and my thumbs, I have to say that those were my only real negatives to say about the game. On that note, it’s time to talk about the challenge mode, a rather snazzy dessert to finish off with.

A new challenger approaches

Entwined Challenge 1

To recap then, your first playthrough of Entwined will have some great moments in it that manage to be both genuinely touching and heartfelt. However, in terms of replayability, there’s not an awful lot to go back for in story mode. I could imagine going back to play through the mode again at a later date to experience all the nice ways it draws you into its simple but elegant world, but whilst the experience is still fresh in your mind, there’s not much there to tempt you to go back for another playthrough. Once you’ve played through it once that’s probably going to be enough for most casual players. What now you ask? Well, that’s where challenge mode comes in.

Challenge mode operates almost identically to story mode, but with a few key changes. First of all, it’s now an endless runner, with no powering up and morphing into dragons and all that stuff. I can see that you’re losing interest now that I’ve said there’s no dragons involved, but bear with me! What you get instead is a satisfying gradual difficulty gradient, a three strikes and you’re out system and highscores; this triumvirate of features don’t sound the most exciting things I have to say, but they make the game so much more fun to play. Trust me.

Challenge mode is the perfect thing to fire up and have a quick 10-minute blast through a few levels.  It has that great Tetris style compulsive itch to it; just one more time, one more go, and this time I’ll beat the highscore. The gradual difficulty curve the game offers in these challenge mode levels feels both welcome and enjoyable; it’s well-paced and never feels overwhelming – unlike in the story game. The speed you need to make your controller inputs and the complexity of the shapes is gradually increased in a nice smooth curve, meaning that there’s no sudden spikes in speed or difficulty, and when you do mess up it’ll feel like an error on your own part. You blame yourself for making silly mistakes; whereas you mess up in story mode, you curse and get angry with the game and not your performance.

Entwined Challenge 2

The series of shapes here is always a linear progression, unlike in story mode, which is partially linear, partially a series of loops. What you lose in unpredictability, challenge mode makes up for it in difficulty, albeit a well-structured difficulty that feels satisfying and addictive. Miss a shape or sequence three times and you have to start the level again from the beginning. Failure here is instructive though, and as I saw my highscores climb, I could visibly track the progress I was making, which felt incredibly rewarding. The ability to learn from your mistakes makes it feel much more worthwhile to play. Scores are calculated by how long you can remain navigating the course for, before you miss your allotted three mistakes and crash and burn in a glorious mound of brightly coloured feathers and scales.

There’s variety in the difficulty as well, which makes it feel more refreshing. The impressive lighting effects will sometimes flare up along the tunnel you’re continually moving down, which can make it harder to see exactly where the shapes racing up to meet you are, but at the same time it doesn’t feel particularly unfair or cheap. The challenge levels will also often lull you into a false sense of security; delivering you a series of easy shapes repeatedly on the left side of the screen for example, thereby focusing your attention wholly to the left of the screen only to catch you out by quickly sending you shapes on the right side of the screen in rapid succession.

Entwined Challenge 3

Setting highscores in a stage will unlock the next level (out of a total of five, each one named after an element and each being more difficult than the one before) and trophies are up for grabs for those most dextrous-thumbed of gamers who can unlock all the levels and set a marathon-like 300 seconds on a map of their choosing.

‘Forever Apart, Always Together’

Entwined Ending Sunset

Each time I’ve sat down to play Entwined, I’ve come away feeling quite emotional and deep in a sort of sadness that resonates with the game’s melancholic tone. For such a simple game, I would be utterly entranced while playing it, often finding that I had slipped into a deep meditative flow-like trance with its simplistic but satisfying gameplay. I’ve found that the more I’ve played Entwined, the fonder I’ve become of it. However, the main controls and gameplay mechanics can lead to fair bit of frustration which can pull you out of the relaxing atmosphere.

Like the mantra of the game itself, ‘forever apart, always together’, my feelings about the game are both simultaneously fractured and cohesive. While I try to keep my grievances with the controls and inputs ‘forever apart’ from the things that the game accomplishes well, sooner or later, due to aching thumbs and inaccuracy of control, I’m briskly reminded that these flaws will be ‘always together’ with the potent emotive elements that the game gets right. Although the story mode contains the majority of the emotional denouements, which are undoubtedly the game’s strongest points, playing the challenge mode quickly became my favourite way to play Entwined as it feels much more fun with considered difficulty challenges, rather than the cheap almost lackadaisically executed hurdles on offer in story mode.

As a result, there’s this unfortunate compromise; what you’re left with is a choice between emotive atmosphere and frustrating gameplay, or simple arcade fun with little depth at its core to entice all but the most determined of players to come back to. Entwined is an enjoyable and emotive experience, albeit one that you won’t be likely to replay once you’ve played through it all and seen all there is to see.

Entwined 'Forever Apart, Always Together'

 

Gaming: Everything But The Girl – The Birmingham Press

Female Assassin
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A brief account of the hot topic at this year’s E3 2014 for The Birmingham Press.

Ubisoft managed to land itself in hot water last week by defending the lack of a playable female assassin character in the newly announced Assassin’s Creed Unity, by claiming that it would have taken more time and effort than it was worth doing…despite the fact that this is a studio consisting of nine teams that have spent years toiling away at recreating revolutionary France in its full virtual reality glory. Is a woman really that much harder and more time-consuming to design than Notre Dame?

Click here for more details, and also for a sweet picture of a cool female assassin that unfortunately won’t be in the game.

The Birmingham Press started life as the online twin of an eponymously named local weekly newspaper. The site covers ‘News, views and comment from around the West Midlands and beyond’ from a dedicated and varied team of contributors.

E3 Press Conference Highlights – The Birmingham Press

Ubisoft E3 2013
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My first piece for The Birmingham Press, in which I briefly outline the highlights of last week’s E3 Press conferences given by the big three console gaming giants of the industry – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Click here to peruse the highlights of this year’s biggest gaming event, as parsed by yours truly.

The Birmingham Press started life as the online twin of an eponymously named local weekly newspaper. The site covers ‘News, views and comment from around the West Midlands and beyond’ from a dedicated and varied team of contributors.

Sony Press Conference E3 2014 Highlights – Everybody Plays

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The city of Los Angeles once again became the annual Mecca for gaming fans everywhere last week as the gaming industry’s biggest event, E3, rolled into town. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, as it’s known in full, took over the LA Convention Centre for the best part of the week in another annual avalanche of gaming announcements.

I covered the Sony E3 2014 Press conference that took place at the end of the day on June 9th (6:00pm Pacific Time – it was pretty early in the morning I’ll have you know for those of us over here in good ol’ British Summer Time) for Everybody Plays, breaking down the announcements and focusing on the news that would be of prime interest to Everybody Plays’ largely female parent readership. Check out the article here.

Everybody Plays is a UK-based gaming website (recently featured on BBC Click) that specialises in covering ‘games for the rest of us’, with a particular focus on the casual and family gamer.

Merida and Maleficent figures announced for Disney Infinity 2.0 – Everybody Plays

Disney Infinity, Merida & Maleficent
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My first piece for Everybody Plays – ‘Merida and Maleficent ride into Disney Infinity 2.0’. The article is about (surprise, surprise) the announcement of the Merida and Maleficent figures, respectively from the Disney films Brave and Maleficent, for the upcoming Disney Infinity 2.0. Check it out here.

Everybody Plays is a UK-based gaming website (recently featured on BBC Click) that specialises in covering ‘games for the rest of us’, with a particular focus on the casual and family gamer.

Outlast and Whistleblower DLC Review

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(Originally published on MyIGN on May 26th 2014)

Outlast - Title Screen

(Reviewed on PS4)

Outlast, by developer Red Barrels, starts off with the following disclaimer:

Outlast contains intense violence, gore, graphic sexual content, and strong language. Please enjoy”.

Boy oh boy, it sure didn’t disappoint!

The Huntsman and the Elephant

Time for a quick bit of personal background; I absolutely love horror games. I’ve cut my teeth and sharpened my nerves over the years playing classic horror games like Resident EvilSilent Hill 2+3Dead SpaceSlenderCondemned 1+2, and Amnesia. I used to boast that I’d finished Resident Evil using Chris on the hardest difficulty, and I wore that badge with beaming pride amongst my gamer friends. Beating the game with Jill was still pretty difficult, but Chris had it a lot worse – no grenade launcher, less inventory space and worst of all, he can’t play piano to save his life!

I’ve got all the achievements in the Dead Space games, including the ones tied to performing the insanely difficult limited save playthroughs. With accolades such as these on my gaming résumé, I felt prepared, I felt confident – Outlast wouldn’t be a problem. If I could take the fight to the Necromorphs in the darkest depths of space, and survive a hellish night in a mansion filled with zombies, zombie dogs, giant snakes, spiders, crimson heads and all that jazz, then a creaky old mental asylum should be a piece of cake…

When Outlast launched on PC back on September 4th 2013, not having a decent gaming PC myself, I grumbled about the limited gaming capabilities of my Mac, and played through Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs instead – itself a great horror experience. I always had my eye on Outlast though, I absolutely knew I had to play it someday. It would haunt me like an omen, it would be an itch that I couldn’t scratch, it would lie on the ground like a thrown-down gauntlet; an unmet challenge to my very soul and core as a gamer that I would have to face one day. That day… had finally come.

Outlast - Mount Massive Asylum

Mount Massive Asylum

As Outlast was downloading to my PS4, I waited patiently; with my Dualshock 4 in my lap, I was hastily going through what I could remember of the game from watching clips of IGN’s Destin Legarie play through it last year. I had watched him do a ‘let’s play’ video series when the game originally launched, so as I had seen some of the early sections of the game before, I thought I would roughly know what to expect. I was prepared, feeling good and both tense and excited for the insane adventure ahead. I felt like a Victorian game hunter, waiting prone in the long grass with my elephant rifle cocked and loaded, waiting for the ultimate prey – a bull elephant – to come casually strolling into my rifle’s scope, flaunting it’s pearly white ivory tusks. I felt prepared; I’ve always loved horror games and I considered myself well-versed in the typical jump scares and tricks such games like to bamboozle inexperienced players with. I thought that I could quickly fell the giant grey creature and have it’s head mounted as a trophy in my English gentry mansion. How wrong I was…

If we continue with this rather clumsy metaphor of me as the elephant hunter and Outlast as the elephant, then essentially the elephant stampeded my position, completely trampling and squashing me beneath it’s heavy, grey iron-like pillars of feet, before tossing my crushed sack of flesh and bones that originally resembled a body up into the air with its trunk and impaling me gruesomely on it’s ivory tusks. My corpse would slowly sink down the curved white tusks of doom, quickly turning red from my leaking innards. Heaving my last painful breath as my lungs fill with blood, I stare back at the dark malevolent void rushing up to meet me, as the elephant flicks my corpse back onto the ground before delivering a crushing stomp of a deathblow. FATALITY! In other words, Outlast completely and utterly terrified me from start to finish! So, remember, don’t fuck with the elephants kids.

Overview – Welcome to Hell

Outlast  Screen Shot 25:05:2014 21.14

Anyway, leaving behind the ridiculous personal whimsy of my overactive imagination for now, it’s time to get stuck into the main gristly portion of this post. Outlast tells the story of Miles Upshur – an independent journalist, and also perhaps the world’s unluckiest, who, as you’ll see, has a penchant for risky stories no other journalist likes to touch. Miles receives a tip from a whistleblower inside the Mount Massive Asylum. Mount Massive, a mental asylum closed down back in the 1970s, has been taken over by the shady Murkoff Corporation, under the guise of the takeover being benevolent charity work, but a whistleblower on the inside sends an email to Miles telling him that the charity angle is just a front for something much worse. How much worse exactly? Well, you’re going to find out pretty soon upon starting the game. So soon, in fact, that you might begin to feel unsettled as you even just start the game; I launched the game with a giant shit-eating grin plastered across my face, looking forward to the madness ahead. Much to my dismay, I saw the same shit-eating grin staring back at me from the title screen, as mine slowly fell from my face in a cowardly slump…and this was just one of the pre-game loading screens!

Outlast Administration Block Screen Shot 21:05:2014 04.02You soon find out that the asylum is home to some extremely deranged and dangerous patients, known as ‘variants’, who you have to do your best to hide and run from. In an asylum full of bloodthirsty, crazed maniacs, your only weapons are stealth, your fraying and ever-strained wits, and a trusty camcorder with a handy night vision functionality. I can say now that I don’t think I’ve played a more frightening or intense game than Outlast. The game is both a brutal rollercoaster of scares and pulse-pounding action, and also a game of nerve-rattlingly tense hiding and stealth sections. The combined styles of gameplay are so effectively blended that it made me feel almost ill and unsteady at times whilst playing, and I’d remain on-edge long after I’d switched the game off. It’s this tightrope act of balancing action and stealth that gives the game it’s own unique flavour; it builds upon the dread and stealthy tension of games like Amnesia and combines it with the fast-paced action sequences of horror films like 28 Days Later and the endless running of a game like Temple Run – no really! I mean that in good way, Outlast requires a similar razor sharp set of wits required for success at Temple Run to quickly navigate your way through the crumbling asylum and it’s catacombs of horrors successfully…only instead of being chased by demonic ape things, you’re being chased by a variety of grotesque human abominations. The stealth and action sections meld and reinforce each other, rather than pull apart, creating a one-off kind of horror experience you aren’t likely to forget.

Character, bodies and vampires?

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Miles has a full body in shot…for now…

Before we delve into the real horrors of the game, I’ll start with the basics. One of the first things you’ll notice when playing is that the game includes a detailed and responsive character model for you. I personally find it incredible that so many first person games these days are still content with you being just a disembodied floating head. There’s nothing more irritating than firing up a new AAA FPS game, marvelling at the graphics and environments, drinking in all the technical visual wizardry your flashy new purchase has dazzled you with, only to look down and see that you’re just the same old floating head…with arms and beefy gun attached of course. Outlast displays your chest, shoulders (knees and toes, knees and toes) legs, feet, arms and hands while you look down, which is an incredibly impressive and welcome detail and it makes you feel complete and present in the world. Your shadow is also rendered accurately, with it following your movements to a tee.

However, despite these awesome touches, you can notice later on that Miles appears to have no reflection when looking into mirrors. Granted, they are filthy shattered mirrors, but they are still mirrors nonetheless, so this means either Miles is actually a vampire (who knew?) or the designers didn’t program in a reflection. In fact, I only noticed this small detail when carefully approaching a bathroom mirror, very much expecting to see someone lunging at me from behind in the reflection. Anyway, they got a great deal right with the inclusion of Miles’ full body, and if we look past the slight disappointment of the no-show of Miles’ reflection for now, you might be asking why is this important and why am I starting off on such small details? Well, I think it’s the small touches like this that separate a fantastic horror game from an okay one… and, without going too much into spoiler territory, there’s a fair bit of body horror involved, so enjoy that body whilst you can still see all of it! From the very beginning of the game, you feel like you are Miles; you’re actually there, and if you’re playing in the proper horror game conditions, with the lights off in a dark room, you’re fully immersed.

Controls, journalism and the joys of infrared

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The controls you have at your fingertips are simple and easy to grasp. The controls are demonstrated to you as you begin to make your way deeper into the treacherous asylum. You have the standard laissez faire of movement options; the usual walk, crouch, sprint and jump, but the running and jump movements feel particularly realistic as they have a certain weight and momentum to them – for example, you can’t start running straight away at full whack, it takes a short while to get up to a decent rhythm, and a slight moment to come to a complete stop. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s there, and it gives your movements a realistic feel to them – combined with the slight bobbing of your vision, and the inspired inclusion of the ability to look over your shoulders whilst running down corridors means that when you’re running, you feel like you’re truly running for your life. On the flipside, you can sprint indefinitely, which is unrealistic, but I’m grateful that you can when you see some of the horrors barrelling after you once the game really gets into gear. The controls are clear and responsive, even in the midst of action.

You’ll quickly see that as you have no weapons, or any way of defending yourself – the only piece of equipment you have is your faithful reporter’s camcorder, complete with it’s incredibly handy (and convenient) night vision mode. The genius of Outlast’s design is that it subtly encourages you to play like a journalist; you’ll have the camera out for a large portion of the game, both as a means of navigation and to collect clues and other information. You see, you only take notes and make observations in your notebook when the camera is on and recording, which is a clever way of investing the player in the character’s journalistic mind-set; this cleverly encourages the player to explore and document events even as a keen reporter would who’s looking for a killer scoop.

Outlast Administration Block Screen Shot 21:05:2014 04.00

The Whistleblower email

The notes Miles jots down in his reporter’s notebook are both useful and darkly funny – they’re well-written with a panicked mixture of frustration and desperate rage at this horrific situation he’s placed himself in. It’s a real shame that there’s no voice acting here, but then again, that could be considered immersion breaking, as after all, with all the detailed attentions to your body and movement, Red Barrels want you to be Miles. Therefore, Miles wouldn’t read aloud his own notes to himself, especially when he could be overheard by the quivering ,wretched madmen lurking around every corner. However, his personal written style in the notebook gets across his witty cynical voice, which gives you a clear indication of his mind frame and character throughout his journey without the need for spoken dialogue. As Outlast progresses, his notes become more erratic and emotive, and the quality of writing and characterisation here is top notch. The game cleverly makes you question what you see through the sporadic and, at times, frantic scribblings Miles makes to himself. He complains of seeing things that aren’t there, seeing static flashes and hearing things that aren’t there…or are they? You really feel for him as he struggles to reconcile his duty to record and comment the horrifying events going on around him with his desperate feral desire to survive.

Miles' languag

Miles’ language is always colourful and amusing even at the worst of times

The first person perspective combined with the journalist’s camcorder is particularly unsettling – it feels like you are actually in your own found-footage horror film. When the night vision is on, and you’re carefully making your way down a pitch black corridor, you can’t help but be reminded of films like REC and The Blair Witch Project – which really doesn’t help your fears!  The night vision mode isn’t a massive game-changer for you though; you can still only see as far as your eyes allow. The whole room doesn’t light up like in other games that utilise night vision goggles/modes, so you still can’t see that far in front of you – it’s way better than pitch black darkness though! One of the most chilling things you can see in the game is a pair of bright green eyes staring back at you from the gloom as you’re trying to make your way through what you originally thought was an empty room.

Outlast  Screen Shot 25:05:2014 20.07The main drawback to using the night vision mode is that it quickly eats up your batteries. The batteries here operate strangely on just the infrared mode itself – the camera apparently requires no power to operate normally, just when the night vision mode is on. Anyway, ignoring the impossibility of the inner workings of Miles’ camcorder for now, batteries for the infrared night vision mode are a precious resource. They are hard to come by, and you are often keeping your eyes peeled for their characteristic glow throughout the game. The amount of batteries you can carry is determined by difficulty, with ten spares being the maximum on normal, whilst you have a measly two on the hardest nightmare and insane difficulties. You don’t know when you might find another, so you’ve got to try and be tight with how much night vision you use, knowing full well that you will most likely need it whilst being pursued by a variant or two down a dark corridor pretty fucking soon. Some areas are pitch black; if you don’t have any batteries left in these areas, you are totally screwed. The battery scavenging and management that you have to engage in during the game lends it an old school survival horror feel, which is fantastic. It reminded me of Resident Evil, where if you aren’t careful with your limited ammunition and resources, you can quickly paint yourself into a no-win scenario. Getting down to your last battery in Outlast feels very uncomfortable, and extremely distressing. Attempting to conserve battery life by switching on and off night vision inadvertently creates your own jump scares – how wonderful! This particularly applies to the higher difficulty levels, where batteries are much harder to come by, and you’ll be only using the night vision in bursts – so be prepared for some unpleasant pant-soiling moments when you’re down to that last battery.

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You’ll have to search some gruesome places in order to find those precious spare batteries…

One final note about the camcorder is that the alternative touch-pad controls for it were a bit confusing at first, as it feels more natural to use the d-pad to control the zoom functionality. However, the beauty of the touch controls is that if you’re spotted or attacked while zoomed in, then you can quickly brush the pad down and be instantly zoomed out and ready to run for your life right away. Your thumbs don’t even need to leave the sticks so you can zoom out whilst in mid-run too – it’s harder and more fiddly trying to do the same with the d-pad in a hurry…trust me!

Welcome to the jungle – meet the Variants

Friend or foe?

Friend or foe?

Okay, so we’ve talked about the character, controls, and the camcorder mechanics – time for the good stuff. Outlast is one of the most intense and frightening horror games I’ve ever experienced. I imagine it’s only topped by breaking into a real insane asylum in the dead of night and seeing how you get on in there!

Outlast  Screen Shot 25:05:2014 22. 26The scares here are visceral, physical and extremely brutal. There’s not any supernatural forces at work, and that’s what lends Outlast a particularly frightening atmosphere. You’re being chased by insane human beings. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are referred to in the documents that you find as ‘variants’. These guys are without a doubt the star of the show, and they are absolutely terrifying! For reasons you’ll find out as you play, a great deal of the variants have strange skin lesions and growths covering their faces and bodies. This gives them a horrifying appearance, and the art direction of the character designs is really unique. To say that a lot of gore and visual effects in horror films have been overdone (to death, you might appropriately say) the fact that Outlast has been able to create really unique and grotesque body and facial disfigurements is quite an achievement. For all their physical deformities, what’s particularly clever and horrific about them is the fact that their variation and unpredictability are what makes them feel so lifelike and threatening.

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They feel human. They act like humans… well, insane tortured ones anyway. You even empathise with some of them, as you see them as both horrific monsters and tragic victims simultaneously. You’re sympathetic to them; even though they might knife you if you get too close, or snap and start chasing you. The delicate balance of sympathy and fear make them incredibly believable and also particularly frightening. For anyone who’s visited a relative in an old people’s home, you’ll find the variants display a similar level of variety to the typical old age residents you’d find there – which doesn’t sound scary, but trust me it really is! The variants feel absolutely terrifying and threatening in a very real and tangible way; you feel an acute and at times almost hysterical fear from being helplessly close to them.

Despite their monstrous appearance, you'll feel sympathy for the patients…well, the ones that aren't trying to tear your face off anyway

Despite their monstrous appearance, you’ll feel sympathy for the patients…well, the ones that aren’t trying to tear your face off anyway!

What makes them truly frightening is the variety and unpredictability of their actions and moods. Some are vegetables, and are absolutely non-responsive to your presence as the player. Others will notice you and run away or quietly sob to themselves in darkened corners. Even towards the end of the game, you still find sorry souls huddled between furniture, shaking or sobbing to themselves and paralysed in fear with broken minds. You’ll even occasionally stumble across a friendly or conversational one – but as you can imagine, these are few and far between.

This chap is one of the few variants who is directly friendly to you in the entire game...

This chap is one of the few variants who is directly friendly to you in the entire game…

Unfortunately, you’ve also got extremely violent variants wandering around as well. Some are big and brutish, some are quick and lean, and, perhaps most terrifying of all, some are calm, mentally astute and soft-spoken, which is absolutely chilling. Some of the worst ones I met on the journey were a couple of variants who would quietly discuss amongst themselves how and when they would kill me and how they would divide up my internal organs…not nice!

…whereas, on the other hand, these two are definitely not here just to chat to you!

…whereas, on the other hand, these two are definitely not here just to chat to you!

However, it’s impossible to know whether they will attack you when you get close, so every time you find a variant, you are wracked with waves of both fear and tensed anticipation. Very early on in the game, you stumble across a bunch of docile variants watching a broken blood-splashed TV playing static. Truly skin-crawling atonal female choral music gradually plays upon meeting this first batch of non-responsive patients, and it continues to get louder. This choral score and strange yet uncomfortable scene feels horrible and deeply unnerving, as you don’t know if these seemingly catatonic patients will snap at any second and lunge for you.

Outlast Administration Block Screen Shot 23:05:2014 02.14

Even worse, the game also has some boss style variants for you to stumble into – and I won’t spoil them for you here as discovering them and their modus operandi is a great deal of what makes them initially scary. These characters are well fleshed out (quite literally in some cases) from the stereotypes they are drawn from and each has their own particular horrible characteristics. However, as the main antagonist is featured on the title image, I’ll divulge some information on Chris Walker.

Meet Chris – your new bff

Obsessed with maintaining security protocols, Walker will hunt you throughout the asylum

Obsessed with maintaining security protocols, Walker will hunt you throughout the asylum

Put simply, Chris Walker is one of the most terrifying creations you will ever come across in a horror game. He’s a massive giant of a man, an ex-military police officer committed to the asylum who is obsessed with maintaining security protocols – which he unfortunately considers Miles to be breaking. Standing at a towering 6’8″ tall, this hulking giant hunts you throughout the asylum and appears to have an uncanny ability to track you down wherever you go. He’s always hot on your tail and you don’t know where exactly he will show up next. He’s also surprisingly fast for a big burly guy. As a gamer who loved Resident Evil 3 and it’s fantastic Nemesis tyrant character, I was both enamoured and horrified by Walker. Much like Nemesis, Walker has his own bowel-loosening leitmotifs that play whenever he lumbers into an area. The low warbling tuba drones and and percussive hits that announce his arrival really fill you with utter dread. Usually, you won’t always have a direct line of sight on him, so you have to rely on listening out for the heavy clanking of the chains on his ankles and wrists as he thunders about the area.

RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

What’s terrifying about Walker, (and the other variants to a slightly lesser degree), is the responsive and clever A.I. he has. He listens to every noise you make, will search areas and rooms he sees you go into, and perhaps worst of all, he will diligently inspect potential hiding places you might be cowering in. Walker in particular can be seen to grow visibly frustrated, yelling, punching and kicking down doors as he grumbles angrily to himself. He’ll roam around in unpredictable patterns; you can never be confident of exactly what he’ll do next, which can make navigating around him an absolute nightmare and a real test of your nerves. Chris also has a knack of knowing exactly what you’ve already done objective wise, and will patrol areas that he knows you need to head to next. This means that you’re always on your toes around him, ready to quickly duck into cover to hide or to bolt down the corridor if you alert him.

Erm…I think I REALLY do have to hide from you Chris!

Erm…I think I REALLY do have to hide from you Chris!

Chris will dog you throughout your nightmarish jaunt through Mount Massive, and cuts such an intimidating figure and presence at almost every turn. Like, I say, there are other such ‘pleasant’ patients to acquaint yourself with in the asylum, but Walker is one of the most horrific and memorable – he’s the one that when you’ve finished the game and turned off the lights, will be stalking you in your dreams.

Found you!

Found you!

Stealth vs. action

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Outlast tells you right away when you select a new game that fighting is not an option. The game even prompts you again with a text notice shortly after one of your initial encounters with Walker that there’s no way you can fight back – hiding is your only option. You quickly acclimatize to this non-confrontational style of play, and you become adept at using a combination of stealth, hiding, running for your life and of course, relying on a great deal of luck. Stealth is a huge part of the game, and it’s essentially the only way you’ll be able to escape from the nightmarish asylum and its absolutely mental patients.

Outlast Administration Block Screen Shot 23:05:2014 02. 16Hiding in lockers and under the ward beds is nail-bitingly unpleasant and scary. You feel that you could be discovered at any moment. It’s not like Metal Gear Solid, where you feel that hiding and lurking can give you the drop on the enemy; this is pure survival. I found that during the most intense sequences, it took a great deal of willpower and determination to leave my hiding place, as often your vision is obscured, and you have to rely largely on your ears to work out where your pursuer is lurking and searching for you. But this can be hard, as much like when you’re scared in real life, it’s hard to control your own breathing, or to accurately listen to psychopaths strolling around the environment if your heart is beating like crazy and blood is pounding in your ears.

Speaking of listening, the sound design is superb. It’s these times when you are hiding in darkness, or sneaking quietly through an area that you particularly pick up on it. The dusty old floorboards creak and groan under your weight realistically, your leather jacket and shoes have a subtle satisfying squeak to them, and fabrics scrunch and rustle realistically as you kneel on your haunches or scramble to hide under a bed. Tortured screams can be heard reverberating throughout the cavernous stone structures of the sewers, whilst the soft white leather padding in the variant’s cells creaks and squeaks realistically in response to your movements.

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You also work out that the most obvious hiding places aren’t always the best. Sometimes, using the interactive hiding spaces, such as the lockers and beds, is often the best way to get out of sight, particularly so if there are several of them together. Other times, heading for that lone locker or a slightly too exposed bed frame is not a good idea, and the enemies pick up where you will most likely try and hide in a given environment. The enemy A.I. feels razor sharp and attentive even on the normal difficulty level. Finding your own improvised hiding spaces by ducking and crawling through the dark environments often feels much riskier and dangerous than the interactive hiding spots, but it usually pays off and you’re rewarded for your creativity by finding yourself with an easier route to your goal once your hideously mutated admirer has wandered off.

The game is particularly skilled in putting you in situations where you have to weigh up the risk and reward of stealth vs. action. Sometimes the only way out of a scenario is to take a calculated risk and make a desperate break for it, and hope that you have the wits to figure things out on the go. What’s fantastic is that the game does little signposting with tips once the first level is out of the way, so you often have a morbid eureka moment where you work out exactly what action you’re going to have to take to proceed…quickly followed by a sinking feeling of dread when you realise you’ve got to have an uncomfortably close brush with death in order to pull off a successful escape.

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As a result, stealth and action blend extremely well into a fluid well-oiled gameplay experience. Stealth usually only gets you so far – at some point, you’ll likely have to make a quick desperate dash for freedom, or you’ll be stuck crouching and hiding in the dark. The enemy AI is particularly aware of your movements and will inspect areas where they’ve caught sight of you, and like I said earlier about Walker, they tend to patrol closely where you’re likely to need to go next, which makes navigation through the majority of areas both challenging and tense. Each encounter with the variants requires a combination of different tactics and ideas, and you can’t expect to get away with the same repeated tactics at every turn. There’s not much room for error here, and particularly not on the higher difficulties, where a lot of the variants can one-hit kill you. There’s a section in the sewer where you come across the final ladder back up into the male wards. The only way to reach it is to wade your way through the waist-high sewage water to the middle of the area, which by the way, is being patrolled by Walker. No matter how sneaky and well hidden you might be, at some point, you’re going to have to break cover and run through the water as fast you can to get up a flight of stairs before making a leap to the suspended ladder, hoping you won’t get wrenched backwards by a brutally strong pair of hands! Spend too long sneaking in this area, and you’re likely to be caught; make a dash for the ladder too early and you’re likely to be caught again. Areas like this where the equilibrium of stealth and action are keenly balanced are some of the game’s finest moments.

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When you are discovered prematurely by one of the variants, you get a feel for how the game has blended the simple control scheme with some basic but effective parkour moves. The game quickly changes from slow stealthy movement to pure fast-paced survival running. You’re frequently required to leap over obstacles, vault over tables and quickly scramble into narrow passageways or clamber onto ledges or up into air vents, and the game makes these movements feel satisfying and easy to execute. Often, you just need to walk/jump up to the ledge/passageway and Miles will smoothly navigate through or around the obstacle, and you’re away.

Outlast - Parkour

Parkour moves blend in seamlessly with the standard movement controls

A feature that feels a bit lacking by its absence is the inability to do an immediate 180-degree turn move. Games like Resident Evil, with it’s universally disliked ‘tank’ controls (not by me though I might add, just to be needlessly controversial) sometimes have this move which lets you quickly turn right round on the spot which is extremely handy, and would have fit in perfectly with the otherwise fantastic Outlast control scheme when you run smack bang into someone (usually Walker) and need to quickly about face. Instead, if you have to quickly change direction in Outlast, you have to fully rotate round in a circle, which can feel cumbersome in comparison to the other moves in the control scheme. As the rest of Miles’ movements are very fluid and responsive, the fact that you have to sometimes do a winding circular turn to change direction can feel clunky and awkward, especially whilst being pursued. However, the delight at the satisfaction of a responsive and easy to grasp control scheme is counteracted by the fact that you’ve got to be always thinking and have your eyes peeled for the smallest details in the environment. Once you start running, you’re basically looking to shake off your pursuer, close doors and barricade them whilst you find a new hiding place, or to make your escape from an area. There are a few sections in the game where you have to just run for your life; there’s no time to hide, and these are incredibly exhilarating!

The action sequences often require quick thinking, cunning and nerves of steel

However, I did find myself getting stuck at these points in the game, where I felt I didn’t know how to progress through an area – and these were nearly always the high pressure chase scenes, where fast thinking and quick wits are required for quite extended periods of time without a cooldown period. These are the areas where it’s easy to die over and over again, as usually it only takes one wrong turn or one pause to think for you to meet a grisly end. Usually the solution is pretty straightforward, but it sometimes takes a bit of trial and error, which pulls you out of the immersive experience a tad. This does unfortunately stop sections like these being scary after a few goes round and you’re still not exactly sure what you’re doing right or wrong. Sometimes there are inconsistencies which can make it hard to work out what to do or where to go – for example, all doors are normally interactive, even if they’re locked, except during certain very specific sequences. This can be frustrating as it can take a moment to work out if a door is unlocked, locked or just not interactive in this particular sequence, and by that point, you’ve usually been bludgeoned to death or dismembered. Each repeated run through a difficult area with no clear direction can feel less and less scary or intense on each subsequent playthrough. The strongest sections in Outlast are where you need a careful balance of both stealth and action – too much of one can tend to take away from the other.

Scares, tension and heavy breathing

Oh dear...

Oh dear…

Outlast is absolutely masterful with its control of scares. It delivers them with such confidence about knowing your current state of mind, and with impeccable timing. The game displays a genius-like knowledge throughout its entirety of when to scare you senseless, and when to just utterly revulse and creep you out instead. It’s this swapping around of the pace and tactics which keeps it feeling interesting and fresh all the way through.

The variety of jump scares is great. They are extremely varied, you can’t see them coming, and more importantly, they don’t stick to a pattern. Red Barrels have crafted a game which knows exactly where your attention will be, what mood you’re in, and what you’re likely to be expecting, and masterfully punish you with some of the most brutal shocks I’ve ever experienced. Sometimes it’s just the mere idea of a threat; a slamming door, a quivering patient in the dark or a pitch black room illuminated only by flashes of lightning. For example, the game is very, very unsettling at the start – figures watch you before dashing out of sight, and slightly ajar doors will abruptly slam shut and lock when you reach them. There’re great pools of blood everywhere, and crimson splashes decorate the walls in a grisly manner. You’ll hear loud clangs and booms around you, and hear footfalls pitter-pattering around on the floors above. You can’t actually get hurt in these first few early sections of entering the asylum, but the atmosphere presented by the game gives you a very different impression!

Outlast  Screen Shot 25:05:2014 21.31Others times, the jumps are much more physical and threatening. The game again has a great balance of when to make you imagine and anticipate a jump scare that never materialises, and when a very real and physical one is shoved in your face. You’re always on your toes, often expecting a shock from anywhere and anything, and you’ll still never correctly anticipate them, which is fantastic! I consider myself well-versed in the usual jump scares and cheap tactics used in horror games and films, and I got caught out so many times by the game’s design. There’s a bit right at the start with a swinging body in the first area that really made me jump out of my skin…and it’s the very first basic little scare in the game. Miles reacts convincingly too – he screamed as well!

Outlast understands the importance of a reactive protagonist. When you watch a horror film with poor acting and clumsy hammy dialogue, where the characters don’t give off a vibe of being truly scared, more often than not you won’t be scared either. When Miles is pursued, he will begin to panic and breathe heavily. When he’s wounded he will cry out in pain and react. When something catches him off guard, he screams! You feel like you’re playing as a real responsive human being, who’s scared out of his wits, which is fantastically refreshing! What’s extremely well done throughout the game is the fact that Miles will continue to pant and breathe heavily for a long time after the immediate danger or horrific sight has been witnessed. After an early harrowing chase sequence in the early stages of the game, whilst hiding under a nearby bed, I could hear Miles terrified out of his mind, hyperventilating and blubbering, trying to get control of his nerves after nearly being caught by a madman with a nightstick. This panicked breathing and spluttering carried on for almost two or three minutes after the threat had passed, which felt horribly realistic and made me the player extremely anxious for a significant period of time as well. Because he’s scared, you feel terrified yourself. He’ll even jump and gasp when lightning strikes, which is again very realistic and relatable, particularly after certain key points in the story.

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The game places you in several situations in which you feel utterly helpless. One in particular has you expecting the classic last-minute rescue attempt you are regularly spoon-fed in countless films and games…only this time, it doesn’t come. This feels really refreshing and different, as games often go to great lengths to empower you, and even horror games which try to portray a sense of hopelessness and misery never get anywhere close to the sheer desperate morbidity and isolation that Outlast offers. There’s also a super effective section that separates you from your camera, and even though it’s not a weapon, you feel very weakened and even more vulnerable (if that’s possible) without it. You have to navigate instead using the sporadic lightning flashes, and you have to really focus and peer into the dark, which leaves you wide open for a horrible fright or two! When you get the camera back, the display is now cracked from fall damage, and you get intermittent bursts of static noise in the viewing window which only gets you more scared. The cracks in the display warp images into nightmarish grotesque bulges, reminiscent of the designs of the late H.R. Geiger, and the static makes it harder to see and has you feeling increasingly jumpy.

Objectives and why three isn’t a magic number…it’s an irritating one

Outlast Administration Block Screen Shot 23:05:2014 02.17My main gripe with the game is that it overdoes the classic videogame formula of find three things in order to progress. Throughout the game, you’ll be faced at every turn with collect/switch on/find/unlock/switch off/insert desired verb and optional prepositional phrase here/collect three things objectives so many times that it becomes too predictable. Throwing in the find three things objective occasionally is fine, as it’s a way of increasing the tension and making your current task feel that bit more daunting and over facing. Towards the beginning of the game, you need to restart a generator – but upon reaching it, you find that you have to first power on two other switches prior to flipping the main switch. So far this feels good, as it complicates what was once a simple objective, and it makes you more stressed as you realise that you’re going to have to explore an unpleasant area more thoroughly than you had originally hoped to.

Outlast  Screen Shot 25:05:2014 22. 49However, a few hours later on, when you’re required to turn on the water sprinklers in order to put out a fire so that you can leave the current ward you’re in, you find the sprinkler system and oh no – for what’s probably the fourth of fifth time, you’ve got to first turn on three water valves. By this point, you’re so used to this style of objective that it starts to sap some of the horror out of the experience and you begin to feel more frustrated and annoyed. Adding more complexity to what appears to be a simple objective at first glance is a great way of building tension and upping the stakes narratively. However, much like a poor film that relies on twists too much that you can see them coming a mile off, you’re quickly able to second guess when Outlast is going to throw you the standard find three things objective curveball, and it cheapens what was at first a good attempt at making you panic more.

Outlast - Fire Sprinkler

Collectibles and insane trophies

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There are paper documents you can find throughout the game, which are well-written and detailed, providing valuable chilling details and backstory to the horrific events going on around you. I found that often just finding one of the these was a brief moment of sweet relief, as it meant I could pause for a second and catch my breath whilst I read, not having to think about the latest mess I found myself in. The story told in the various print outs, consultation notes, emails and faxes tell a shocking and repulsive backstory to your arrival, which will be churning away in the back of your mind whilst you’re hiding or running. There’s the standard run of the mill trophies for collecting all of them as well, which should give completionists something to hunt after on subsequent playthroughs in and amongst hiding and running from the variants. Speaking of trophies, there’s also some ridiculously brutal ones which require playing through the game without dying once, or it’s right back to the Miles car at the start of the game The enemies are smarter, have particularly acute hearing, and generally instantly kill you if you’re caught. Good luck with that one!

Graphics, gore and spleens aplenty

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The game runs in a buttery 60fps and at 1080p throughout. This, is fucking horrible – I don’t think I’ve seen gore that looks so realistic in a game before. The countless piles of innards, severed heads, organs, spleens, brains, stomachs and other unidentifiably disgusting piles of bloody red mush you find all have a revoltingly wet and shiny look to them. The game runs smoothly all the way through, and the fantastic art direction and the revoltingly realistic looking characters and gore effects make sure that certain scenes will be long in you mind after the game has finished…all in glorious HD of course. Save times are minimal, with no graphical flaws, screen tears or texture pop ins to note, and generally the game loads and feels like Half Life 2 in a way – it feels like you’re playing through a series of connected locations in the asylum, giving it a sense of physicality and interconnected design, rather than a disconnected set of levels.

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Soundtrack

How to describe the atonal cacophony of sound that is Outlast‘s soundtrack? First, take Bioshock’s soundtrack, cave in its head, stab it violently with a machete, then hack off great bleeding chunks of it before hanging it up on a meat hook to slowly rot in darkness for a week. Then, dunk the maggot infested carcass down and submerge it in a vat of mysterious nanomachines and hook it up to a high-voltage current – voila! You now have the soundtrack to Outlast – congratulations!

The soundtrack, like the game itself, adheres to a careful balance. Beautiful and eerie string sections gently weep their broken melodies to the moonlit sky. The main theme revolves around a simple lone semitone upward shift which although basic makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The brass section scream in terror when you’re discovered by a pair of unblinking green eyes staring back at you in the darkness, and their shrill trumpeting alarms accompany every heavy blow, announcing your swift and violent exit from life with a bludgeoning furious blast. Violins and cellos are roughly grasped and plucked in pizzicato, chipping away at the last vestiges of sanity whilst you huddle behind a door, desperate not to be seen or heard. Orchestrated string section stabbings are exceptionally loud and percussive, making you feel sick to the bottom of your stomach at times when they punch into the score. Even the menus have terrifyingly eerie music playing throughout them which still keeps you constantly on edge when pausing to read a new document or changing your settings. The soundtrack combined with the excellent sound design makes the asylum come to life, and this careful attention to all aspects of sound throughout the entirety of the game is a real highlight.

Whistleblower DLC

Whistleblower Title

The Whistleblower DLC is an expansion to the main game, and takes place both before and during the events of Outlast. Here, you play as Waylon Park, a software consultant who’s working for the Murkoff corporation, who’s the eponymous whistleblower who emails Miles about the shocking experiments taking place at the asylum. The gameplay here is essentially more of the same – and that’s a good thing. Everything from the main game is here and present; excellent scares, freaky variants and that horrible unrelenting rollercoaster of action mixed with the gut-wrenching unbearableness of the tense stealth sections. If you’ve loved the main course of Outlast and it’s hideous campaign of horror, you’ll absolutely love the tasteful but rich dessert on offer in Whistleblower.

Waylon Park Laptop

Waylon handles identically to Miles, which means that you’re able to go right back into the horrifying action without a new tutorial or control scheme to learn. Despite being a software consultant, Waylon acquires a camcorder similar to Miles’, but the logic and likelihood of him conveniently acquiring an item crucial to the gameplay of the main game is well grounded. As he contacts the press at the start of the game, he understands the importance of collecting video evidence to count as credible proof, so when he has the chance to acquire one from a testing chamber, it makes sense for him to take it and begin his escape.

Doctor Airlock

Waylon’s writing style in his notes is less confident and assured than Miles’ tone, and the notes are directed toward his wife Lisa, as a coping mechanism. Waylon isn’t as cocky as Miles, and appears to have a bit more to loose, as he immediately regrets his decision to email the press, and begins to worry about the safety of his family. He comes across as scared and frightened, but eventually he resolves to acquire evidence in a similar manner to Miles to expose the corruption at the asylum.

Bloody Wheelchair

It feels surreal being in the same areas you see towards the end of the first game, only now they are populated and still functional before all hell breaks loose. It’s horrible being around the corrupt scientists and businessmen of the Murkoff Corporation; some of them are less human than the creatures you spent the whole of the main game running from. You feel exploited right from the start of this new DLC, and it only gets worse!

In general, Whistleblower is at times both more gruesome and more sexually explicit than the main game. There is a strong influence from torture-porn/body horror films such as the SAW franchise, and the variety of threats to your character can feel even more overwhelming at times. Although you will see a few familiar faces from the main game, Whistleblower introduces two new variants for you to cower in terror from. These aren’t just re-skins or redesigns of characters from the main game; they are inspired and uniquely disgusting in their own special way! One of these new characters inspires some truly terrifying chase sequences which feel like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which, as one of my favourite horror films, this influence felt particularly frightening to me! The other character provides possibly some of the most explicit material seen so far in the game, and is a good counterpart to some of the more brutish and visceral variants you’ve experienced up to this point.

Variants Operating Table

The same problems that I found with the main game are sometimes applicable here as well. There are bits where you can end up dying repeatedly, which again takes you out of the superbly constructed atmosphere, but thankfully, like in the main game, the solution is usually easy enough to work out pretty quickly if you do get stuck. The objectives here are a bit more palatable too; there’s less gamey activate three of the same thing style objectives, and usually you’re required to do a more varied selection of actions.

Fence Fog

The DLC is significantly shorter than the Outlast as you might imagine, and can probably be completed in about two or three hours. But there’s enough new story, scares, content and creative riffs on ideas from the main game that it feels like a decent extension of the main campaign, rather than a throwaway piece of unnecessary content. The outdoor sections in Whistleblower in particular bring some interesting changes to similar points found in the main game; the misty fog that rolls in when you get outside the first ward makes navigating by the infrared camera view incredibly suspenseful. You have to rely on what little natural light there is, as the fog comes up as an incredibly bright glare on the camera’s display. This, and other sections, tend to have their own unique gameplay quirk or twist that make Whistleblower feel fresh and inventive; there’s usually some kind of inventive spin or new take on a situation you’ve already encountered in the main game, which makes the DLC different and not simply a re-tread of the same exact beats from the main game. The DLC also provides a greater sense of closure to the original game’s ending, whilst simultaneously sowing the seeds for a potential sequel.

Burning Chapel

Conclusion

It’s hard to describe the intense fear and panic I felt whilst playing Outlast and the Whistleblower DLC. My hands would be sweating and I could often feel the sharp stabs of a headache in my temples. I felt nauseous and my stomach would be churning, and there were times when I absolutely didn’t want to play anymore, and when I had stopped playing, it would take an awful lot of mental preparation to pick up the controller again. Just typing these last few sentences is incredibly humiliating for me, as I thoroughly enjoy horror games and I consider myself pretty good at coping with them. If you’re a fan of horror games, I can’t recommend this game enough, as it executes everything you want almost perfectly and consistently throughout the entire experience. The variety, creativity and detail of it’s design has me constantly playing it; I find it extremely unpleasant, vile, disgusting, horrific and genuinely scary even on multiple playthroughs. With hints about plans for a sequel in the works, I dread to think what Red Barrels has waiting for us in the darkness next…but in the meantime, it’s time for one more ride through hell in Mount Massive for me!

Outlast - Sunlight Outdoors

(Outlast and the Whistleblower DLC are available now on both PS4 and PC)