(Originally published on MyIGN on May 26th 2014)
(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 Evil, Silent Hill 2+3, Dead Space, Slender, Condemned 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.
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
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!
You 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?
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
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.
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’ 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.
The 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.
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?
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!
The 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.
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!
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…
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!
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
Stealth vs. action
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.
Hiding 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
Others 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.
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
My 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.
However, 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.
Collectibles and insane trophies
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and the Whistleblower DLC are available now on both PS4 and PC)