Red Barrels' indie horror action adventure game Outlast is proof that the universe loves you and wants you to be happy. ... oh, sorry, I was reading the wrong thing. Outlast is proof that the universe wants you sleeping with all the lights on and physically recoiling from your computer and mashing the escape key at every opportunity while you shriek in incoherent fear and disgust. As a
dumb gutsy investigative reporter, you drive alone up to the abandoned Mount Massive Asylum because you're stupid determined to uncover the truth behind years of lies and cover-ups. Upon arrival, however, the gates swing shut behind you, and once you're inside, you discover that the secrets inside are dangerous, and you have no way to fight back. I mean, unless you want to go ahead and evolve some lizard-like ability that lets you drop a limb when threatened by a predator. But no, it's all cowering and frenzied terror from here on out.
Most of the game's controls are fairly standard. [WASD] is movement, left [shift] is run, [spacebar] is jump and [CTRL] is crouch. You can click to interact with things, but left-clicking brings up your camcorder, which allows you to record video evidence. While in this mode, pressing [F] toggles Night Vision, which is the only way to can see in the dark, thus proving the development team lives on tears of misery because everyone knows night vision is scarier than normal vision. Night Vision consumes battery power, however, so you'll want to use it sparingly, since battery replacements are scarce. The game works on a sort of checkpoint system, so even if you manually save and quit your game, it'll boot you back to the last one you triggered when you load it back up... or if you meet an unfortunate end. Most enemies won't instantly kill you, however, and while you'll take damage, if you can run away and hide you'll be able to recover.
After cheerfully blundering around the building for a few minutes once you find your way inside, you'll quickly realise that is not strawberry jam smeared everywhere and you are in serious danger. Unarmed, your only recourse is to run and hide if you want to stay alive and spread the truth. Which I guess proves our hero is braver than I am because I would have been back out the window and over that enormous gate like Mario on a jet-powered pogostick at the first sight of red. See, these aren't any ordinary men. There's something deep within the mountain that's changed them, and they can't be stopped. As a result, you need to hide whenever they're around. You can try to run out sneak by, but if you're cornered, certain objects such as lockers or beds can be hidden in or under until danger passes by. Of course, just because you're hidden doesn't mean you're safe, and if enemies suspect you're around, they may randomly search hiding places in the area, so don't stay put for too long. Here is where you'll find your Night Vision to be the most valuable, allowing you to see enemies in the cover of darkness without them seeing you to an extent, but remember... they can still hear you, so try to avoid making a lot of noise, and always open doors slowly to peek before barging in. At the same time, however, you'll also be forced to run for your life when hiding isn't possible, and you'll need to use the layout of the building to your advantage, avoiding obstacles and keeping an eye out over your shoulder.
Analysis: It's sort of trendy to sneer at jump scares these days, but, you know, I'll argue that there is a tremendous difference between a junk jump scare and one executed well, and Outlast definitely falls into the latter category. This is a game that thrives on instilling blind panic and repulsed terror, and by masterfully weaving it into an atmosphere that feels heavy with dread and danger, Outlast stands head and shoulders above other games that seek to merely startle, largely because though the big scares come frequently, it's often when they're least expected. In a way, the game's absolute dedication to outrageous grossness is a little unfortunate, since the sheer amount of it just turns into background noise after a while. Oh, torso in a toilet? Guts on the floor? Heads lined up on shelves like canned goods? Meh!
At the same time, however, it's when Outlast marries that gore and violence with nudity and sexuality that some people might find it too much to take, so caveat emptor. I will say that for me the terror of popping up through a hole in the floor to find myself face-to-face with an unexpected inmate far eclipsed the horror of what his friend was doing in the background... largely because I was too frightened to notice what was going on. It was only when the other inmate panicked and called me a pervert for showing up uninvited that I put the pieces together... and realised that the screenshot I'd taken for this review below needed some editing because the background contained, uh, an unexpected surprise. It was almost more gross than disturbing for the way it was handled, with a sort of perversely dark and humorous tone on the heel of the jump scare, and once I finished gaping as my brain put two and two together, the laugh that burst out of me was more simple shock than horror. "I can't believe they did that!" versus "Ugh, they shouldn't have done that!"
Of course, it's not all torsos and guts being flung at your face. A lot of the game's more frightening moments are the more restrained ones. A door shutting behind you when you enter a room. Someone flashing by at the end of the hallway. A person storming by below you in a rage while you cower in an air duct. It's an atmosphere of genuine dread that never lets you feel like you're safe. Intense? Uh, yes. The ever-present boot of tension on the back of your neck makes it the sort of game that makes you jittery for the longer you play, and I found myself needing to take breaks from it. "Nope," I would say, quite calmly as I instantly closed the program upon hearing a nearby sound I couldn't place, "nope nope nope."
Perversely, it's also a gorgeous game in a lot of ways, with stunning environmental design, expressive characters, and brilliant use of lighting. Though the lion's share of the game is left to slumming around indoors, the few outside sequences are downright jaw-dropping in their beauty, especially in regards to the architecture of the Asylum itself. In a way, it feels like almost as much of a character as the inmates themselves, all of whom are drastically different. From brute berserkers to the soft insidiousness of a crazed preacher, the cast varies dramatically. One of the most unsettling sequences is an exploration of an area filled with non-hostile yet still threatening inmates, seeing them cower and moan and berate their illusions, all while two shadowed men discuss in quiet tones exactly what they plan on doing with you.
There isn't a lot of puzzle-solving apart from finding keys and knowing how to get away, making it a decided action adventure... and a harrowing one at that. There are multiple times when you'll be forced to literally run for your life. Not just find a bed to duck under, but run, vaulting over obstacles, slamming doors behind you to slow down your pursuers, even glancing over your shoulder to see how much closer they're getting. All of this is beautifully conveyed through the game's devotion to giving our hero a real physical form, seeing his hand grab a door jamb, or his shadow bobbling wildly with your movements in a way that fully engrosses you in the experience. It made me wish the game did challenge me more on an intellectual level to break things up a bit, but Outlast is solely devoted to the grotesque spectacle of its setting and plot, driving you from place to place to terrify you more... not that that's a bad thing. Speaking of plot, Outlast's takes a while to get really going, but once it does, it takes a satisfying turn from what seems like your typical slasher/maniac fare into something more otherworldly. Still, it's mostly relegated to a supporting role, riding sidecar to the game rather than feeling like an integrated, important part.
In a lot of ways, from its sheer dedication to seeing how much grotesqueness you can take to its unrelenting tension, Outlast is a hard game to take at times. The whole experience can sort of feel like an infinitely more traumatic theme park Halloween horror house, wheeling you from shocking terror to terror without letting you catch your breath. You need a strong constitution and steady nerves to really appreciate it, but Outlast is relentlessly horrifying in almost every possible way. Few games really manage atmosphere that manages to feel as menacing as Outlast, and you'll dread every closed door and darkened corner. It's a game that can go from a slow, whimpering creep down a dark hallway to a panic-fueled sprint for your life, and Outlast pulls no punches in either regard. It'll see how much you think you can take, and then force you to take a little more. For fans of blood-spattered atrocity style horror and vicious action, Outlast will be a rare treat that will keep you up at night in more ways than one.
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