Outlast – PC
Publisher: Red Barrels
Developer: Red Barrels
Release Date: Sep 4, 2013
Genre: Action, Adventure
Reviewed by Mark Smith
Review Score: 5 of 5
Outlast is a game about the horrors lurking inside an abandoned asylum where government-sponsored experiments used to take place, but in reality, Outlast is a psychological experiment in how to terrorize a gamer sitting alone in the dark at 2am playing this terrifying game with the surround sound turned up. Red Barrels is the team behind what can only be described as “the most terrifying game I have ever played”, and I imagine them all sitting around in white lab coats, somehow watching me play the game on hidden cameras (Cabin in the Woods-style), documenting my every scream and diaper change.
The setup for the story is simple and told in just a few paragraphs. A disgruntled worker from the Mount Massive Asylum has sent a letter to you, Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter, who immediate jumps into his car armed only with his trusty video camera and a notebook. Within moments of arriving the main gates shut behind you leaving you no choice but to venture inside what can only be described as the “hospital from hell”.
While Outlast is loaded with plenty of shock value moments accented with loud music and sound cues, the screams those moments generate are usually cathartic outlets for the terror that has been slowly building during the quieter parts of the game. Outlast is quite tame, albeit unsettling in the first 15-20 minutes as you walk around the exterior, learn how to use your camera, zooming in, night vision mode, take notes, read documents, etc. And that is pretty much all you can do in this game. There are no weapons and no combat. When the feces hits the fan your only option is to run and hide. I haven’t felt this helpless in a video game since the 1995 Clock Tower on the original PlayStation.
As you begin the exhilarating exploration of the asylum you will collect pages upon pages of documents that fill you in on the backstory of what took place prior to your arrival. You can also analyze certain areas within the game by shooting them with your camera, which will auto-draft your own personal notes and observations. The adventure game trappings take a backseat to the true survival horror nature of the gameplay. Yes, you might have to solve the random puzzle that usually involves finding a few buttons or switches or maybe a keycard to open a door, but those are merely the bits of cheese that motivate Miles to even move beyond the bloody lobby. All too soon you will start coming across the physically twisted and mentally deranged occupants of the facility, most of which send you sprinting in fear to seek shelter in the nearest locker or under a bed, and nothing is more terrifying than listening to Miles’ rapid breathing as you peer out the slots of a locker door or watch the ankles of some maniac with a machete from under a mattress.
Outlast is disgustingly gorgeous on the PC – pretty much photorealistic throughout with some amazing textures and a heavy emphasis on blood and guts. The lighting; or rather lack thereof is what really seals the deal. When the lights go out you are forced to view the world through the viewfinder of your video camera. The monochromatic green night vision is not nearly as nice or revealing as Splinter Cell, but instead puts you in the mindset of those guys on that Ghost Hunter TV show. It’s easily the most terrifying lighting and visual effect since the flashlight in the F.E.A.R series. The use of night vision depletes your battery at an alarming rate, although replacements are generously scattered about the levels, often in out-of-the-way locales, so a bit of searching is required. Batteries are pretty much the only collectible in the game, but during my entire experience I never dropped lower than three standby batteries.
While you can’t fight you can take a beating and Miles can endure a few hits from his pursuers, and he will heal over time, but if you do manage to get cornered and die Outlast seems to offer a generous checkpoint system that restarts you just prior to the hostile encounter allowing you a chance to try sneaking from scratch. While totally terrified for the duration of the game I was never frustrated, which says a lot.
Just in time for Halloween, Outlast is the perfect survival horror game that delivers the maximum screams per hour and will keep everyone in the room on the edge of their seat. Yes, this game is just as much fun to watch being played as it is to be the one holding the controller; a controller that is often thumping to the beat of Miles’ heart. The graphics are hauntingly gorgeous in that Hellraiser kind of way, and I have never been so terrified by a game’s sound design and positional audio as I was in Outlast, from the creaking boards, the taunting maniacs, dripping water, grumbling thunder, and an amazing musical score that knows when to play and when silence is definitely the more terrifying option.
It took me several sessions to finish Outlast, mostly because the game just starts crawling under your skin and the nonstop tension demands you take a break. The psychological tension lessens if you play during the day or in a well-lit room, but bringing others into the experience – even for moral support – just means more people will be screaming soon enough. There is no safety in numbers when it comes to Outlast.
Scarier than any book, movie or video game, Outlast is one of the most terrifying and memorable experiences I have ever had; one that continues to haunt me even when the PC has been turned off. Just preparing the screenshots for this review has triggered some uncomfortable memories. Outlast is only $20 on Steam – PTSD therapy fees not included.