When I think about the scariest games I've ever played, the one that tends to jump out at me first and foremost is Outlast 2. Though the mechanics and level design were familiar after having played the first one and its Whistleblower DLC, I found the setting and characters of its doomsday cult to be much more terrifying than the wandering denizens of Murkoff's nefarious asylum in the first game. Reviewing that game back in 2017, it was a rare occasion where I struggled to hit the embargo time simply because I had to will myself to deal with its horrors. The Outlast Trials, as best I can tell after a weekend with the beta, will never scare me to that same extent, but that might be fine.
The biggest difference between The Outlast Trials and the games that precede it is in its co-op-friendly setup. Every other Outlast experience has been a single-player experience. In The Outlast Trials, you can play alone and see all there is to see, but you'll probably get much further with a friend or three.
The Outlast Trials pits players as figurative lab rats in an unethical Murkoff maze of horrors. Across several maps--to borrow a term from games usually quite unlike Outlast--teams of up to four will work together to complete a set of tasks while avoiding the monstrous enemies that lurk the halls. A quick glance at gameplay would suggest things aren't all that different. You'll still largely be shuffling through dark hallways in condemned hellholes while unbeatable villains lurk nearby hoping to maim you. But even the simple wrinkle of crouching in the dark with friends gives The Outlast Trials a new feeling, and the differences don't end there.
The game still doesn't allow you to fight back, but you'll have more tools at your disposal that narrow the gap between what the hulking humans seeking to choke you can do, and what you can do in return. This includes things throwing bricks at them to momentarily stun them, using revive kits to bring allies back to life, injecting a serum that reduces "psychosis," which applies visual and mechanical detriments when you've basically become too spooked to go on, and even a class-based abilities system with lengthy skill trees.
It's encouraged, but apparently not mandatory, that each player in a group chooses a different class. Though plenty of skills are able to be unlocked, the difference at first comes down to the unique cooldown ability that defines each role: One allows you to ping enemies through walls for a few seconds, one provides an area-of-effect heal to allies, another allows you to place blinding mines that can be set off by enemies, and the last one gives you a throwable stun device. In The Outlast Trials, these abilities serve roles similar to those seen in other games--the area-of-effect heal leans towards support while the stun device's added benefit of enraging enemies suggests this is the game's idea of a tank, meant to distract enemies so others can complete tasks that often require a cleared area.
Being able to communicate with teammates lessens some of the scare factor, and bad teammates who routinely set off enemy aggression--thereby causing you to evade them until they revert to passive patrols like an on-and-off switch--can feel very video-gamey in a way that isn't as conducive to horror as the series' past scenarios where it was just you, a camera, and seldom a hint of safety. Thankfully, the levels I saw made this all the more exciting, and at times frightening, due to the dizzyingly labyrinthine layouts. Shortcuts, unlockable doors, and hidden passages are all abundant, which means the early-game consists of few options, but should you prioritize doing so, you'll soon find--or create--alternate pathways that give you an advantage over the enemies who generally stick to premade pathways. Like taking a duct to circumvent the Xenomorph in Alien Isolation, The Outlast Trials widens its world design to give players more agency and more chances to safely escape or altogether avoid danger.
This difference is probably The Outlast Trials' best I've seen so far. Outlast often worked because there was only one way to escape a situation. Once you knew where to go, you knew you had to eventually brave the hostile environment and go for it. The Outlast Trials replaces strength with strength. There's a lot more wiggle room for player expression, which means there's now a skill gap to account for. If you can't effectively evade enemies, or you don't hide after breaking a window, you'll pay for it, but with allies, you can get out of it, too. In Outlast, messing up usually meant dying and reloading your save. In The Outlast Trials, it might mean death, but more often it'll mean you and your allies will need to improvise with someone--or something--wicked breathing down your neck.
Those wicked things are still excellent, too. Outlast sometimes gets maligned as being simply about gore and jump scares, but I've never seen it that way. The looming sense of dread and memorable central villains are what always set up those other haunts, and The Outlast Trials still shows flashes of both, like in an extended tutorial that plays much more like a typical game in the series, and stars a relentless villain who dresses a bit like Leatherface except for her sock puppet persona riffing on her arm in a different, creepy voice.
I'm curious to see how an overarching story is told in this reimagined framework. I think a horror game can still work in co-op, but the scares seem destined to be diminished if we're meant to replay the same missions over and over, and The Outlast Trials seems to seek a long shelf life of replayability. That, along with what else I've seen so far, tells me this probably won't be the scariest Outlast entry yet, though certainly not without scares completely.
One of the best and most nerve-racking parts of this new setup is the element of leaving or rescuing allies. You'll need them, but at what cost? As your friend bleeds out on the ground waiting to be revived, your decision of how and when to save them--or even to sacrifice them for the team's greater good--will set up situations that aren't new to co-op horror, but they've never been seen in the defenseless and haunting world of Outlast before. There's something to that, and I'm eager to keep the social experiment going when the game launches.
The Outlast Trials very much feels like a series reborn for a slightly different audience. Customizing my personal cell with posters and wallpapers, making a character with skins on sale in another tab, and choosing my player banner made for a stunning first impression. Never did I see that stuff coming, even when Red Barrels announced the game as a co-op experience some years ago. Outlast has always felt so grimy and unnerving. Its world still carries those signatures, but they look different in a co-op context, and it takes getting used to. To see Outlast going the way of a co-op social game is like giving your eyes time to adjust to the dark; once you do, you can better appreciate the monsters that were lurking there the whole time.