Outlast has been hailed as the best survival horror game in years, one that has managed to reinvigorate the genre. And at first glance, it certainly looks like a winner. It uses a well-known horror setting, an asylum, to tell its blood soaked tale in conjunction with an almost found footage presentation style to elicit scares from the gamer. While it has promise, it stumbles in several areas and ultimately fails to be anything more than an okay time waster.
The game begins with a freelance news reporter named Miles Upshur arriving at the intimidating Mount Massive Asylum. Armed with nothing more than a hand held camera and his wits, he manages to get inside despite the fact that there are military vehicles everywhere and the front doors are locked. You see, Mile has apparently been suffering from a draught of juicy stories until one day where he receives an email from a worker at the asylum telling him that terrible stuff is going on and it needs to be brought into the public eye. Shortly after arriving, he finds a room filled with dead bodies. One of the men in the room tells him with his dying breath to leave and never come back. It turns out that almost right after Miles arrived, he was locked in by someone and is unable to leave.
The story has a somewhat intriguing set up. As it continues on, there are all kinds of “shocking” revelations that you uncover mostly through journal notes you find. The reason that I put shocking in quotations marks is that the story is nothing new to anyone with even a passing familiarity with horror films or games. It goes through just about every cliché you can imagine an asylum would conjure up, although some of the minor details are initially interesting (like a big guy with a penchant for decapitations who refuses to leave you alone). By the end, I simply did not care because, like many found footage movies, I saw the lame ending coming a mile away (it ends on a whimper and does almost nothing to resolve the main conflict).
Still, even though the story isn’t anything great, the atmosphere the game conjures is pretty stellar, at least initially. Little details like water falling on the screen, Miles’s footsteps and heavy breathing, random creaks and groans of the building and much more all add a lot to the fairly basic exploration based gameplay. The lighting and environmental design is also top notch. The asylum is filled with long, dark corridors, dilapidated underground dwellings and more creepy locations. The music, what little there is, aids the proceedings decently, although the crescendo that comes from an enemy chasing you, while helpful, gets old fairly quickly. Still, the production values are really top notch and help the game a lot.
One of the major hooks of this game is that Miles is a completely vulnerable protagonist. The only thing he carries with him is his camcorder, which means that when he’s confronted with a threat (usually one of the inmates) he is forced to run and hide rather than fight. This mechanic is done about as well as it can be. Running through the dark, viewing things through the camera and trying to find temporary shelter can be intense. There are a few parts that are particularly well done. For instance, near the end of the game, you’re in a courtyard and are forced to use the night vision on the camera to see. Thunder flashes, and you can only see a few feet in front of you and you must find your way. Moments like these are intense enough to be memorable.
Most of these sequences boil down to finding a lever to turn or grabbing some item before a deranged inmate finds you. Avoiding these enemies tends to feel inconsistent and touchy. For instance, sometimes you can walk from a decent distance behind an enemy and they simply won’t know you’re there. Other times, you’ll be at the entire other end of a hallway and the enemy will start chasing you. The enemy chasing you is on top of the fact that more often than not you don’t have a good idea of where you are, so you need to mentally map an area while you run. Encounters late in the game tend to boil down to trial and error more than anything. Repeating the same thing over and over until you get it right isn’t very fun, and it tends to suck the scariness out of the situation.
The game in general, though, is repetitive. As soon as you’re in the sewer, you know there’ll be some lever to turn. When you run into a burning room, you know you’ll have to hunt down a sprinkler system lever that will put it out, which will likely lead to another encounter with the big guy mentioned above. The game is repetitive, in other words. Enemy designs aren’t very scary to begin with, and the fact that you see the same five or six repeatedly throughout the entire game softens the scares further. On top of that, the aforementioned big guy turns up again and again. He is a thorn in Miles’s side for the entire game, and each encounter with him gets to be more annoying than the last. Plus, there are times where I thought, “How the hell did he get here before me?” It didn’t make sense and the fact that he has a one hit kill attack makes every encounter more annoying than it should be.
In between the bouts of running, the game is mostly exploration. I have to say that these parts were my favorite parts of the game since they were more about soaking up the bloody and gruesome atmosphere. There are occasional flashes of brilliance- one area has you planted in the middle of a cafeteria, surrounded by screaming inmates while one in a straitjacket follows you around. It’s a creepy, unnerving moment that is ended by a cheap, predictable jump scare. When the game lets you take your time and soak everything in, it’s at its best. The game often tries way too hard to scare the player with extreme jump scares.
Outlast is a frustrating game. There are flashes of brilliance- the production values are extremely well done and the game sometimes builds a tremendous atmosphere that is a joy to soak in, and the camera’s night vision effect is used in some brilliant ways. However, it has a lackluster story, repetitive objectives and tries too hard too often to scare the player. The game is worth it for people who are very easily scared and are looking for some cheap thrills, but die hard horror fans familiar with scary movies and games shouldn’t pay full price for it.
+ Great graphics, both technically and artistically
+ Excellent sound
+ Atmosphere is occasionally brilliant in a very gruesome, bloody way
+ Camera is a neat gameplay element
+ Story starts off intriguing…
- …but it quickly falls into clichés and ends with a cheap cliffhanger
- Chase scenes and objectives become incredibly predictable
- Trial and error gameplay softens the impact of the scares
- The jump scares become predictable ad detract from the atmosphere because they try too hard
- Enemy design is very limited and the repeated use of a particular guy becomes trite