Outlast is another in a vast series of first-person horror games in which its premise revolves around something unforgivably unrealistic. In this case, it’s the delving into a formerly abandoned home for the clinically insane by our protagonist, a pursuit that I can honestly say ranks somewhere in between ‘going downstairs at night’ and ‘rollerblading across the Grand Canyon’ on my personal scale of fear.
But although its foundations may seem a little tame for the genre, how it goes about its business is what sets Outlast apart from a bone-chilling glut of indie horror titles seeking the mainstream recognition that would propel them to stardom.
In Outlast, you play Miles Upshur, a roving reporter with a nose for news and the eyes of someone infuriatingly likely to confuse an ominous, 17th century psychiatric hospital with a windswept Devonshire cottage. After receiving a tip-off that leads him to believe the recently reopened establishment in which the game is set is home to some rather sinister goings on, Miles takes it upon himself to drive up to the building an engage in the kind of investigative reporting that will either win him a Pulitzer or see him eat the rest of his meals through a tube; a gamble that Miles is all too eager to make.
And if the gothic looking, jagged high-rise structure with the bolted shut front doors and black-brick walls wasn’t enough to deter our fame-hungry fellow, then nothing will, for beneath the blood red sky and with a slight act of trespassing begins our night within the walls of the fear factory.
From here, your task is to avoid the inhabitants of the asylum whilst you traverse its corridors and uncover the mysteries that lie within, all while documenting your journey and collecting case-files regarding some of the twisted beings that lurk in every corner of the darkened halls.
And the centerpiece at the heart of Outlast is your documentarian weapon of choice; the video camera, for without this, your story will come across as less of a personal tale of exhaustive survival, and more like the ramblings of a reporter turned feral amidst the journalistic landscape of plagiarism accusations and the death of the printed paper.
But the video camera of Outlast is no gimmick, rather it’s the focal point of your entire journey, as you document your findings, use it to see in the dark, and ration batteries in a balancing act that keeps the story ticking over during lulls in the action.
For it’s the action set pieces which serve as the blood in the deathly Outlast cocktail, as if you’re not running for your life from hulking war veteran clad in chains or a duo of slippery, naked gentiles working in tandem to pull out your tongue through your ear, then you’re hiding in a bathroom stall waiting for them to leave before you wipe and then steadily climb down from its dirty, ceramic bowl.
Further accentuating your fleeing and gradually peaking during moments of sheer horror is the Outlast soundtrack, which turns moments of tranquil relief into panic-laden instances of unknowing horror. Although it’s at times completely silent, a slight crawl of a violin string or the sharp, deliberate use of the piano works perfectly in collaboration with a slew of sound effects ranging from the directionless mutterings of the insane to the drip of blood from the mouth of the deceased.
But Outlast, despite its sounds of sanity and its addictive thrill of being an arm’s length away from a gory end would ultimately fail if it wasn’t scary, and in this sense it’s a complete success.
What Outlast does well is making you feel like the outsider in an inclusive group of mentally unstable aggressors, and although this may sound like an easy thing achieve, it isn’t particularly easy to execute. Armed with only a camera, your sole defensive action being to flee, you are a weak, gangly, pale excuse for a man teetering on the precipice of a bloody end, your objective and faint escapism in your documentation the only things keeping you alive in both mind and body. Your inability to attack also forces you to play the game the way that developers Red Barells intended; by being the journalist, and not the gun-toting, ammunition expending mercenary as per games like Resident Evil.
But perhaps what’s most pleasing with Outlast is its attention to detail. A cracked ceramic tile, an askew bathroom mirror, an unassuming flaccid penis attached to a behemoth of a man speaking affluently about your impending demise. You know, the little things.
What isn’t so pleasing though, is the games predictability. Not in jump scares or design, but in the monotony of its puzzle elements that seem to rarely be more than a hurdle in the way of your otherwise steady progress. Maybe their inclusion was in order to increase the games depth, but they don’t tend to go beyond being generic objectives that aren’t even exclusive to the genre. A press of a button, a flick of a switch, neither insightful nor dynamic, and in the grand scheme of things, ultimately superfluous.
Despite this rather meager gripe though, Outlast is everything you want it to be; a scary, bloody excursion into the twisted minds that you expect exist somewhere in a padded cell not too far away. It’s a scary delight that borrows a little from FEAR and a little from Clock Tower, without ever swaying from its direction or sacrificing its integrity. A metaphor for the modern state of journalistic practices it surely isn’t, but it’s a psychopathic thrill ride that is even available to you free of charge should you own a PlayStation 4 and a PlayStation Plus subscription.
Indulge your inner investigative reporter, and shirk phone-hacking for a gander at the twisted goings on in the Mount Massive Asylum.