*Note: While trying to avoid late-game story spoilers altogether, specific antagonists will be revealed here which may diminish your excitement when seeing them for the first time in the game. Viewer discretion is advised.*
The survival horror genre has seen quite an uptick in popularity these last few years, especially for the indie scene. Of course, when such an uptick occurs in the milieu of today’s lowered standards of a ‘true’ horror experience—and I’m considering that between the action-oriented AAA stuff to freeware titles like Slender, and even shovelware horror films of today—it’s easy to feel bogged down in titles that don't consider much in the way of interesting design beyond determining when the next jump scare should happen. Developer Red Barrels, a newcomer indie studio co-founded by ex-Ubisoft employees, does some marvelous things from a design and aesthetic perspective that really elevate this into being considered an unforgettable entry in the modern horror genre.
You take control of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who recently got a tip about some twisted experiments supposedly going on within Mount Massive Asylum in Colorado. You make your way in and slowly uncover this remote psychiatric hospital is going to be a more haunting experience than just uncovering an interesting story.
Mileage may vary for some on the overall enjoyment from the story due to this kind of overused setting. It’s expected for many to roll their eyes with using an insane asylum to show off a smorgasbord of crazy patients. It’s been done before. But, really, even with that consideration I see that as unfairly disregarding a compelling arc with a roster of solid, creepy characters and awesome presentation qualities that make this world feel lived-in by a crazy bunch, known as “variants.”
Whether it’s from the twisted cult leader to even simple variants scattered throughout, it's easy to see a lot of consideration was made in making these scenarios feel unbelievably unsettling. One of the best villains in recent memory would have to be Dr. Trager for both his qausi-comical dialogue and the awesome delivery by Alex Ivanovici. One of the most interesting aspects in understanding this universe is through worthwhile collectibles, either in manila folders containing detailed memos or notes scribbled by Upshur if the player records specific scenes. While that leaves players more in the dark on one of the major narrative arcs until the requisite, stilted exposition dump towards the finale, you can glean a lot of secondary information that also makes sense to collect within the context of this game since the protagonist is a journalist.
Beyond good writing, Outlast sells itself fully to the presentation of this game world. A lot of the popular characters are out to kill you, naturally, but there are also many passive variants that will continue rambling while minding their own business, inflict self-harm like bashing their head against a wall, or something else altogether. The catch is that not all of the inhabitants here follow any kind of binary hunt/ignore rules. Some may be armed with a melee weapon but don’t act violently upon seeing you. Others may just follow you around for no reason. It’s this kind of unsettling feeling in having some of these patients mess around and take no deliberate action that establishes this sort of grey area. It reminded me of those tense moments in Condemned: Criminal Origins’ combat where you can’t help but anticipate that enemy you hit faking it and swinging around with a surprise counter in a moment’s notice. That sort of design decision is a large part of what makes this atmosphere so stifling; that sensation of never getting to keep your guard down when any variant is nearby.
That sort of comparison to Condemned only goes so far since Outlast changes the status quo expected of most games in the first-person perspective. Today, you’re typically armed with either some guns or at the very least a good pair of fists to face off against your enemies and feel empowered by those actions. And that sort of empowerment is typically cut off with the scripted story sequences where your camera unnaturally becomes controlled by the game to focus on something of importance.
Outlast has different plans with using that perspective.
Getting out of this asylum is only possible by running away from enemies or hiding—in places like lockers, toilet stalls, under beds, or simply out of their line of sight—and hoping they don’t find you. Slamming doors enables you to break line of sight with them momentarily, but this’ll only work once since they’re always able to beat down those doors unless they've been barred by a heavy shelf. The only thing you’re ever armed with is a trusty camcorder that has a night vision mode enabled but relies on batteries to work to its full capacity. When the battery meter runs out completely after a few minutes of use, you’re still able to see in night vision mode but only a couple of feet in front of you; navigation down these dark corridors in that situation is only possible by sticking close to the walls or floor. The paucity of batteries across the game world, even on a normal difficulty setting, constantly reinforces your dependency upon them to make it out alive.
So much of the perturbation here doesn't rely on having total control over the player's actions either. Granted, there’s still going to be your scripted jump-scares, which are done masterfully, but it doesn’t feel like you’re locked in place in a contrived way and forced to see every single scary thing on screen. For a game that's main focus is in scaring/thrilling the audience, it’s nice to see the freedom in possibly missing something it had to offer by my own volition. And though the game does take control away to keep the story moving forward, there’s a distinction in Outlast when most of those times control is taken away from you BY another character. You’re violently thrown out of a window, tied to a chair, or something else is happening that’s keeping you locked in place; making the scripted cinematic-to-gameplay transitions feel more unified as a result.
The controls feel polished and the general sensation of movement feels very responsive. Even slight fidgeting while looking around was registered by the controller during frightening moments, making me even more nervous during those specific encounters as a result. There’s also a lot of small details that accompany the use of the first-person perspective here that often feel like it's more than simply seeing through the eyes of Upshur; so much so, you really are in his shoes. There’s the sensation of feeling the camcorder wobble when shuffling around or attempting to hide in/under something. The solid game feel of running when giving chase and being able to look over your shoulders to see your pursuer make for some of the most tense chases in my recent memory. The main protagonist also doesn’t say anything aside from his bated breathing during the tense moments in the game which perfectly complement the shock and horror the player would feel in his shoes.
There’s several other aspects to like about the game, from the pacing of jump scare moments to even the simple visual design of the monsters and their glowing eyes when in the green-lit night vision; however, there are a few annoyances that are just so bothersome about this otherwise exemplary game. While the rest of controls of this simple design feel right, jumping is...erratic. Certain escapes demand quick reflexes that the game couldn't handle; those instances of vaulting over a waist-high barrier or trying to get into an A/C vent opening that wouldn’t register until it was too late became more and more frustrating over time. There’s also the unfortunate result of the "turn on two things" scenarios feeling too mechanical towards the end of the game due to their overuse. It’s either something like turning two valves or flipping two/three breakers in this sliver of the map in order to push one button or pull one lever that’ll unlock the next area. And though the variety of enemies and scenery go a long way in trying to keep it fresh, it’s simply a trick that’s used a bit too often for me to stay as consistently engaged.
The final chapter is another weak spot. Even though the different location is quite interesting, the scenarios are more focused on light exploration, storytelling, and a lot of running down a linear path. Even with the final boss having a very intimidating presence, he/she/it didn’t keep me rapt in attention like the loquacious Dr. Trager and his mutterings or the unrelenting big guy whose footsteps continually reverberated across the walls whenever he drew near. Those are examples of unsettling characters getting under your skin in different ways while also using the most out of the game’s mechanics to generate different states of play; the ending pares that down to the only way of triggering a fail state typically comes down to clipping the corner of a wall—it seriously did feel like there was very little margin of error at times.
Some aspects of sound and visuals have been brought up already but so many individual qualities really did elevate the experience altogether. At times, I was left wondering if I would’ve believed this to be an indie game three years ago (give or take); although, perhaps that’s in part influenced by what indie games I’m used to playing. From Upshur’s ingress into Mount Massive until the end credits, the mad-hat atmosphere betwixt the gratuity of maimed bodies strewn across this asylum and a vibe of old slasher flicks made for continuously disturbing imagery. But in this image-shock soup of full nudity or the pools of blood and piss thrown about, this kind of...uncompromising attitude also never really struck as being solely for the sake of it.
There are a few issues one could make about technical or design aspects of the visuals. The biggest elephant in the room would be the recycled assets of variants and guards across most of the game. Aside from key characters, there doesn’t seem to be much variation beyond some bald character in typical mental hospital garbs with a different head taped on; some may have faces disfigured to the point of having signs of trauma all over and others may look normal. And though that uniformity can be seen in other games with a lot of background characters, having them brought up so much just can’t help but be noticed. Even with those kinds of gripes and some muddy textures, it’s easy for those to be quietly disregarded when being drawn to everything in the green glow of the camcorder’s night vision. A gimmick that’s been done in Hollywood quite often but it’s something that looks and, more importantly, feels more authentic than those counterparts.
Sound across all aspects is probably the best quality of the game next to the atmosphere. While I’ve brought it up before it’s worth repeating: Dr. Trager’s delivery is excellent. Beyond him, all of the main enemies in this asylum are brought to life quite well. Having a couple of naked guys calmly and affluently describe their method of killing Upshur is so well-delivered and unsettling in a more subtle way than the rest of the cast. Even the intensity of something simple like the protagonist’s heavy breathing works so well. The only voice acting gripe would be a certain character revealed at the end.
The sound design and music make many moments of sneaking past enemies nerve-racking. At first, the toned-down atmosphere and the sound of that mad doctor clipping away at his scissors walking past you unnoticed makes every fiber of your being want to run away from his vicinity at full speed. Hopeful to make a mad dash towards safety will often lead to you being spotted, with a strident explosion of horns and strings telling you the chase is on. It’s an eruption of noise and terror that’s well-made and highly effective.
It's easy and understandable to be more and more dismissive of the horror genre in today’s age. At times, the diametrically opposed philosophies between the AAA industry and the indie market can almost seem like two halves of a vice squeezing and squeezing this sort of genre in different ways: over-production from one end and low-cost “lets-play baiting” with underwhelming jump scares in the other. Outlast may be shooed away for relishing in those jump scares a bit often, but they’re done alongside fleshing out this bizarre landscape and some inspired gameplay ideas. It’s not in the brief jumps but in the longer atmospheric moments throughout, the anticipation of what would happen, that forces a real state of inquietude upon those daring to venture into Mount Massive’s house of horrors.
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