Genre: Adventure/Survival Horror
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Release Date: 09/04/2013
When discussing the previously reviewed Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, reviewers around the web have been heavily drawing parallels to the topic of today’s review, Outlast, in addition to comparisons to the previous game in the series. It’s not hard to see why; both games are first person horror titles, both rely heavily on stealth and environmental puzzle solving to survive, both leave you with a protagonist who is wholly unarmed, and both spend a lot of time in the dark. Outlast, however, is far and away a different animal altogether, as it tends to have more in common with Amnesia: The Dark Descent with dashes of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and (oddly enough) Mirror’s Edge sprinkled here and there for good measure. The end result, as it turns out, is largely an impressive experience, which is doubly surprising given that it’s a brand new IP from a brand new development house, and it generally makes a good case for you to drop your twenty bucks on it. If you’re thinking it’s a better investment than A Machine for Pigs based on the internet scuttlebutt, on the other hand, you may want to reconsider that a bit, as while Outlast is an incredibly effective game, it’s also an incredibly annoying one, and one that doesn’t carry its weight well throughout the experience.
The plot starts off exceptionally, at least; you play as reporter Miles Upshur, who has been tipped off by an unnamed whistleblower about the Mount Massive mental hospital and has come to investigate. The facility, having been left derelict for decades, has been reopened by Murkoff Psychiatric Systems recently, and by all indications, horrible things are going on in there that need to be discussed and reported to the outside world. Well, when you arrive, you’re a bit late to the party, as Murkoff’s people are essentially dead as can be, and the inmates are literally running the asylum, leaving you to figure out what’s going on and get the hell out before you join the dead that litter the halls yourself. The plot is surprisingly strong in Outlast for the most part; it gives you a few basic concepts to work with (the inmates are nuts, the priest wants to subject you to this nightmare) and runs with them without attempting to make a massive narrative, instead doling out self contained concepts that come together nicely overall. The game puts a good amount of effort into simple things that give it personality, like identifying the massive monster (Chris Walker) and psychotic doctor (Rick Trager) that try to murder you with actual names, or like tying together seemingly unconnected elements in a way that makes sense, and the end result is a story that’s mostly worth seeing. That said, the narrative kind of falls apart in the end, as the last half hour or so of play attempts to answer questions that would have been better off unanswered, and the ending is, honestly, really stupid, to the point where you’ll know it’s coming no matter how much you wish it weren’t, and it’s about as bad as you’d feared once you see it. The ending doesn’t completely tank the effective plot that came before it, mind you, but it doesn’t help either.
Outlast, if one can say nothing else in its favor, is an amazing visual experience, not just for its artistry, but for the incredible attention to detail that’s put into it. The single most amazing aspect of the game is that you have a body, and it interacts with the environment in ways that are sensible and amazing, given how rarely it happens. The first time you see Miles put his hand on a doorframe as you approach it to steady himself as he enters a room you’ll wonder why no one does this in games, and his body is visible at all times as you play, which is something so few developers consider and something everyone really should. Miles feels like an actual person, through his movements and actions, his bobbing head movements when he walks and runs, and more, in a way that few games really capture and more really should. The environment is also full of this same detail, as rooms are laid out exceptionally, environments change obviously from one location to the next, and the game world feels terrifyingly lived in as you progress through it, something that works very well at selling the experience. Some of the inmates repeat as you progress through the game, but this is an incredibly minor issue, as from a technical and artistic perspective, the game works, and works well. Aurally, this trend continues, as the background music is often ambient, tonally appropriate, and just well done all around throughout the game. The voice work is also generally quite impressive and well cast, from the plot important characters to the random grunts you face routinely, and none of the voice actors feel at all out of place. Finally, the game makes good use of its sound palette, using lots of creepy ambient effects to amplify player distress, and regular effects generally sound exactly as you’d want them to.
As with most first person horror games, Outlast works as if it were a first person shooter without the gunplay, and as with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, it can be played with either the keyboard and mouse or a compatible controller. In this case, based on the way the game is designed, I found that using a 360 controller was much more effective, as the game is a bit more active and requires some control dexterity that the keyboard and mouse combination had issues with, but either way should work fine. You move with the left stick or WASD, and the right stick or mouse control where you look at the moment. Ducking, jumping, running, and environmental interaction are all easily mapped out here as well, and you’ll also find that you can bring up your notebook periodically to review notes you’ve collected or notes you’ve taken about various scenes throughout the game. The game incorporates some additional gameplay elements, such as shimmying along ledges, climbing through gaps, moving around heavy objects and making running jumps to new locations (hence the recommendation toward controller play), but for the most part it plays about as you’d expect it to. The game does make mild use of an inventory of sorts, though you won’t have to carry around much more than a few items at a time to solve puzzles, as healing is regenerative in nature and the only consumable you need are batteries. Puzzle solving is also done along the same lines; if you need to collect anything, it’s more about finding the item than solving any puzzles, and most of the puzzles are about working with the environment than anything having to do with soup cans or whatever. Genre fans, be it of first person games in general or of first person horror games specifically, will find this game to be easy enough to jump into, and should have little difficulty adjusting to the gameplay.
The biggest addition Outlast brings to the table is that of the camcorder you use as you play. As Miles is a reporter, the gimmick here is that you’ll want to use the camcorder to view as much as you can, for reasons that are both plot-important and gameplay-important. From a plot perspective, Miles will only take notes about things in the game world if he’s looking at them through the camcorder, so it behooves you to look at everything with the camcorder up, as one never knows what Miles will find interesting (though many such things will be obvious, in fairness). From a gameplay perspective, however, the camcorder also comes equipped with a night vision function, which is the only way Miles can navigate through the dark areas of the environment safely. This offers a double-sided benefit, in fact, as not only does it allow you to navigate the environment safely and effectively even in darkness, but you can also see hostile inmates without them knowing you’re there, which is basically essential if one likes one’s insides to not be on their outsides. The caveat here is that using night vision chews up your battery life something fierce, so you’ll need to be on the lookout for batteries constantly, as running out of juice in the middle of a dark room is basically tantamount to instant death. Managing your battery life is key here, and it’s a big part of what contributes to the terror of the game, since you never know if moving through that dark area is worth it until you chew up your battery life to do so.
As one might expect from the above, yes, people will also be trying to kill you as you run around the asylum, and they’re not particularly shy about this fact. Miles has a few options for avoiding his impending demise, however, and several of them are pretty clever for the genre. You can basically parkour like a madman when someone’s chasing you, so by running and jumping you can vault over obstacles and through holes in the wall without too much difficulty, and slamming doors in the enemy’s face can buy you time to do something to stay alive. The aforementioned “hide in the dark with the camera on” tactic also works wonders if the enemy is coming for your blood since they can’t see you too well unless they come into decent range of you. Finally, you can also hide in various locations around most rooms, such as inside lockers, under beds, in toilets and so on, and hope that the enemies won’t come after you in those areas. The inmates aren’t completely braindead, however, and will often search in various locations for you, so you’ll want to make sure the hiding place you choose isn’t the most obvious place to look. That locker might look like a safe bet, but it might be smarter to hide in the dark corner instead, or under the bed, since the enemy might remember that you hid in a locker before and head for that locker first. Thinking tactically is as much a part of your survival as anything here, and the game has no qualms about punishing you for going to the well too often.
You can basically get through Outlast in about four to six hours, and as with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs there’s not a whole lot to the game to bring you back once it’s over with. The game is more about the experience than the long term play value, and in that respect, it’s generally worth its twenty dollar asking price, but it’s not a game you’re going to come back to over and over again. You might want to try and see if you can make it through the game with less battery use, or see if Miles took some notes you missed the first time around because you didn’t have your camera up, but there’s no added content or anything to bring you back for more. The game is a linear horror experience, no more and no less, but the experience is really the big selling point for fans of horror games, and for those who love to be scared out of their mind, Outlast makes a pretty compelling argument for your money.
Having said that, the biggest issue with Outlast is that if you’re NOT easily scared, the game slowly descends from being a series of horrific setpieces into a game of constant frustrations, and it’s comparable, in some ways, to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth in that respect. There are a few sequences where you’re going to have to run like hell from one or more dudes in order to survive, and the game is going to ask you to shove heavy obstacles in front of doors or jump onto platforms to do so, and that, by itself, is fine. The problem is that the game doesn’t make these exits incredibly obvious, the mechanics don’t always work as intended (IE jumps have to be fairly precise), and the enemies can’t kill you in one shot, so instead of tense, fraught chase sequences, you get a Benny Hill comedy of errors. Indeed, the whole game, in many respects, is a lot like this. Early on in the game you’ll find yourself trying to hide from guys and stealthily move around, but as the game progresses you’ll just run around like an idiot, looking for the exit until you find it, then eating the death to conserve battery life (if you’ve used any) before barrel-assing your way to the exit because the game is easier this way. It can be argued that this goes against the nature of the experience, but I completed the game with a full complement of batteries on my person, so it clearly worked fine, and if anything, it was less annoying than running and hiding from an enemy repeatedly. This is largely because enemies are also often too good at spotting you, depending on location and level structure, which can make sequences into a chore if you’re constantly having to hide because the enemy sees you for the fifth time in a row or what have you. Since the last hour of the game basically becomes this entire gameplay style anyway, one wonders why one would play any other way, as honestly, the hours spent hiding in lockers and whatnot are tossed aside in the last hour of play, and it’s much easier if you give that style of play up yourself, because at least then you’re prepared.
Even beyond the spotty chase sequences, though, the game is also simply silly with murderous psychopaths, to the extent that the late-game experiences often feel like one long chase sequence over anything else, and it gets old in a hurry. There’s no particular punishment for dying or fear involved in doing so, so the late game chase sequences often feel more like a required annoyance than anything terrifying or scary. The game also likes to make you do stuff just to pad out the experience, IE, you’ll need a key but when you open the door the key falls down a floor and you’ll have to go get it, you’ll drop your camcorder into the basement and have to go get it, a guy slams a door in your face for no reason and you’ll have to take the long way around, and so on. For an easily scared player, sure, this might heighten the terror a bit, but if you’re the sort of person who isn’t easily scared, this will be more of a point where you’ll sigh dejectedly and wait for the obvious chase sequence to follow. When the game is pushing you forward, it generally feels rewarding, but when it’s forcing you to backtrack or go the long way around, it tends to feel more frustrating and breaks the immersion as often as not. Finally, as noted several times before, the last hour or so of gameplay feels like it belongs to a completely different game, both tonally and structurally, and it feels tacked on and forced. The fact that the game asks you to spend all of that time looking at the game world through a broken display on your digital camcorder doesn’t help things, mind you, and as a general memo to any developer ever, never do this, it is the absolute worst and every person I’ve showed it to thought it was an awful idea and hated Red Barrels for doing it.
Taking in the whole of the experience, Outlast is largely an artistic and creative success, one that does an exceptional number of things right, but the things it does wrong might be enough to break the experience for those who aren’t easily scared. The plot is mostly solid and does a generally excellent job of filling in the blanks and tying together the plot elements as needed, and the game is an artistic marvel both visually and aurally. The gameplay is as functional as one would expect from the genre, but adds in some neat concepts, such as using a camcorder to view the world and hiding in the environment to avoid enemies, that are generally used effectively when the setpieces put them together just right. The game is a one-and-done affair, sadly, and it spends far too much time asking you to run from people in ways that are less scary and more comedic and frustrating if you’re not easily terrified. Further, the game asks you to run from inmates far too often for its own good and spends far too much time forcing you to backtrack or take the long way to pad out its length, the last chapter of the game is an out-and-out mess from all possible perspectives and feels like a different game, and breaking your camcorder display an hour from the end was a horrible aesthetic idea. The good parts of Outlast certainly outweigh the bad, to be sure, and horror fans should absolutely spend time with the game to see the really good ideas contained in the game, but it’s absolutely not a godsend unless you’re easily scared, it falls apart at the end, and it’s hard to recommend over A Machine for Pigs.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Outlast is certainly an artistic marvel that is incredibly ambient and well designed artistically, but it’s also full of frustrations that add up over time, and while those who are easily scared may find it exceptional, its flaws will vex anyone who isn’t. The plot is mostly spot on and does a good job of carrying the game along, and the game is a technical and artistic marvel both visually and audibly throughout. The gameplay is simple enough to get into but features little novelties, like using a camcorder to see in the dark and take notes or hiding from enemies, that give it a flair many games in the genre don’t have. However, the game’s essentially over in one run, and it uses structured chase sequences in a way that becomes frustrating and perversely hilarious long before the game’s done throwing them at you. Further, the inmates in general are used far too liberally throughout the game, as is backtracking and taking the long way around something to pad out the length of the game, the last chapter feels completely disconnected from the rest of the game in all respects, and the aesthetic choice to break the camcorder display in the last hour or so of play was a bad one on multiple levels. If you’re easily scared or you can ignore the frustrating parts, Outlast is a game you absolutely should play, as it’s an aesthetic and atmospheric genius and more games should be doing what it does in this respect, but for those who aren’t easily scared it’s going to grate and wear out its welcome before it comes to the unsatisfying end.