For a few years, I worked at a haunted house during the Halloween season. My job was, as one would expect, to scare the patrons. It was a great gig, and I have some fond memories of really freaking people out. But it wasn’t all about standing in a corner and jumping out at the most opportune time. There’s a real science behind the perfect scare. You need to be meticulous in your planning by first creating a sense of uneasiness, then instilling dread and fear, and finally, delivering the scare.
Horror games follow a similar process. For example, the dog jumping through the window in Resident Evil is one of the most famous video game scares. Things were already very spooky when you first stepped into that mansion. As you continued, fear crept in, as you knew that something was waiting for you around that corner. Then, when that zombified doberman finally crashes through the glass, it really hits you hard. Some of the better survival horror games follow this formula pretty religiously, creating some pretty intense experiences.
Outlast already has a pretty faithful following among the PC crowd. As a console-specific gamer (my PC can barely run The 7th Guest), I’ve only heard a few things about the game on various gaming forums. The sentiment was almost universal – this is one of the scariest games ever made. Now that I finally got a chance to play through the console version, I can say that I definitely agree with those sentiments.
Platforms: PC, PS4 (Version Played)
Publisher: Red Barrels
Developer: Red Barrels
Genre: Flight-or-Flight Survival Horror
Release Date: September 4, 2013 (PC), February 4, 2013 (PS4)
ESRB Rating:In Outlast, you play as protagonist Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist on the lookout for his next big story. Miles recently received an anonymous tip about some strange goings-on at Mount Massive Asylum, a closed-down mental hospital that recently was purchased and re-opened by a greedy corporation. Miles decides to sneak into the asylum and find out the truth behind these rumors. Literally a few minutes into his arrival, he finds out that something is definitely not right, and gets locked in before he has a chance to escape. Armed with only his trusty camcorder, Miles must navigate the terrifying halls of the decrepit Mount Massive Asylum, unravel the mystery being the Murkoff Corporation’s experiments, and escape with his life. It’s too bad Miles forgot the first rule of venturing into a seemingly abandoned insane asylum at night: don’t venture into a seemingly abandoned insane asylum at night.
What I really enjoyed about Outlast’s plot is how it’s not laid out for you through a series of cutscenes. In fact, there’s barely any time at all when you’re not in full control of Miles. The story is handled threefold: there are characters you interact with, file folders you find strewn about, and certain events you must record on camera, which are then automatically jotted down in Miles’ notebook as they would appear in his expose. So not only are you rewarded for searching high and low for the collectibles, it’s almost required in order to obtain the full story. It’s a very fresh and unique way to drive the plot, that’s for sure. The story and the presentation are both top-notch. Outlast feels to me like a certain Michael Creighton novel. I won’t say which novel, because I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone. But man, does the story takes a major left turn at Albuquerque.
Playing Outlast is quite the experience. It really takes the term “survival horror” literally. You have no weapons. There is no way to attack your enemies. The only tool at your disposal is your camcorder and its night vision feature. The night vision is essential to your survival; without it, you can barely see two feet in front of you. Using night vision decreases the camcorder’s battery pretty quickly, so use it wisely. Luckily there are spare batteries strewn about the asylum, so finding a replacement isn’t too difficult. I never got to a point where I didn’t have a battery or two to spare, but seeing that battery level go red and start flashing really unnerves you – especially when it goes dead just as an inmate sees you.
To make things even scarier, you have no way to fend off the enemies. All you can do is run and hide. It’s a sick game of hide-and-seek, and I loved every minute of it. There’s nothing more intense than opening a door or turning a corner, and having a psychotic inmate jump out at you, knowing that your only recourse is to run. Red Barrels brilliantly mapped a “look behind you” button to the PS4 controller, so you can see your pursuers as they close in on you. You can slow them down by closing doors, but they will eventually break them down. Hiding in a locker or under a bed is scary itself, as your enemies will search the room for you. I found myself holding my breath as a lumbering ogre of a man opened the locker next to mine, then stood in front of the locker I was hiding in. Luckily, he gave up his pursuit and lumbered away. I stayed in the locker for a good five minutes, trying to work up the nerve to go out and continue my quest.
The game follows the aforementioned haunted house rules quite perfectly, and brings the scares in droves. What makes things even better is that Outlast gives you different types of fear. When you first start off the game, you’re feeling tense and anxious. When that first jump scare hits, it really spooks you. I will admit I did yell out a few choice words at that point. When you are in a room with a psychopath, a different kind of fear sets in. You are doing everything you can to be slow and quiet, praying that he doesn’t notice you. But when he does, that built-up fear explodes and all that is on your mind is “RUN!” The adrenaline kicks in, and your heart pounds as you frantically look for a place to hide. My favorite part, though, was at one point when I thought I had reached the end of the game. It was a perfect mixture of fear and relief, as I thought I had finally found my way out of this nightmare. What happened after that caused my emotions to immediately change from fear and relief to fear and desperation. That’s all I’ll say, though – I don’t want to give away too much. Hell, even the tutorials are scary. At one point, I’m walking down a hall and a note shows up on screen that says “Hold L1 to run away.” That stopped me dead in my tracks. As a gamer, I knew that seeing a message like that meant that something was about to go down.
The graphics in Outlast are amazing. I’ve played a few PS4 games, but none really gave me that “next-gen” feel. Not so with Outlast, it looks great. The environments and lighting are incredible – especially for an indie title. I had to pause the game at one point because it actually looked like my television had a large crack in it. The characters look detailed… and in some cases, a little too detailed. Be advised that this is a Mature-rated game, and not just because of the violence. And besides, the only thing scarier than being chased by a psycho with a meat cleaver is being chased by a naked psycho with a meat cleaver.
Sound plays a huge factor in these types of games as well, and in Outlast, it excels. The sound is not only there to add ambiance, it’s also an integral part of the game. When you hear Miles breathe heavily, you know that something is about to happen. When you’re found by an enemy, music kicks in and adds to the intensity of the situation. Then, when you’re hiding, you’ll need to depend on your ears. Being able to hear someone’s footsteps can be the difference between living and dying.
There are a couple hang-ups, though, as I did catch a few glitches here and there. I was trying to escape the lab of a deranged doctor, who had chased me into a room. I closed the door on him and hid under a bed. He then opened the door, and for some reason would not enter the room. I heard him talking, but could not see him. I got closer to the door, and the “chase” music kicked in. I ran back, and turned around to see that I wasn’t being followed. Eventually I snuck around to another door, and entered the hallway that he was in. Apparently while opening the door, his arm got stuck in the door. I slowly walked past him, even though he could see me. As soon as I got past, I made a mad rush for the exit. Again, it wasn’t a game-breaking glitch, and it worked in my favor, but it kind of ruined the immersion.
Also, the game is a little short. I was able to finish it in two sittings, five hours total. I also didn’t see much in terms of replay value. Granted, there are multiple difficulty levels, and finding every single file and recording will extend your game time a bit, but it’s not about the ending, it’s about the journey. And if you feel five hours is worth $20, then fantastic. The game is currently a PlayStation Plus perk, so it is available for free if you’re a member.
True survival horror games are few and far between. Games like Resident Evil and Dead Space started off as amazingly terrifying experiences, but their subsequent sequels threw the horror aspect of the genre aside in lieu of a more action-oriented play style. Therefore, it’s nice to see a game like Outlast stay so true to the genre. If you love a good scare, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. So fire up the PS4, turn out the lights, turn up the sound, and get under a blanket with a loved one – Outlast is crazy good fun.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Outlast was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.