Written Sunday, February 09, 2014 By Lee Bradley
There are two types of experience in Outlast, developer Red Barrels' survival horror. The first involves creeping slowly around a darkened mental asylum, hiding under beds and shutting yourself in lockers, while the other’s a bit like Benny Hill, except instead of scampering away from scantily clad ladies, you’ll be running away from big burly nutters intent on ripping out your spine.
Much of the early game is incredibly intense. You are freelance journalist Miles Upshur, who arrives at the Mount Massive Asylum one dark night attempting to investigate a tip that the owners are up to no good. Clambering into the imposing building via some scaffolding, it’s not long before you discover that the tip was correct. Terrifyingly, horrifyingly correct.
In Outlast you’re not a normal bloke who just happens to specialise in Jason Statham-esque action heroics. Nor will you find metal poles and shotguns scattered around. You have no way of defending yourself whatsoever. Your sole piece of equipment is a video camera that doubles as makeshift night vision goggles. And even that is prone to running out if you don’t keep it stocked with batteries, the game’s only resource.
The camera also serves another function, not for the player but for the developers. Viewing the blood-splattered corridors and crumbling rooms of Mount Massive through your night-vision-enabled viewfinder is really fucking scary. It narrows your field of view, makes eyes glow in the distance and despite offering you greater visibility, allows imagined monsters to flit around in the dark. Think of that bit in Silence of the Lambs with Buffalo Bill, except this time you’re the one being hunted.
Even when you’re not peering through a viewfinder, Mount Massive is a fantastically atmospheric place. You begin in the relatively normal lobby and slowly make your way through the building, its inhabitants becoming increasingly dangerous and deranged. Being in a single confined space, finding keys, fuses and alternative routes to progress, with a fair bit of backtracking, helps solidify the space as something real. And genuinely frightening.
The NHS really has taken a turn for the worst.
Despite an over reliance on jump scares, Outlast is constantly unsettling and often terrifying through its early stages. Weak and unable to defend yourself, even the merest glimpse of another figure will make you hide away out of view. Every corner you turn is scary and even the animation of your hand touching the wall may catch you by surprise. Cleverly, Red Barrels also allows you to open doors slowly, agonisingly, as you wince in anticipation of the horror that awaits.
As you get further into Outlast, however, its gaminess reveals itself and the constant fear drips away. Though it remains a darkly atmospheric experience throughout, you’ll find your attitude evolving the longer you play. So instead of hiding, you’ll take to just running. And while the game is still engaging like this, it loses much of its power. Suddenly it’s a spooky adventure game in which you leg it around in circles like Scooby-Doo, with a string of dumb attackers on your tail.
Similarly the narrative becomes increasingly silly as the asylum’s secrets are revealed. The unknown is always more frightening, of course, so that’s perhaps inevitable, but the story’s evolution into overt sci-fi isn’t particularly convincing.
"Yeah. I'll leave you to whatever you were doing."
Yet it doesn’t really matter. Despite Outlast’s shortcomings, which include a perfunctory trophy list you’ll largely complete on your first playthrough, this is a wonderfully refreshing game. The combination of light exploration, stealth, route unlocking and regular pants-crapping makes such a change from the usual action horror fare that you’ll bemoan the rarity of the experience. First-person no-combat adventure games are something we’d like to see more of on console.
Currently included in the Instant Game Collection as part of a PlayStation Plus subscription, Outlast is yet another reason to sign up for gaming’s most generous club. Sign up, download it, play it, and make sure you bring some spare pants.
The voice acting is a bit flat, and the orchestration is occasionally overblown and quiet-quiet-quiet-BOOM, but the audio design nevertheless contributes to Outlast’s nagging sense of terror.
The character models are weak, but elsewhere Outlast does the job, using its limitations to brilliant effect in creating a creeping atmosphere within a believable environment.
The running around you’ll do later in the game is a little silly, but it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a non-combat horror adventure game that’s genuinely scary.
Outlast’s campaign will last you around five or six hours, and there’s little reason to replay. What’s there, however, is enjoyably well-made.
A single playthrough will bag you all but two of the trophies without even trying, the majority of which are story-based. It’s a deadly dull list.
Outlast doesn’t sound amazing, it’s not beautiful, its story is short and its trophies are terrible. But during the course of your adventure you’ll experience more thrills and frights than any other game currently on the market. A true survival horror, Outlast marks the return to consoles of a resurgent genre. It’s well worth playing.
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