Review: Outlast

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Everyone has their limits with horror. Some draw the line at jump scares, others with excessive gore. Outlast is the kind of game that goes straight out looking for that line, and holds nothing back in pursuit of it. The way it goes about shocking you might not work for everyone, but for those it does it’s one of the best.

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You take on the role of Miles Upshur, the world’s most unfortunate journalist, as he sniffs out a scoop at the remote Mount Massive Asylum. Armed with naught but his camcorder and his razor wit, he finds his way inside only to discover that the inmates are running the show. With escape cut off, survival means healthy portions of skulking through the shadows and hauling ass down the blood-soaked halls. The adventure and story take all sorts of turns from this auspicious beginning, but rest assured you’re going to be crawling over every inch of this wretched place.

If anything, I’m underselling just how awful the asylum is. Red Barrels went above and beyond the call to make Mount Massive a literal house of horrors, everything from flickering lights to fountains of viscera, from ransacked offices to moldering cells. Every room is grim, dingy, and feels like the least safe place on Earth. And indeed, you’ll never know quite when you’re safe, at least at first. Some of the misbegotten patients are quite benign, but others are out for your blood. More than that, just about anything could be waiting around the next corner to mutilate you. Much of the asylum is pitch black, leaving you to grub around in the dark using the night vision on your camera until something gets in your face.

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This is the still-beating heart of Outlast’s horror, the jump scares. Don’t get outraged just yet, these aren’t the screaming Poser models of the indie horror gutters. Like many modern FPSes, Outlast models your character’s body and takes great pleasure in manhandling it at regular intervals. You’ll be thrown through windows, dragged through doors, tied to things, and so much more. The game is rife with these scripted scenes, often coming at the least opportune times to make you jump and curse.

The rest of the horror lies in the atmosphere and the enemies. Like I said, the asylum is a palpably terrible place to be thanks to superb audio and visual details. You’re going to feel gross and uncomfortable the whole way through, which adds immeasurably to the shocks and threats when they arise. As for the enemies, well, they provide the necessary threat of death, but are probably the weakest part of the formula. It won’t take long for your foes to become predictable, not only in their patterns but in their appearances. Once you get used to racing past them or losing pursuit, they’ll be more like padding than actual threats.

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This is really the crux of what Outlast is, and what will determine if you love it or hate it. It’s very much a haunted house ride, moreso even than other guided horror games like SOMA or Condemned. Your path through the asylum always follows the same track, has the same spooks and shocks in the same places, and threatens you in the same ways. There are notes, of course, files to pick up and memos recorded by having your camera up at key points. But these are all on the main path, or a single room or hallway off from it. While I wouldn’t say the experience becomes boring or repetitive, I definitely felt more comfortable with it in the last hour than I did the first.

Don’t take that as a dismissal of what Red Barrels has accomplished here, though. Outlast is one of the most aggressively unsettling and brutal horror games out there, and as long as you let yourself be drawn in it’s a hell of a ride. Terrible things are going to happen, accompanied by sharp graphics and a phenomenal orchestral soundtrack. The story goes crazier than I expected but ended in a good place that should entertain just about everyone. It’s not the smartest or the scariest horror game out there, but it works hard to shock and does a damn fine job of it.

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