Phenomenal atmosphere outweighs some hiccups.
Outlast is not a fun game, but the game isn’t supposed to be enjoyable in the traditional sense. The protagonist isn’t a Cop or a Soldier, he’s just a reporter. This horror game from up and coming independent developer, Red Barrel, is about facing your fears knowing you don’t have the means to fight back. The tension is born from Outlast not granting the player any power. Instead, your only means of dealing with the homicidal psychopaths of the Mount Massive Asylum is running away and hiding. The game expertly makes you feel vulnerable throughout the entire five hour adventure.
After given an anonymous tip, you come to Mount Massive to investigate allegations that the mental asylum has been experimenting on inmates and torturing them all in the name of profit. This plot device is derivative of real 20th century medical experimentations, but amped up for the sake of terror. The narrative is a horror cliche but serves as a terrific platform for the macabre discoveries that are made through the game.
The atmosphere in Outlast is cohesive and supplies a constant sense of dread. You’ll constantly walk past the cells of this forgotten asylum still populated with physically scarred and emotionally damaged inmates. The blood stained walls and crumbling walls tell their own stories by suggesting unspeakable horror occurred in this once functioning facility.
Every dark room will fill you with apprehension. It’s difficult to predict when someone will attempt to assault you. Not every inmate you encounter is a threat. I sometimes went long periods without encountering anyone trying to murder me. Yet that never stopped me from over anticipating noises in the distance, seeing things in the dark, and looking over my shoulder. The inability to fight exclusively puts you in the flight category.
The only tool granted to the player is a camcorder equipped with night vision. You’re encouraged to navigate the environment while constantly looking through the camera’s lense. The nightvision also serves up its own brand of creepiness. The film grain adds to the entire sense of dread Outlast is consistent with. This plays into the current fad of the found-footage style of filming seen in Paranormal Activity and Quarantine. I don’t normally like those type of movies, but that style translates terrifyingly well to Outlast.
One specific encounter had me in a large open room which was pitch-black. The nightvision only illuminates about eight feet of space. I spent what seemed to be an eternity looking for the exit. I was stalked by a hulking brute. The scary part was I couldn’t see him, I could only hear his unsettling footsteps and breathing getting louder and louder. Outlast uses that concept throughout most of the game. Wandering around helpless in the dark alone just trying to find your way out is a meaty enough mechanic to carry the adventure and echos the tension of frantically escaping a threat seen in slasher films.
The game does lose momentum at some points. While the sauntering psychopaths and the dreadful atmosphere are indeed horrifying, those elements lose their steam the third or fourth time you see them. Some of the level layouts are difficult to navigate and doesn’t give the player enough context clues to make split second decisions while being pursued. The game isn’t difficult, but the magic was lost after I failed a few encounters and was forced to repeat them. The environment sometimes became more of a nuisance than terrifying. Imagine having to watch a scary scene in a movie three times in a row. At some point you start to accidentally see behind the curtain. Outlast losses all of its sense of horror once you start to think of it as a videogame, and you will only start thinking of it as such when the momentum is slowed down.
Outlast makes you feel extremely vulnerable, uncomfortable, and grounded in the environment. Red Barrel successfully invoked a sense of dread and horror on a higher level than most of developers have done in past work. The game does stumble across some loss of momentum in a few spots, and at points the behind the scenes mechanics are too easily seen by the player. The ending is also painfully bad. These weaker moments are easily overshadowed by Outlast’s strong points. When at its best, Outlast invokes fear and hesitation more than most games attempting to draw out the same emotions. The sheer terror I experienced while playing convinces me Outlast may be the templet for future horror games in the future.