One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Into the Cuckoo’s Nest
Fear is the most primal of challenges. When the consequence of failure is death, triumphing over one’s own cowardice for the sake of survival is not only necessary but imperative.
In gaming, the stakes are considerably lessened when a Game Over screen or checkpoint reload is the only punishment for giving into one’s fears. To really drive a horror game, developers need to immerse players enough to make them feel like they are the ones in danger, rather than their avatars onscreen.
Red Barrels, a studio comprised of ex-Ubisoft and EA employees, have set out to accomplish total immersion in Outlast, a first-person survival horror title currently available on PC and slated for release on PS4 upon launch.
In Outlast, players take on the role of Miles Upshur, a journalist tipped off to strange events happening at Mount Massive Asylum. Miles arrives at the mental hospital and finds that the front doors are locked. Being the investigative sort, he breaks into the building through a window and finds a special operations squad’s remains. Miles quickly becomes wrapped up in a religious movement taking place involving horrors unleashed through years of patient abuse and experimentation and finds that escape will not be an easy task.
Unfortunately, telling a story is not necessarily Outlast‘s greatest strength. The plot is told through Miles’ personal notes and documents picked up throughout the experience as well as occasional dialogue with other characters. While the plot did go in an unexpected direction near its climax, I didn’t feel it played up the game’s atmosphere and it ultimately felt forced. Despite the mediocre story, the game did immerse me into its world with its strong mechanics.
Similar to Frictional Games’ excellent genre piece Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Red Barrels has opted for a combat-free approach in Outlast. When confronted with an enemy, the player must escape and hide, whether inside a closet or under a bed. The tension of waiting for one of the asylum’s denizens to stumble by as Miles lies under a bed is powerful, and on the whole, Red Barrels has successfully built upon Frictional Games’ ideas in this regard.
The asylum is a dark place, but thankfully the player is equipped with Miles’ video camera. While the camera’s main battery life is strangely unlimited, its night vision function completely devours energy. Managing the player’s battery supply can lead to some nerve-wracking moments in the dark, making exploration to find batteries and careful use of night vision integral to survival.
Outlast looks great. With the exception of a couple ugly character models that tend to be reused, the asylum’s occupants all look sufficiently creepy and are animated quite well. Environments are surprisingly varied for the game taking place in one location, and using night vision adds an ethereal look to the dilapidated place, furthering immersion and ramping up the horrors within.
Survival horror games require strong sound direction to capture the atmosphere and Red Barrels nailed it in Outlast. Music plays occasionally and often builds suspense only to amount to nothing, leading to the player feeling as insane as the residents. Inmates mutter and growl as Miles sneaks by and every piece of dialogue was well recorded and incredibly creepy.
Outlast relies on jump scares as its primary method of terrifying players though plenty of psychological horror arises within the confines of Mount Massive Asylum as well. While I missed the more unsettling randomization of enemies in a game like Slender, I appreciated Red Barrel’s job of designing a (mostly) strong artificial intelligence Hell-bent on tracking me down and ripping me to pieces.
The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, totalling in at a modest five hours, though the pre-ending sequence could have been toned down. Jump scares felt top heavy and by about the three-hour mark, Outlast began to prefer chase sequences to eerie situations, which isn’t necessarily a negative though I did miss the slower pace.
Outlast successfully managed to bring back the terror I experienced as a young gamer pecking away at titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, almost too frightened to move on. Despite a very average story, the game immersed me in a way I didn’t think possible in modern horror. At its $20 price tag on Steam, Outlast deserves a place in any genre fan’s game library.
For the true experience, make sure to turn off the lights and put on your headphones. This game is terrifying.
Just remember, nobody likes a quitter.