If it wasn't for so many indie horror games coming out this year, I’d be willing to say this is the best of 2013.
Boo! Feel scared? If not, that’s because real horror is more than just cheap thrills and quick scares. Real horror has to build up atmosphere, raise the tension, and make the player feel uncomfortable and helpless. That’s what indie hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent did when it arrived in September 2010. Amnesia was more than just a fantastic horror game that, for me, overtakes Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly as the scariest game I had ever played. It was a title that opened the notion to gamers that indie developers can create horror just as well, if not better, than any of the big publishing studios, and that is important, because retail horror is going the way of the Dodo. We need these indie developers to live and keep us horror fans scared out of our pants.
Created by the newly assembled Red Barrels – a team of ex-Ubisoft employees who worked on titles such as Splinter Cell Conviction and Prince of Persia – Outlast puts the player in the shoes of Miles Upshur, a journalist who has received a tip that something unethical is going on at Mount Massive Asylum. Like any good journalist, he goes to investigate with his only equipment, a handheld camcorder that has the ability to record in pitch black, thanks to the night vision. This camcorder is also Outlast’s main mechanic for survival. Without it, you’re just a reporter in a very dark and frightening asylum.
All is quiet when Miles pulls up to the asylum and looks for a way to get in. Seeing an open window, the player is forced to gain entry through unprofessional means and then begin to explore the asylum from the inside. It’s here that you first discover the powerful ambient noises and sound that the developers have crafted perfectly for such a title. The initial 30 minutes of Outlast is used to teach to the player what to expect from this game. Playing Outlast in the dark with headphones on and the audio jacked up is a nerve-racking experience. You’re constantly filled with the sounds of creaky boards, Miles’ heavy breathing and the soundtrack that hits the right tempo at seemingly all at the right times.
It’s not just the sound that amplifies the horror experience, but also the lighting trickery that comes with the use of the camcorder and the night vision. This is evident near the start of the game when the lights go out and the asylum is completely blanketed in darkness (I am trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, so I will only talk about the very early sections of the game). I mean, you can’t even see anything but the lights escaping through the cracks in some far away exit. Bringing up the camcorder and switching on the night vision is your only option to explore. The effect for night vision is remarkable. It’s comparable to a scene in the Spanish film REC. It has the right tint of green and reveals just the correct amount of light, making it a daunting application to use. Having a face jump right in front of you, seeing the eyes glow as they directly look into your face isn’t a scene for the cowardly.
Night vision requires the use of batteries. If you run out, then the range of the night vision is drastically limited. This might seem awful as it happens to Miles, but, I actually only ran out of batteries once. The game leaves batteries around at every opportunity, so you never feel that sense of dread that you should have with a mechanic is that heavily relied upon. Maybe a difficulty setting would have helped to overcome this? It would allow people to pick an option that affected the placement of batteries. The camcorder isn’t just a see-in-the-dark tool, as the device is used to let Miles express his current mood on specific topics. You can only discover these when the camera is running, so I often found myself keeping the camera up, plus the grainy filter that is applied to the screen when the camcorder is used added to the authenticity of wanting to document everything going on in Mount Massive. Notes left by employees can be discovered that help the player understand more what was going on in the asylum and why it’s changed into a complete hellhole.
This hellhole looks fantastic. The detail present from the use of Unreal Engine 3 allows for brilliant use of light. It has helped the developers create some truly grotesque and captivating environments. Blood is never scarce, as you’ll often find it splatted on walls, with limbs from an unknown patient stuck down toilets or entrails left scattered around rooms. It’s not a pretty sight to behold, but at the same time it’s showing off that laws of the asylum – no one is safe from what is out to get you.
In a bizarre sense, it helps that the developers have worked on titles such as Splinter Cell, because Outlast feels very much like a stealth game. Miles has no access to weaponry – the game clearly states this with its intro message of “to navigate the horrors of Mount Massive and expose the truth, your only choices are to run, hide, or die” – which will sound very familiar to people who played Amnesia; however, Outlast isn’t about one monster chasing you through the game, but about an asylum filled with patients who have lost their humanity due to the horrendous events that happened there.
To stay alive, Miles must sneak around the asylum without making noise or getting caught in the sight of these inhuman remnants. Crouching and leaning is a must. Small details, such as watching Miles place his hand on the door to peak out, which is done with the trigger buttons (I was playing with a 360 controller, but mouse and keyboard work fine) shows an element of presence from Miles’ body. Just the fact that you can see all of his body adds a sense of weight to the movement, especially scenes that are out of your control.
Enemies in Outlast are nothing more than disfigured humans that patrol their designated areas. If they spot you, then expect to be chased until you manage to get away and hide. Miles is quite the sprinter, often able to leave behind the assailant like Usain Bolt does with his 200 metre competitors. At first, it seems safe to jump into a locker or hide under the bed, and the game tricks you into thinking this is the right way to play, since these “humans” will often search the place next to where you’re hiding. Later on, this isn’t the case, because the player is entered into a lottery to see if the attacker is going to rag you from a locker and squeeze your neck till your choke. In Outlast, your best chance is to just hide in the dark. It’s a feature that is both your friend, but at the same time it’s your enemy. A nice twist is that Miles’ heart beat is used as an indication on how close the enemy is. If he’s beating like crazy, then you know that just around the corner there is someone waiting for you to make a mistake. It gets under your skin – listening to someone breathing heavy and having their heart beat intensified isn’t a pleasant sound to hear.
For the most part, the pacing of Outlast is great, which is due to the linear progression, but there are parts in the middle where the quality drops and the scares no longer work effectively and instead confuse you. This is thanks to the introduction of inmates that look identical to the ones that attack, but in fact just stand and watch you. There are also some that deliberately follow where you go and look at you. I initially thought it was an AI bug, a problem that was causing them to not activate their next state, but it happened far too often to be that. It threw me out of the horror experience. I was no longer feeling a sense of dread, not caring any more as I didn’t know which enemies were going to attack or not. The longer you play the game the more you begin to know its tricks, and the scares slowly drop down. Thankfully, the latter half picks back up by introducing new areas and other spoiler topics that bring the scares back again. You’re looking at around five hours to get through Outlast, and it ends with a closure that might cause for some debate, but I personally found it to be a satisfying end.
Anyone interest in the need to be scared should check out Outlast. It takes some ideas from Amnesia, but blends them with its own unique gameplay mechanics and setting. Outlast knows that scares come from being unable to defend yourself. There’s nothing more frighting than being chased down by a blood-lusted lunatic and not being able to do anything but hide and listen to your own heavy breathing. The first 30 minutes is a strong demonstration for the game, and while it stumbles later on, spoiling the extremely promising start, the game eventually finds it stride again to bring home a great horror experience. If it wasn't for so many indie horror games coming out this year, I’d be willing to say this is the best horror game you’d play for some time