Outlast startled me no less than sixteen times during its four-hour length. Broken down, that equates to four scares per hour, or a fright every fifteen minutes. Though that number seems low compared to the constant harassment of horror entities like the Slender Man, Outlast is more meticulous with its pacing and AAA game ambitions. Developer Red Barrels maintains the minimal interface and relative helplessness of the player character central to other found footage releases, while empowering investigators with all the tools necessary to document and escape their waking nightmares.
Miles Upshur, the game’s adamant journalist, has received the news tip of his career. When Mount Massive Asylum reopened its doors after decades of inactivity, rumors started circulating that its benefactors may not be so selfless and charitable. Why would someone finance an institute that drives more of its staff insane than cures patients? Armed with a notebook and camcorder (and valuing a front page newspaper article over his life), Miles is determined to shut the madhouse down, but his revolting introduction to the massacre inside contains enough gore to make cannibals drool. Nearly every wall is caked in some form of entrails or bodily fluids, and with expert lighting effects and ghastly details, you will not see more disturbing depictions of a mental ward gone awry.
Mass murder? Or a cannibal's buffet?
Bloodshed notwithstanding, the penitentiary's grisly imagery conceals a morbid backstory worth checking into. Nazi mysticism and other occult rituals remain prevalent among the setting and its occupants. Not every patient wishes to harm you, but one look at these individuals is ample reason to give them a wide berth. Some subjects behave abnormal, banging their heads against pillars or whispering incoherently in jail cells, while many more display deep cuts carved into their emaciated bodies. Other torture victims have more stitches/scar tissue than skin, lacking noses, eyes, teeth, or appendages altogether. Perhaps unintentionally, the developers evoke sympathy for the asylum’s inmates through these cruel portrayals, spurring anxious players onwards lest Miles share their depraved fates.
For the maniacs that would feast on your flesh, the game’s four-hour runtime covers many minutes spent hiding/running from the unpredictable lunatics let out of their cage. Miles cannot fight back. Against Outlast’s unsightly antagonists, his only defense is retreating into the shadows, breaking line of sight. (Funny how the dark is less terrifying than a psychopath hunting you.) Miles can glance over his shoulder while sprinting as well, and seeing pursuers gaining ground deserves no greater reward than soiled pants. At least then you know when to stow away in that locker, under that bed, in that drainage tunnel. Still, Outlast seldom ends your misery if caught. In most instances, Miles may sustain several attacks before a monster tears his head from its shoulders.
The Doctor is the least mangled of the asylum's inhabitants.
Outlast occasionally caves to its video game nature, however, giving players sneak peeks of the machine behind the magic if they strain their eyes. Enemies cannot cross invisible lines separating one floor from the next, so as Miles flees back to an area's entrance after fulfilling some fetch quest, predators call off their pursuit. I quickly grew bored of the methodical scavenger hunts, too – turn valve, hide in locker, start generator, hide behind box, hit power switch, move to new setting.
The game also abandons horror for action suspense in its final hour, with chase after chase. Provided your stalker does not see you, he will check other lockers, other beds, other desks – never yours. Initially, Mile’s beating heart became indistinguishable from my own. His sigh, my sigh. His shudder, my shudder. His exhale, my exhale. Except, the bond soon broke. I hung my head as the same freak examined the same closet after following me into the same room for a fifth time. The AI does vary its patrol patterns based on opened doors, but the predictable encounters upset a carefully structured experience. Patients seal doors behind you, audio cues change with enemies' proximity, and the reflection of hostiles' eyes means you see them before they see you.
I didn't want to go down that tunnel anyway.
AI aside, Outlast shares more than defenseless protagonists with Slender: The Arrival. Miles’ video camera lends believability to his journalistic lifestyle, where Slender’s camera was little more than a HUD toggle for personal effect. In Outlast, your camcorder is a weapon, though not in the traditional sense, obviously. The camera's infrared display illuminates dark passages, your sole advantage over imposing mutants.
Night vision comes at a price (batteries), even if less petrified players reach their carrying capacity early. Is an extra battery worth braving that dim hallway with enemies about? Given how fast night vision drains the camera’s power, I should think so. For more hesitant adventurers, each AA will be a godsend, though you do not lose sight entirely when batteries expire. The distance you are able to see decreases, from several dozen feet in front of you to an arm’s length. Few situations are more foreboding than wading around in an underground pool, hearing the rattling of chains as you hug the nearest wall in panic. Should Miles die, however, the developers restart players with two fully charged batteries, if they've run out.
Supernatural phenomena distort the camera's display.
The camera does more than aid Miles’ escape. It documents his slow mental decline. With the camcorder equipped, glossing over certain horrendous sights fills Miles’ notebook with his disgust, doubts, and fears, giving the man a voice without ever uttering a word. Furthermore, private files detail doctors’ sinister experiments, fleshing out Mount Massive Asylum as a mere witness to the hideous events occurring beneath its roof.
Slender: The Arrival was the scariest release I played during 2013 – the operative word being “was.” Its characters unsettling, its imagery distressing, and its scares alarming, Red Barrels’ debut title will leave you looking over your own shoulder at the slightest disturbance. If horror fans can swallow the bile rising in their throats, Outlast is one nightmare every enthusiast should share.
Publisher: Red Barrels Games
Developer: Red Barrels Games
Release Date: September 3, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)