Just when I thought survival horror as a genre was dying Outlast proved me wrong. While it is true that survival horror games have taken a substantial hit over the years with titles like Resident Evil and even Silent Hill losing their way, developers are finding a way to breathe new life into the genre. The biggest trend today in survival horror titles is the inability to fight back in games. Clock Tower was one of the first games that I ever played that featured a protagonist that could not attack its pursuers requiring the player to hide and avoid them while solving puzzles along the way. As technology has advanced so has the way developers build up the scares and none so more than Red Barrels, the company behind the release of Outlast for the Xbox One.
I’ve always wondered which was more terrifying in a survival game, going through a corridor with a gun with little to no ammo or going through that same instance with nothing but a flashlight or in the case of Outlast, a camcorder and a notebook. While having a gun and no ammo is in itself a certain kind of terrifying, I have to throw my hat into the side where having no weapon at all is far worse. It’s one thing to be a trained badass with a gun, but something entirely different to be a normal everyday person trying to survive odds that are not in your favor.
Outlast puts you in the shoes of Miles Upshur, a freelance investigative journalist, who’s looking for his next big story when he receives an anonymous tip that he should have stayed far, far away from. Led to Mount Massive, a remote psychiatric hospital owned by the shady Murkoff Corporation, by a source only known as the Whistleblower, Miles soon finds out that things are very, very wrong after finding several mutilated corpses and a swat-ka-bob that uses his dying last words to tell you to get out while you still can. Sound advice…too bad the front doors are locked and electronically sealed.
Outlast is easily the scariest game that I’ve ever played to date and a lot of that has to do with the buildup of tension that happens when navigating seemingly quite corridors and rooms in various states of disrepair and decay. The opening 15-20 minutes of the game set you up to learn the basic character controls and operations of your camcorder. It’s not until you’re running for your life in the first few encounters that you learn about the ability to hide in lockers or under beds to escape your pursuers. Most of the enemies in Outlast are not that deadly as Miles can take a fair beating before succumbing to death. There are other enemies such as an insane doctor that should be avoided at all costs as they will cut your investigation short real quick. If you survive an encounter your health will regenerate over time and if not then you will find Outlast’s generous checkpoint system a welcome feature as it reloads you just before your encounter.
Without giving away the major highlights of the game, you’ll navigate your way through this visually disturbing asylum by using your camcorder to record the horrors that you encounter (creating notes) as well picking up the optional documents that flesh out the story about what has been going on prior to your arrival. There are puzzles in place such as restoring power to the asylum or finding the fuses needed to make an elevator work to fuel your way forward to finding a way out of the hell that you’ve willingly stepped into. Your camcorder also serves a greater purpose than just revealing the bizarre events inside the asylum. It also doubles as your source of being able to see in the dark via the night-vision mode. Unfortunately it eats through batteries like a digital camera does to normal AA batteries, so strategy on when and when not to use night-vision is important. You can find batteries scattered throughout the game, sometimes in out-of-the-way locations, and you are allowed to carry up to ten in the normal play through. Harder difficulties reduce carry capacity down to three and batteries are a lot harder to come by for the truly adventurous.
A lot of your time will be spent viewing Outlast’s visceral world through the filter of a camcorder in the style of those “found footage” films or paranormal shows especially with the use of night vision but playing from behind a camera doesn’t make this journey any less creepy. In fact when your camera view screen gets cracked it only helps sell the dark nature of the experience. The other part that seals Outlast as a terrifying experience is the amazingly gorgeous and disgusting world designs and textures that you see. Even the brilliantly designed lighted areas that should offer you a moment of peace do nothing if not allow mere moments to let your heart recover from that pant-soiling encounter that you just escaped. I mean having your night-vision die due to a dead battery only to pop in another one only to discover that a crazed inhabitant is wielding a machete literally a few feet away is enough for anyone to jump out of their seat and either pause the game and walk away for a few moments or use that same controller to get the hell out of Dodge and then go take a break.
It doesn’t help that Outlast features an amazing score as well as audio cues and positional audio to immerse you into the experience. If you don’t play this game with surround sound then you have no idea how truly terrifying just hearing Miles breathing rapidly in fear really is. Outlast brings back memories of games like Condemned: Criminal Origins and F.E.A.R in the use of environmental sound such as stepping on broken glass or water dripping or the sound of thunder or an unseen mumbling enemy moving near your current position in the dark. Even the casual hospital banter of the “doctor” is beautifully creepy.
I’ve played a lot of scary games over the years and I can easily say that Outlast tops them all so far. Red Barrels, a company comprised of programmers of games that weren’t remotely scary by nature, has created an experience that will stick with gamers and viewers long after the controller has been laid down or people walk out of the room. There are few truly great horror games out there today and in this reviewer’s eyes Outlast makes that list of must-be-played experiences.