On the surface, Outlast seemed like just another hackneyed attempt at terrifying players: “paranormal” activity, a camcorder acting as your only weapon against the inevitable threats, and film grain to boot. Once you've delved into its harrowing hallways, however, you quickly find there's more to it than meets the eye. A PC darling that's now made its way to PlayStation 4 owners, Outlast is an impressive exercise in what can be done with a minimal amount of expository narrative and an abundance of creepy set pieces. It's so wicked, but in all the right ways.
As a massive horror fan, I was of course filled with trepidation upon entering the halls of Mount Massive Asylum, but I was greeted by a first-person adventure that took me to the depths of a mental asylum teeming with “patients” that seemed far beyond the reaches of what any kind of therapist or doctor could ever solve. Twisted bodies, mutilated limbs, and blood-soaked halls waited around every corner. Sometimes a door would unexpectedly swing shut or I’d happen upon a corpse on a toilet, blood spilling out into the bowl below. The lights flickered. A lot. And in the thick of it all was a suspicious priest who seemed to be on my side at first — I’m still not sure about him.
It wasn’t until the pursuit that followed that I felt fear. When I started being chased by deformed beasts I’m sure were human at some point, ducking into lockers and under hospital beds to protect myself became the norm. In complete darkness, the only light I had emanated from the infrared mode of my camcorder. The thrill stemmed from the chase, and that’s what Outlast excels at. You never know where or when you’ll be discovered, but if you are death is guaranteed.
You have no real way to defend yourself, either. It’s a bit like real life, though I have to imagine in the real world my hands would find my way to eyeballs, where my fingers would gouge them out to buy myself some time. Outlast strips you of even the smallest luxury, and that’s what allows it to frighten me, despite the fact that otherwise, it’s truly not all that scary. The patients may not be as grotesque as they could be, and the environments not as varied, but Outlast succeeded in raising my heart rate, something that most games this console generation have not.
There’s a very simple explanation for this: the games packaged as “horror” fail to capitalize on mechanics beyond creepy visuals (which are usually never creepy) or jump scares. There’s no allowance for tension or anything that thinks even slightly outside the box when it comes to “scary” things. Chase sequences hardly work because 90% of the time you’re armed to the teeth and can blow away whatever threat you’re facing. What happens when you remove that control, though?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (or in this case, darkness and grainy footage) as I did find several issues with the game as a whole. The entire game is built on chase sequences, and as a result despite the heart-pounding terror and the excitement surrounding each encounter, it can begin to wear on the nerves. Eventually, it feels tiresome having to run away or seek asylum in a locker. There aren’t enough batteries scattered throughout the asylum for players who aren’t eagle-eyed, and in absolute darkness it can be hard to explore – you’ll get lost and become disoriented during non-integral moments. While this is of course the nature of survival horror games, when it’s happening during non-chase segments and silent parts of the game, it becomes a little frustrating rather than engaging.
In addition, character models, while terrifying at first, began to melt into each other – the goons began to look the same, with the same eyes, the same ravenous expressions. While they terrified me at first, it became more of a game about some kind of deadly hide-and-seek than a creepfest based on what the nasties looked like. I would have appreciated more variety, and different creatures to get my blood pressure rising.
Outlast is flawed in many ways, but it’s the most exemplary offering these days of how to engage, entrap, and entice players looking for something that scares them out of their wits. There’s still a massive dearth of quality, frightening games out there in the wild, but releases like this one give me hope for the future. A future of Lovecraftian horrors, I hope.