Outlast Review: An Uncompromising Horror Vision
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In one early scene in Red Barrels’ indie horror game Outlast, I awoke in a padded cell in the Mount Massive Asylum. A few seconds later, I was scanning the darkness of the cell block beyond with my camcorder’s night vision mode, trying to identify threats in the darkness. As I inched closer to a wire grate that separated the hallway from the block, I saw two hulking men.
They were each fully naked, and in low tones, using the language of polite society, they calmly discussed a plan to catch me, kill me, and divide up a number of my organs.
“Let’s give him a running start,” one muttered. “Agreed,” said they other, as they stared at me with glowing, neon-green eyes. As the camera beeped a low battery warning, I quickly jammed fresh AA’s into it and raised it back to my face — and the pair were gone.
I hurried off into the darkness in another direction, knowing I was likely to run into the pair again as I explored Mount Massive’s halls and slipped through gaps in its decrepit walls. When I finally did — they killed me.
In fact, I died a lot in Outlast. I had my skull crushed, I fell to my death, I had my head and ribs beaten in by planks of wood sporting exposed nails. I was stabbed, eviscerated and exploded. Oh, and on numerous occasions, a huge guy tore out my throat with one hand.
Each of those deaths was accompanied by heart-pounding intensity, gore, and panic. It’s a horror vision that I found remarkably uncompromising. Outlast pulls no punches, and it holds no hands. It tasks you with surviving Mount Massive Asylum using only your wits and fleet-footed retreats, and while at some point its tricks become known and possibly predictable, it packs a singular, powerful presentation.
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Released: Sept. 4, 2013
Available on Steam
Mount Massive Asylum is the site of something terrible. Tipped off that the ostensibly evil Murkoff Corporation is performing some sort of illegal research at the facility, investigative journalist Miles Upshur takes it upon himself to break in with a camcorder and gather evidence. Of course, upon gaining access, Miles is immediately trapped, and finds that horrifically mutilated patients have broken free and murdered everyone as an apparent result of Murkoff’s experimentation.
It’s more or less a classic horror movie setup, and Outlast utilizes the tropes of modern horror cinema to great effect. Chief among these is its found footage-style presentation: The game is an entirely first-person affair, with almost all of it viewed through the flip-out screen of the camcorder. Its Miles’ one and only advantage — he can use it to see in the dark, so long as he has batteries. And that advantage can allow him to hide.
You have no other options in Outlast. There are no weapons available in the game; you’ll neither battle, nor defeat, any adversaries. Your only hope is to evade them long enough to lose them by sprinting, vaulting over objects, and scrambling into dark corners or beneath objects. That conceit leads to something resembling a stealth style of gameplay, and you’ll spend a lot of your time pressed up against walls in the dark, waiting for whatever it is you hear in the distance to make itself known.
Moment to moment, I found Outlast’s stealth-based death-around-every-corner gameplay to be extremely tense and, most of the time, exceptionally frightening. The controls themselves are generally tight and intuitive: you really do feel like you have the tools at your disposal to run for your goddamn life, and maybe get away. Running away might be counter to usual video game ideas of empowering players, but Red Barrels has made sure that while you can’t fight, you usually can sure as hell run.