Outlast Review: An Uncompromising Horror Vision
But what makes the game work, almost without the help of any other element, is Outlast’s brutally explicit and yet deeply intimate presentation. You can see Miles’ full body if you look down; when you carefully lean out a doorway to check a hallway, his hand appears to grip the jamb. Little touches like these — the sound of blood pounding in Miles’ ears, his inability to catch his breath when confronted with horrors, his deliberate movements to get fresh batteries into his camera as quickly as possible — help to make the danger of Outlast feel just that little bit more immediate. The game is constantly reminding you that you’re more than a floating camera, and that characterization helps a lot in bringing the player into the moment.
Mount Massive itself is a truly horrific place, to a degree that I found almost startling. I was serious, earlier, when I mentioned that the two brutes discussing who had claim to my liver were naked. Their full-frontal treatment is just a fact, and it somehow made them all the more disconcerting as adversaries, like a pair of hunters completely at one with nature and fully intent on casting me as prey. There are various enemies who pursue you at a run, or stalk you in the dark, listening for telltale clues to your location and searching the various hiding places to find you.
The mental wards of the asylum depict unspeakable experiments that have ravaged the patients, and throughout the game, you encounter as many clear, even sympathetic victims of Murkoff’s schemes as you do shrieking lunatics who want to kill you. It’s another big boon to atmosphere of Mount Massive, to know and even see the suffering of the people of the asylum: the game is that much more horrific because it also plays on your empathy, as well as your fear. There are others who have been hurt and have suffered, and who are just as afraid and trapped as you.
Outlast does a commendable job of mixing a number of different kinds of fear and tension together, without relying too heavily on one or another. There are many inevitable jump scares, of course, but just as powerful and even more prevalent is the encroaching darkness that you definitely can’t — quite — see into, even with nightvision enabled. Darkness is the biggest obstacle players encounter, and the game metes out batteries just often enough to keep up the fear that you could run out at any moment. The quality sound design constantly makes stopping and listening a necessity to discern what’s lurking in the distance, and where. One particularly awful moment for me took place in the sewers beneath the asylum, in a huge open room with waist-deep water and columns scattered throughout. It took me a full two minutes to determine that yes, those sounds I was hearing were coming from a huge, deadly pursuer — but I never saw him.
There are also numerous chase sequences when flat-out running is required, a number of moments in which one of the deadlier enemies has trapped you in an area and is trying to flush you out of hiding, and the general uneasiness of discovering the mystery of the gore-filled asylum. And it is extremely gory, with a level of detail few games really pursue when it comes to giblets. By now we’ve all seen a lot of polygonal spleens and intestines, but Outlast’s gore often stuck with me as being much more unsettling.
Across its four to five-hour experience, though, the rampant tension of the Outlast’s flight-or-flight gameplay begins to wear thin. This is especially true when you start to realize the underlying rules of the game: no single enemy can drop you in one hit unless the circumstances are right, and you’re faster than everyone. It’s possible to evade every pursuit, and it’s usually possible to effectively hide; for some portion of my playthrough, I thought the game was deliberately designed so that whenever I hid in a locker my pursuer would check the one beside mine before leaving. That is, until the giant enemy that pursued me throughout the game ripped open the steel door and yanked me out by my neck. Still, while the enemies look different, they all inevitably act the same, and once you figure out how to best them, some of the tension goes out of the encounters. By the end of the game, you’ll likely be savvy enough to slip most any adversary.
And if there’s a part of the presentation I have to criticize, it’s Outlast’s often-confusing layout and hallways, because they can frequently look too similar to tell apart. I’m of two minds on this point: on one hand, the game includes no such gamey helpers as objective markers, flash-on interactive objects or doors, or other hints that help you discern the path forward, and that means getting lost and missing things. I had a number of moments when, in fleeing certain death, I would lose track of where the hell I was going — made all the worse in those rooms where an enemy is actively wandering around searching for you.