Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane

Outlast challenges you to stay alive, record as much as you can and expose the truth at the heart of the story.

Intense violence, gore, graphical sexual content, and strong language. The unfortunate soul subjected to these horrors is Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter. He foolishly decides to seek out “the dark secret” at the heart of Mount Massive Asylum.  Fighting is not an option, as your foes are freakishly strong and criminally insane. Run, hide or die; the choice is yours.

Environment

Mount Massive Asylum is a ridiculously cheesy name for an otherwise terrifying setting. An anonymous tip leads Miles Upshur to the the asylum, warning him that people are being abused by the Murkoff Corporation in order to do research into “dream therapy”. Similar plots can be found in horror movies like REC, yet Outlast managed to keep my interest through attention to detail and the mystery hanging over the whole game. When wandering around the asylum you never really know what’s happening. You always have a goal and know how to accomplish it, but most of the time you’ll simply be reacting to events and hopelessly try to piece together the insanity.

Outlast isn’t a beautiful game, featuring shoddy textures and downright ugly lighting effects. To balance it out the tone and world design is consistent and genuinely creepy. Overall the aesthetic adds a considerable amount to the effectiveness of the game. It’s a gritty, grounded world that focuses on tone, rather than flashy graphics. The soundtrack eerily accentuates the tension created by every other aspect of the game. It’s at its best when you hardly notice it, when it seamlessly integrates with the ambient sound and influences you without you even knowing it. Outlast‘s soundtrack achieved this so effectively that it took me a while to even remember to write about it. Once I thought about it though, it was clear the creepiness the game provides is given in no small part by the soundtrack.

Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane 1

“Bodies everywhere. Blood. Burn marks. Heads lined up like bottles behind a bar.” – Miles Upshur, Reporter

In Outlast the devil is in the details. Glass crunches under your feet, exploration leads to convincingly realistic offices, medical rooms and living areas. The line between game and reality starts to blur as you fall into Outlast‘s increasingly immersive combination of sights, sounds and the emotions they evoke. Your primary source of information is classified documents scattered around the asylum. These tend to contain unnecessary details that you’d expect in a real document, and snippets of information about the mystery tying everything together. Reading through them will reveal the disgusting medical and business practices of the Murkoff Corporation. The lives of the patients, their families and the world in general is being negatively affected by their actions here. Reporting on the corruption is a worthy goal and the driving force behind the otherwise thin narrative.

The first encounter with an inmate has you completely hidden inside a vent, safe and able to simply watch the madman go about his business. By starting off slow Outlast allows itself to build up to what’s inevitably coming. Your fear of what’s coming is scarier than what actually happens. Developer Red Barrels know this and use your fear against you in an Alien style slow build-up. The proper introduction to the inmates is a very Bioshock-esque affair. It has you up close and personal with a big, bad monster of a man. You get thrown into the blood soaked lobby to meet a religious nut and are then free to uncover the mysteries of the asylum you are now trapped in. Outlast doesn’t have particularly complex characters, mostly due to their lack of dialogue and tendency to just chase and kill you, but they are certainly memorable and do their job nicely.

By the end a satisfying, if confusing conclusion wraps things up in a very horror movie style finish. It’s a controversial choice, but fans of the genre will appreciate that horror isn’t in the answers, it’s in not knowing. Outlast reveals enough to make the journey worthwhile and still manages to make it memorable by leaving some mysteries up for your interpretation.

Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane 5

Gameplay

Playing Outlast isn’t mechanically complex or difficult. Tension, doubt and fear of the unknown are its challenges. On the surface all you’ll be doing is walking, running, opening doors, flipping switches and hiding in lockers. Its gameplay isn’t all that impressive, but Outlast serves a different purpose. It isn’t about winning or losing. It isn’t about beating the game or getting good. To get the most out of it all you need to do is turn off the lights, put on a headset and give yourself to the world and its story. Horror as a genre only works if you let it and it couldn’t be truer with horror games. In the right conditions Outlast can a terrifying and exhilarating experience, or it can be a boring stroll through a bad video game.  Its effectiveness depends entirely on your willingness to immerse yourself in the experience.

The Camcorder is your most valuable tool in Outlast and the reason why you’re in the asylum. Getting video footage of the corruption and mystery behind the place would be enough to stop what’s happening and give you a great story to report on. As a gameplay tool it provides you with notes from Miles if you capture the right footage and in the dark its nightvision function is your only way to proceed. Using the camera adds a kind of found footage element to the game. Since found footage horror is a guilty pleasure of mine, I pretty much loved every second I spent behind the camera.Constant use of the camera drains the batteries though, so expect to be hunting through drawers for every battery you can find. Fortunately batteries fit for your camera can be found all throughout the asylum, a pretty convenient fact considering how crucial it is to your survival. This mechanic is unnecessary, frustrating and just got in the way. Red Barrels could have and eventually did come up with better ways to plunge you into darkness.

Climbing into the asylum for the first time and being enveloped in complete darkness is incredibly unsettling. My lack of familiarity with the controls had me fumbling around to get the night vision turned on the camera. Fear and dread almost overcame me during this few seconds, I was completely consumed by the terror of not knowing what to expect. The best part about it was that nothing even happened. Nightvision was activated and I was greeted with an empty room. Red Barrels truly understand all the ways that scares can be achieved, including by doing nothing at all and leaving the player to scare themselves in a bad situation.Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane 6

“Walker was interviewed in restraints, following his self-inflicted mutilations. Restraints have had to be altered to accommodate his enormous size.” – The Murkoff Corporation

Fear of the dark is something the game continues to take advantage of throughout the game. Sneaking through flooded basements to turn the power back on and stumbling through cell blocks in complete darkness is a possibility if you don’t conserve your batteries. A prime example is when you lose your camera and are forced to navigate without it. This section demonstrates the effectiveness of the camcorder as both a narrative and gameplay tool.

Expect jump scares. Lots of them. Outlast doesn’t shy away from doing anything it can, to shake you up a little. I usually mock horror movies with jump scares, as most that utilise them rely on them too heavily. Outlast, as a game, uses every trick in the book and does so effectively. It deserves the jump scares and uses them effectively. One of the inmates is bound to spot you eventually and when they do, the music ramps up to a terrifying pace and the chase begins. Fleeing to a locker, under a bed or just as far away as possible is usually enough to thwart your demise. This forgiving element to the game feels out of place in a game designed specifically to scare you. When it’s so easy to get away, the enemies’ ability to truly scare you starts to diminish.

Entertainment & Originality

Alien: Isolation clearly took a lot from Outlast and was itself a triumph in replicating and continuing one of the best horror movies in a new medium. Outlast uses horror tropes and unoriginal ideas as the basis for a wholly effective experience in a growing medium. Penumbra and Amnesia are comparable, but Outlast outshines them with its utterly convincing setting and narrative. None of it is particularly complex or clever, it’s just very effective in what it does. It makes you feel terror, keeps you wanting to solve the mystery and doesn’t stop until the very end and still leaves you wanting more.

Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane 2

 

Replayability

Scares do suffer towards the end, with the game struggling to keep surpring you. Instead it relies on the same things it’s been doing since the start. This loss of direction and pacing definitely effected the experience, but the ending was satisfying and surprising enough to leave me with a good impression. Six hours was my playtime bu the end and while the game has no replay value, only one ending and is short by most standards, the quality over quantity approach is one I respect. Alien: Isolation suffered from pacing problems far more severely than Outlast and while Isolation is the better game for putting you inside an interactive horror classic and forcing you to make choices, Outlast is up there with the best too.

Boss enemies of sorts pit you against, among other things, a giant monster of a man and a mad doctor. Without giving too much away I’ll just say you won’t be forgetting the scenes you have with them. These scenes were however, the weakest part of the game for me. It took me out of the experience and reminded me I was just playing a game, without actually adding any worthwhile additions to the gameplay or story. They felt overly scripted and for the most part take control away from the player. Mount Massive Asylum is a big place, but you are carefully guided through it linearly. You have some freedom to wander around and find your way, but there’s only one way to go. The illusion it tries to create fails sometimes and it’s very clear that the game is taking you where it wants. Fortunately for the most part the small, open areas are detailed enough to distract from the linearity.

Outlast is in no way original. It takes its story, setting and atmosphere from classic horror movies and the gameplay is clearly inspired by Amnesia: The Dark Descent. What it does is provide one of the scariest games I’ve ever played. It holds nothing back, be it jumpscares, realistic environments, terrifying ambient sounds or soundtrack. Every aspect blends together into an overall amazing horror package. It isn’t perfect, but Outlast is a must for anyone looking for a good scare.

Outlast Review | For the Criminally Insane 4

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