Platforms: PC | PS4 | Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: Red Barrels
I'm so glad that I didn't have to review Outlast.
Despite picking up the first-person asylum crawler in a January GOG sale, it was too late to critique and that suited me just fine. The first hour creeped me out enough to turn on the lights, quit to desktop and then procrastinate for the best part of six months; blaming my review workload rather than my lily-liver. I don't scare easy, but Outlast terrified me effortlessly. It then released on PS4 as a PlayStation Plus freebie, but since I haven't bought the console yet, I assumed that one of my comrades would take the plunge.
They didn't. Never mind. We'll have to do without a review on-site, then, since Microsoft's indie parity clause means that there'll never be an Xbox One version that I'll have to review as the only Dealspwn staff member who owns the system. Right?
Outlast's premise is disarmingly hackneyed. You're an investigative journalist who ventures into a spooky asylum to uncover allegations of systematic abuse, which of course leads to a nightmarish crawl through bloodsoaked ransacked corridors pursued by the vengeful inmates. Horror fans are probably rolling their eyes right now, and rightly so, because it's a setup that's as fresh and imaginative as a haunted Scooby-Doo fairground.
What is fresh and imaginative, however, is how Outlast physically places its players directly in the horror.
The first-person perspective is uniquely immersive. We look out of the protagonist's eyes, we are the protagonist, allowing developers to perfectly direct each scene and visit any number of horrific moments directly upon us. Not brutalise someone else who we're staring at though an impossible floating camera. Red Barrels have done a fantastic job at maintaining this sense of immersion as we squeeze through narrow gaps, peek nervously around corners, slowly open each door with quivering outstretched hands and desperately catch sight of pursuing madmen over our shoulder as we sprint headlong down a corridor. Then hide underneath a desk praying that the patrolling psychopath won't spot us oh god oh no they've spotted me RUN.
Every step, every time we're picked up by a beefy inmate and hurled across a room, every ledge grab and quivering whimper has been painstakingly translated into large and subtle movements, rooting us in the experience to the extent that when the protagonist flinches, you'll flinch. And duck. And scream. Creepy visual cues, nightmarish enemy designs, some brilliantly-choreographed jump scares and superb sound design seal the deal, making Outlast an decidedly uncomfortable experience.
There's no combat, not even an ineffectual shove or melee attack. Our only options are to run, hide or die, but in a stroke of genius, Outlast forces us to look at its most terrifying monsters rather than desperately minimising contact. Pitch-black environments require usto stare through a videocamera and activate a limited nightvision mode to progress, making us the perfect target for a lunging horror with uncanny green retinas who'll often fail to appear when we expect them, and are guaranteed to be right around the next corner when one doesn't peek around first. An abundance of batteries means that the nightvision mode is a little too freely available, but exploring for extra charges brings fresh horrors all of its own.
Sure, you'll probably find a battery in that abandoned toilet... but can you summon up the courage to open the door in the first place?
Numerous clever design choices turn what could have been a ghost train into an interactive haunted house. The ability to sprint, jump and ledge-grab gives us extra physicality and the illusion of freedom, despite having some fairly linear rails to stick to. Platforming sections break up the pace nicely, as does the balance between roaming inmates and scripted jack-in-the-box jump scares. Though you'll encounter a few contrived 'locked door' scenarios that force you to backtrack or otherwise explore to progress, they're never obtrusive, and are overshadowed by the constant sense of panic that every new encounter brings. In a fantastic twist, not all inmates are hostile or even capable of movement, but you'll never know which are gibbering wrecks and which want to tear your face off until you get good and close.
The net result is that Outlast is nerve-shredding, tense and terrifying. Shame about the achievements, though. Nothing breaks atmosphere like a blue pop-up appearing and reminding us that we're playing a game and everything is totally fine.
By hour four, there's a case to be made that the thrills and chills become slightly formulaic. Every time we die and the checkpoint resets, a little bit of the fear subsides as the safety net becomes more obvious. Monsters eventually become 'enemies' or 'AI' with preset patrol routes, while 'deaths' turn into 'attempts.' Despite being a very fine horror game indeed, the game eventually outweighs the horror.
But Outlast's greatest strength is arguably its short yet taut length, a five-to-six hour runtime that never outstays its welcome and maintains tension for the duration. It's perfectly sized and perfectly paced, lengthy enough to satisfy but brisk enough to be punchy, not paunchy.
If you find yourself wanting more, you can have more courtesy of the Whistleblower DLC pack, which is included as standard at no extra cost. Though not quite as effective as the original campaign, the storyline is fantastic and well worth sticking around for.
And I suppose that we should mention that it looks good and plays brilliantly on Xbox One. No eye-popping powerhouse, but the quality of the art direction and camerawork is more important than any new-gen bells and whistles.
Ultimately, I'm very glad that I finally had a reason to play through Outlast to the bitter end. I can't say that I enjoyed the experience in a traditional sense, but when so many games come and go without making us feel very much at all, made by committee without heart or soul, a sucker-punch to the gut is a welcome change of pace.
- Terrifying and physical first-person horror
- Inspired camera mechanics root us in the moment
- Sustained and effective tension throughout, great pacing
- Whistleblower DLC
- Achivements break the atmosphere
- A few slightly contrived encounters
- Batteries (and checkpoints?) are arguably too plentiful
The Short Version: Outlast is terrifying no matter what platform you play it on. Tense, punchy, jumpy and beautifully-paced, Red Barrels' debut is one of the most effective horror games of recent years.
Now please excuse me, as I have to peg out another load of underwear. Good drying weather today.