- Format: PS4 (version reviewed), PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Red Barrels
- Developer: Red Barrels
- Players: 1
- Site: http://redbarrelsgames.com/
Outlast is a game with one big problem. That problem isn’t that mental illness is used as a blunt & lazy storytelling instrument for a horror tale. That problem isn’t that it’s not a particularly long game. That problem is not even that, after completing the game and scrutinising every available document in the menu, that there are some important gaps in the story. The problem we’re talking about is that, simply put, Outlast is a horror game that isn’t actually scary.
Things start off well enough. Your character drives up to the local mental asylum (alone, at night, in a storm of course) after a tip-off that something unpleasant and far from legal is going on inside. After sneaking in and being subjected to a few cheap yet effective shocks, the scene is set for a tense horror adventure. Much of the asylum is pitch black, with your only way of navigating the darkness being the night vision on your camcorder. This function eats up batteries quickly, with how much of a problem this is being dictated by your chosen difficulty. There are plenty of corpses, innards, and random body parts scattered about; punctuated by suspiciously enormous splashes of blood. Pretty soon, the scoop is very much a secondary concern. You just want to get out alive.
The first-person perspective serves the idea well. With basically no peripheral vision, you tread carefully when there are enemies about. Enemies, of course, means inmates – all of whom have been set free, and most of whom are wandering around (those still in one piece, as a rule). Not quite everybody is out to get you, with some babbling to you on the brink of sanity or oblivious of your presence altogether. You soon learn in fact that, basically, anybody carrying something that could be used as a weapon will attack you on sight.
You are completely unarmed, and can’t defend yourself in any way (or, oddly, try any of the light switches). If you’re spotted by a hostile inmate, all you can do is run away and a) get somewhere they can’t reach you, or b) hide somewhere (usually under a bed or in a locker) and hope they didn’t see where you went. The complete lack of combat is a great idea for a horror game, and nigh-on perfect for this particular setup. Unfortunately, its implementation here is wonky to say the least.
Your first deadly game of hide-and-seek is frustrating rather than tense, and sadly reflects several similar experiences later in the game. It’s trial and error rather than ingenuity that will get you through these sequences; learning where to go, where the enemy comes from, where the valves/switches/pickups you need are. X amounts of deaths later, it’s finally over, and you can move on to the next area.
There’s one chunky inmate that comes after you time and again, who will usually kill you with one blow. Almost immediately however his appearance becomes an annoyance rather than a scare, as he tends to turn up in warren-like areas where discovering exactly where to go is a challenge in itself. In fact you soon learn to recognise where he’ll appear before he even does so, further lessening his fright factor. Also not frightening are the chase sequences sprinkled through the experience which, while well thought out, are even more linear and subject to trial and error than anything else in the game.
As encountering hostile inmates dissipates tension so too – surprisingly – does running out of batteries for your camera. This only happened to us twice (playing Nightmare difficulty) and we actually finished with batteries to spare. During those two times however the game practically descended into farce, as we grumpily scraped across walls (night vision will work without batteries for an inch in front of your face) hoping we’d stumble across an exit. Once, we even gratefully walked into Mr Chunky’s arms and allowed him to end our misery. Players should be punished for failing to manage battery life effectively, but there must be a better way (and besides, we were careful!).
New to the PS4 version is Insane mode, which is not only the highest difficulty, but also demands that you play the whole game through in one go. If you die, you lose all progress. It essentially breaks the game, and can only be completed in a joyless run where nothing is a surprise and luck is on your side.
For all its faults, you just might stagger through Outlast to the very end. It’s rare for the atmosphere to break completely, and there are some great ideas in there (the highlight for us being an encounter with somebody who at least appears to be a surgeon). At the very end, when the supernatural undercurrent bursts all the way through, all semblance of horror is gone and it briefly becomes Running Away Simulator 2014. You are at least given an ending that (mostly) ties everything together nicely if you’ve been paying attention; though it says something that you’re unlikely to go back and play again, regardless of what collectables and event recordings you’ve missed.