There’s a very fundamental problem with most survival horror games on the market these days. Call me a coward if you want, but if I was trying to escape from hell born monsters, freaks and maniacs — the last thing I would do is engage them, let alone try to fight them. That just sounds like the opposite of survival, right? Enter Outlast; the new, dark game that finds you trying to escape a thought to be abandoned mental asylum in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a tense and often brutal four hour experience that’s sure to scare you more than most other games you’ll play; but the experience is also a flawed one. For every exhilarating scare and tense moment, there are a slew of repetitive moments and questionable design choices. Still, at $20, Outlast is more than worth a look – if you’re up to it.
The plot for Outlast is one you’re sure to have heard before in an episode of Scooby Doo. Mount Massive Asylum was shut down by the government in the 70s and has laid dormant ever since. That’s until a mysterious company known as Murkoff Advanced Research Systems bought it and reopened it in 2009 under some shady conditions. Getting a tip that something’s up at the old asylum, reporter Miles Upshur decides to go investigate and breaks in, hoping for the scoop of your life. Not long after arriving though, one thing becomes clear – survival is goal number one.
One thing is evident right from the start of the game, Red Barrels, Outlast’s development team nailed the game’s tone and ambiance. From the moment you enter the asylum, the air is thick and the tone tense. The vast majority of the game is seen through the lens of Upshur’s camera so there’s a bit of a vouyerish theme to the game, especially when you get than sinking feeling that something bad is about to happen (and it usually does). Rather than throw a ton of enemies at you, Outlast prefers to play with you and your senses – you’ll hear whimpers in the distance, or a door will close behind you, putting you firmly on the edge of your seat. This is a game that deserves to be played alone, at night with all of the lights turned off and surround sound headphones on.
It’s a good thing that Red Barrels nailed Outlast’s tone because the rest of it is a mixed bag at best. As much as I liked the realistic idea of having to hide from enemies rather than trying to take them out, there’s not even a way to do so out of desperation. Our protagonist can’t even shove or try to throw an object to distract the freaks in the asylum, making our only option running blindly through the gigantic asylum and trying to find a hiding spot. As a result of this, the game can often feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back thanks to the constant backtracking.
Combine all of this with the fact that there is no map or navigational tool at all in the game and you’re going to be walking down a lot of frustrating, similar looking corridors. The game is enamored with fetch quests and you’re going to have to run around constantly looking for this or that and it’s extremely difficult to do so without any sort of idea where you’re going. Now, I understand that being lost is part of the experience, but in the ongoing battle of form VS function, sometimes function needs to win.
It’s tough to say whether Red Barrels accomplished what they were hoping to with Outlast. This is one of the scariest and most tense games you’ll ever play, but the thrill is a fleeting one. What makes you jump the first time is likely to eve startle you on a second playthrough and the game is filled with repetition and questionable design choices. Still, at a $20 price, Outlast is more than worth an evening in with surround sound headphones looking over your shoulder.