Outlast is a game you can brag to your friends about when finished. It’s also a survival horror adventure that probably shouldn’t be played by those with weak hearts. The tension scales so sporadically that even a half-hour session can leave you exhausted. But rather more importantly, Outlast is a finely crafted, well-paced horror game that manages to do a lot with so little. Traversing and surviving the horrors in Outlast is a test of endurance and developer Red Barrels knows this. And if you can brave it through to the end, then you’ll understand why Outlast is one of the best and scariest original horror titles since the first Dead Space.
You play as Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter who receives a tip that a remote mental asylum known as Mount Massive is up to something unethical and are supposedly using the patients there as guinea pigs. Miles’ curiosity leads him to the front gate of the hospital, armed with his notepad and camera. What follows is a game that doesn’t shy away from taking advantage of this disturbing premise while concurrently putting the player through some truly uncomfortable situations.
In Outlast, your best friend is a digital camcorder. It has a very convenient night vision feature which just so happens to be the only source of light necessary to help you navigate the pitch-black corridors of Mount Massive. It becomes your companion throughout the game, a survival tool if you will— and keeping it replenished with batteries is essential. At around halfway through the game — in an absolute cruel scenario — you’re separated from the camera and unable to move on. It’s a gasp-worthy moment and you never knew how attached you were to it until it’s gone. You feel hopeless, alone, and more afraid than ever before and you want nothing more than to reclaim it. After some high tension-filled minutes, you eventually find the camera, and it invokes a feeling of calming reassurance, if not a seemingly false sense of security. But for a few seconds, you feel like everything will be okay after all and that making it out alive is doable.
"Outlast is one of the best and scariest original horror titles since the first Dead Space."
Those small moments of hope don’t last long though, and Outlast ensures that you’re never safe and always openly vulnerable. There’s an uneasy feeling as you play, and it never diminishes. This, coupled with the inability to defend yourself against your attackers is what makes Outlast stand out from other survival horror experiences and will have your heart pounding non-stop from beginning to end. Games like Dead Space and Resident Evil — while scary in their own contexts — allow the player to fight back against oncoming threats either with guns and various items. You’re very much on the offensive when playing those games; In Outlast, you’re on the defense and it’s key to surviving.
There’s a stronger emphasis on stealth in Outlast since most of the enemies, or Variants as they’re called, are out to kill you. With nothing to defend yourself with, your only options are to run and/or to hide. Thankfully, Miles is fairly mobile when he’s running for his life. He can vault over low tables and even escape through the ceiling ducts to refrain from getting caught. Other times, darting underneath beds and hiding in lockers will keep you undetected as long as you manage to keep some distance from your pursuer. You’ll also quickly learn that slamming the doors behind you will give you additional time to find a place to hide.
"...the inability to defend yourself against your attackers is what makes Outlast stand out from other survival horror experiences..."
Outlast does a fantastic job in putting you physically in Miles Upshur’s body. There aren’t a lot of games in which, when looking down, you can see the characters’ arms and legs. When peaking out from a doorway or wall, Miles will press his hands up against it like a real human being. His shadow also appears holding the camera based on the lighting. The best touch though, has to be in the way Miles will breathe heavily, pant, and gasp for air whenever he’s scared. It’s surprising how effective and accurate it is, and it adds that little extra intensity to an already horrifying situation. You’ll be pressed inside a locker, praying that a crazed attacker won’t open the one you’re in, and Miles will be struggling to keep his breathing down. The AI can’t hear him, but as a player, it does add some believability.
For a game mostly shrouded in darkness, it can be sometimes difficult to notice that Outlast is a pretty terrific looking game. Texture detail on the walls and floors are particularly impressive and even the night vision filter from the camera gives the game a distinct "found footage" flair to everything. It’s a bit unfortunate then that the character models in Outlast just aren’t quite up to par with the rest of the game. There’s a certain stiffness to their movements that make them look a bit robotic. It doesn’t lessen the pulse-pounding dread of nearly being caught, but it does somewhat take you out of the world seeing them move around oddly when they’re checking underneath the beds and lockers for you.
There isn’t a ton of enemy variety in Outlast but the huge, hulking sadist you’ve seen in promo materials for the game is definitely the most terrifying. He is continuously hunting you and shows up during many of the games’ intense moments. One moment in particular had us literally holding our breath as he almost found our hiding place behind some boxes. Being caught in Outlast doesn’t necessarily mean instant death, as you are given an opportunity to push away and escape. But being caught too many times in succession will grace you with a game over screen. However, the game is rather generous when it comes to checkpoints so repeatedly dying in an area won’t have you replaying the entire section.
Outlast is less than a year old (if counting the original PC release) but it’s already cemented itself as one of the scariest games we’ve ever played. It’s also one of the strongest debuts from a new developer, and Red Barrels should be applauded for their effort. Outlast won't be for everyone, but if you have even an inkling of interest in the genre, then it's absolutely worth checking out. Let it be known that Outlast is a genuinely stressful and nerve-racking experience, but that’s exactly what a true survival horror game should be, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.