Survival horror games have always been a lost genre on this reviewer. The love has never been felt from me primarily for two reasons: an over reliance on jump scares (such as something jumping out of a wardrobe making a vivid, flailing racket in the hopes of gleaning a temporary fright) or the oftentimes complete lack of a horror element at all outside of bland, dark corridors that provide the only source of ambiance outside the Rambo-esque maelstrom of bullets fired off the other ninety percent of the game (Dead Space being a noteworthy offender). Despite my jaded feelings towards the genre in general, I must admit that my initial thoughts about Outlast, a new title for the PlayStation 4, were that of piqued interest. It’s a survival horror game to be sure, reminiscent of Silent Hill or even the recent Amnesia series; the players have no way of defending themselves from the terrors before them, relying solely on the strength of their wits and their bladder to survive.
The game is also a first-person perspective, so now the maniacs that inhabit Mt. Massive can be seen in the most up close and personal way possible. The protagonist is Miles Upshur, who fits the bill of a traditional journalist in fiction solely based on the cliché that he takes on cases that “nobody else will.” He receives a tip from a “whistleblower” concerning a psychiatric hospital labeled “Mount Massive Asylum,” owned by a corporation called Murkoff, who might as well be a more shadowy version of the Umbrella Corporation. While Upshur takes the job to document whatever horrors have befallen the patients, he must make his way up to and through the asylum to discover the truth behind a mysterious “Project Walrider” and then escape the gore-strewn asylum alive.
Outlast definitely has ambiance on its side, as one of the more unnerving areas of the game is at the start, when Miles must climb Mount Massive. Abandoned cars litter the driveways, lit windows are left open for the breeze to waft through like a bad stench, and if you look hard enough, you just may see a shadow swiftly passing through. The atmosphere is set, and it definitely makes the player aware that they are in for a potentially terrifying experience.
It’s in these situations that the game excels. The natural ambiance of an empty room on a stormy night and the general vibe of “maybe it’s a monster, maybe it’s a gnarled tree branch nobody bothered sawing off” may strike some as trite and predictable, but for the most part, most of the frights are left to the players’ imaginations (the best kind of scare there is). While there are some cheap jump scares from time to time (because jump scares are one trope that the horror genre will never truly be able to shake off), the experience feels very real, as though life and death is truly at stake. Graphically, the game looks great, especially for a PC port to the PS4. The first person perspective really lends itself to a more immersive horror experience (an experience in which Dead Space tried and failed). It’s practically on par with Amnesia and Alan Wake in terms of atmosphere and scenery.
However, there is one mechanic which somewhat dampens the technical praise. A notable game mechanic that stands out in this game is Miles Upshur’s camera. The camera is used to make notes on certain information found on documents scattered throughout the asylum. It makes for a nice avenue with which to glean backstory as opposed to handing the information to you via unskippable cutscenes. The complaint I hold with such a mechanic comes from the moments when Miles pulls up the camcorder viewfinder. The whole world takes on a grainy, greenish hue, which gets distracting and feels like a waste of good lighting (or lack thereof at some points). While Red Barrels clearly put in hard work to make this game as good as it is, the atmosphere takes a hit if you’re dedicated to finding every bit of backstory only to view the entire game through a hideous shade of vomit green. The sound design, however, is the most outstanding quality of the whole experience to me. There is very little music or even sound effects in the game, except for key points or whenever an asylum monster has spotted you and decided to make you its next meal. Your imagination can run wild as you think of what could possibly make the patients in the distance scream so loud, or who could be making the strange knocking noises and whether they mean you harm. When this is coupled with the prevailing ragged, terrified breathing coming from Miles, it makes the atmosphere even more sublimely terrifying. If you want to be truly scared, be sure to wear some headphones as you play and let the noises creep you out even more.
Presentation 9/10: The sound and setting are by far some of the strongest elements in the game and possibly in the survival horror genre altogether. Visuals are about average for the time the game was released, but they suffer if you want to have the camera up to get more story elements from the game.
Gameplay: 7/10: For all intents and purposes, Outlast is solid in the gameplay department. The controls are mostly tight, and the only time that they aren’t as tight as they could be are in high-pressure situations such as running from a former human. While I don’t think that this was the designer’s intent, it actually has a positive effect on immersing the player. As contradictory as this may seem, when you’re running, the player has the option to press R2 or L2 on the PS4 controller to look over either shoulder. While other games have done this before, Outlast often leads to the player running into a wall and having to turn your head back around to fix your path. Those crucial seconds of realizing you’re stuck and having to take your eyes off of your pursuer are true adrenaline-pumping horror and are, in my opinion, what the genre should strive for. Combine that with the fact that it seems harder to time the command to vault over something during a full sprint; it makes it feel like you’re actually scrambling to get to possible safety. Some aspects, however, are not all sunshine and roses, metaphorically speaking. The enemy AI seems…questionable at best. There were times when I’d be hiding in a corner and I was certain I’d be found, only to be passed by my pursuer in true action movie fashion, where the hero turns the corner in a narrow hallway to have the group of generic soldiers run right past him. While I personally applaud the lack of multiplayer connectivity, it might push some everyday mainstream gamers away. It’s survival horror, after all. Having another player bombard your screen time would only detract from the mood.
Replayability: 4/10: As for the game’s replay potential, there is little to be noted. Apart from a harder difficulty level, finding documents you may have missed your first time exploring, or just simply doing a run-through with the vomit-screened camera the entire time, subsequent playthroughs will likely leave the player with a rather mediocre predictable feeling, incapable of replicating the fright they may have had on their initial run. It’s a good game to break out on a cold stormy night and you’re looking for a good game to scare you and a friend for a couple of hours. Seeing as it’s only a few hours long, it is by no means the worst way to spend a late night. To conclude, Outlast is an excellent horror game in the eyes of someone who has generally been jaded by the genre for a long time now. It has a great atmosphere with more than adequate controls to give you a good scare, along with a main story that you can finish in five hours, it doesn’t overstay its welcome by dragging on longer than it needs. Whether you’re a fan of the genre, or are just in a mood for something to scare you, it’s a great video game from a budding company to curl up on the couch with a blanket in the dark and get lost in Mount Massive Asylum for a few hours.
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