By Nick Henderson on September 8th, 2013 (8 comments)
True survival horror is somewhat of a rarity these days. Games like Resident Evil continue to abandon the genre entirely in hopes of achieving more mainstream success while games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent remind us that this genre is still relevant and open to innovation. Red Barrels, a new indie studio formed from talent that formerly worked at Ubisoft and Naughty Dog (among others), has taken a stab at the genre with Outlast. From the outside, Outlast seems intent on drawing inspiration from some pretty common horror tropes but manages to do so in tandem with some pretty inspiring design choices. Fear may be subjective but the game design here should be enough to please those who don't find themselves squealing like frightened girls (like me).
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Release Date: September 4th, 2013 (PC, PS4 TBA)
Yes, Outlast takes place in an abandoned mental asylum. Yes, you will find yourself being hunted by some sick individuals who still wander its halls. The clean, cut premise may not ooze originality but the experience that lies within is among the best horror experiences I have had in years. As other horror titles move towards a more action oriented gameplay style (Resident Evil, Dead Space, etc), Outlast opts to embrace the style that was made popular with games like Clocktower and more recently, Amnesia. Combat is non-existent and emphasis is instead placed on trying to outsmart your attackers and hiding in moments of desperation. When you can't shake your attacker, the best option is to break line of sight and find a place to hide. The enviornments throughout the game are mazelike but familiar enough that it is possible to learn basic layout and use it to your advantage when necessary. As a result, the gameplay feels like a satisfying (and often terrifying) game of cat and mouse. Situations often boil down to a desparate run for survival that have you barreling over objects (Mirror's Edge style) and looking back over your shoulder as crazed madmen pursue you.
As any self respecting horror experience should be, success is determined by pacing. While Outlast doesn't waste too many opportunities to get a cheap jump scare, the overall pacing is spot on. You will spend large swaths of time between heart pounding encounters exploring the hospital, trying to find clues to the mystery that landed you there in the first place. With that said, you will also spend most of that downtime dreading the next encounter because you never quite know when its going to hit you next. This sense of dread exists thanks to some pretty fantastic gameplay hooks that are used to great effect from beginning to end.
There's No Solace in the Darkness
Outlast is a dark game. In fact, without your handy camcorder and its nifty night vision display, you wouldn't be able to play this game. Survival depends almost exclusively on managing your supply of camera batteries for fear of losing your ability to see. You must keep a close eye on your camera battery at all times and remain aware that the battery will drain faster if the night vision feature is turned on. The night vision effect itself is portrayed beautifully and really manages to capture the essense of a found footage film. As a result, I found myself walking slowly through most dark environments and panning the camera all around to ensure that I knew my escape routes at all times. Some may call it an aesthetic choice but I found it's implementation to be paramount to the experience. In fact, the important of your camera is highlighted rather well during a terrifying sequence that takes place late in the game. It's importance cannot be understated. Here, let me show you...
On a technical level, Outlast delivers on all fronts. The game looks gorgeous and had very little in the way of technical issues. I had a few minor issues with aggressive enemies who would suddenly shut down and cease to move or react to my presence but it happened so infrequently that it hardly soured the experience. In a game this dark, lighting obviously plays an important role and it is certainly used to create a sense of dread throughout. But perhaps most notably, the sound design in Outlast is the glue that keeps the whole thing together. Everything from ambient noise to your own character's heightened breathing in moments of panic is excellent. Don't make the mistake of playing this game without surround sound or headphones.
It's the Little Things...
The crux of this experience may be the intense sense of dread that envelops you before entering a room or the constant threat of complete darkness but it was the little details that stick in my head days after finishing. For instance, the speed in which you open doors or move around corners is contextual and depends on forward momentum. By inching the stick forward, you will slowly open the door and peer through before taking the plunge and walking in completely. It's a subtle effect but one I highly recommend making use of before charging blindly into a new room or area.
For a game packed to the brim full of disturbing imagery and grotesque characters, I applaud Red Barrels for messing with the players expectations and throwing in harmless NPCs. While most of the sickos in this game will attack on sight, there is an abundance of characters that will refrain from attacking and instead, opt to do creepy things like stare blanky, whispher cryptic nothings, or follow you... just... follow you. It's a really nice touch and it added a much needed element of unpredictability to the world.
And Then it Ended
Outlast is a game that plays incredibly well and for the most part, it tells an interesting story and presents a compelling mystery. Unfortunately, it was near the end of the game that the story starts to take an unexpected tumble. Before I knew it, the story had taken a sharp left turn and suddenly, I was pulled from the experience. The remaining experience felt drained of the atmosphere and tension that I had spent the rest of the game falling in love with. I am tempted to compare the ending to a recent horror film success story but to do so would spoil to much. In my personal opinion, there was a moment when the game should have ended but it instead opted to continue forward. Luckily, this turn of events only accounts for the last 30-45 minutes of the experience and it hardly overshadows the journey.
Whether Outlast succeeds at scaring your pants off or not (mine were scared clean off), there is an incrediblly well designed and well developed game to be played. As I progressed and began to become a bit more bold in my approach, I found that scenarios started to feel almost like puzzles (really scary puzzles) which scratched an itch I wasn't expecting to have in a game like this. It serves as a reminder that Survival Horror is far from dead and the genre would be better served by developers who embrace the definition of the word, Survival.
Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.
I have been around since the very early days of 4Player but you may know me as “the short one” or the guy who is really into Dexter and that sweet new DmC reboot. I am a gaming enthusiast at my core and I love sharing my opinions on the subject with anyone who will listen. I am a cautious optimist and will try any game at least once. When it comes to gaming, I prefer to leave no stone unturned.
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