Review: Outlast

By Nick Henderson on September 8th, 2013 (8 comments)

og:image:, Outlast, Review, Red Barrels

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.

Review: Outlast

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.

Review: Outlast

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.

Score: 80

Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.

Tags: outlast, red barrels, Survival Horror, Indie

Nick Henderson

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.

  • Big Wazu 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Great review Nick. I really enjoyed what I watched from when you streamed it and I will definitely be picking this up.

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  • SelfTorment 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    My only problem with this game was that you spend it just running and nothing more, I wish you could have at least used a weapon. I'm not saying a gun or something that will break the game, but there are so many thing laying on the floor that realistically he would have used them. I get that its for the sake of making you be more stealthy but come on, it takes so long at time for them to kill you. It really becomes like more of a joke as you run get caught and take some hits, run away and just repeat it until you either die or manage to escape. The atmosphere in this game is great but it gets broken by the run away or ran away approach this game took. I would have to give this a little bit of a lower score at 65/100. A great game that just happen to missteps along the way.

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  • Shadowdrk 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Very good review. I enjoyed this game very much and you made the points that make it enjoyable clear. I'm looking forward to see what the new Amnesia game has in store after playing this.

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  • ContraMundum 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    One thing I have against the game is that it seemed way too easy. The checkpoint system was really lenient and there was no real fear of dying. In fact, many times during both Nick and Brad/Carlos' playthroughs, dying was the easiest option if one got stuck or confused of where to go. Also, the player's health seemed abnormally high, and could take about 4-5 hits before dying from most enemies. That's more than enough time to get away, and even if you couldn't it wasn't that big of a deal since you would respawn at a point relatively close to the time of your death. I'm not sure if it was implemented in the game or not (just going off the playthroughs on the broadcast), but this game could definitely have benefited from multiple difficulty levels. Say on higher difficulties the player would have less health and checkpoints were more scarce, or something else along the lines. That being said, the game looked beautiful, especially for an indie game, and it definitely had a creepy atmosphere. Hopefully this will inspire more games like this to come out that we can get the 4PN crew to play :D

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  • Per Morten Mjølkeråen 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Great review Nick, you get your point across in a nice way and justify the high score you give it. For me, the game was both scary and intense, and the one glitch you talk about with the enemies not attacking also served, for me atleast, to strengthen the unpredictability at one time. I was walking down some stairs and saw an enemie with a weapon, after a quick jump in my chair, we just stared at eachother. I figured he was one of the nice guys. Later, about 10, minutes I go back to this stairwell, see that guy thinking to myself "Hey Mr. Niceguy" and halfway up the stairs he charges at me, and as a result was the only enemie - except the big dude - who killed me throughout the game. SPOILERS BELOW! (mentioning the horror movie Nick didn't) When it comes to the story I found it less than important to the experience. However it had a few twist and turns that could have been cool, but as you say it takes alot from Goddards horrow movie from last year (?) The Cabin in the Woods. But hey, for those who doesn't know the film, maybe they can get The Cabin in the Woods-experience from this game.

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  • Sycorax 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Thanks for the great review - shame I missed you playing this - you playing horror games is, after all, the reason I first got into 4player. But watching Brad and Carlos was cool too - thanks for the coverage guys.

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  • ScrawnyFlannelman 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    ***SPOILER ALERT*** Just finished reading this, before going back to watch the full playthrough. I still don't know what happened to your poor fingers, and I'm looking forward to finding out.I only caught the tail end of it live, but I ended up leaving before you actually reached the ending itself. First off, great review. You captured the strong points (and the question marks) of this game very well. I was (along with a LOT of chatters) noticing the quality of the sound design as you were playing, and the abundance of at-least-for-the-moment non-violent NPCs added a lot to an already terrific atmosphere. I haven't the experience with this game to really bounce off of Self's comments on the lack of fighting or the mentions of too much player health, but I'd like to chalk those up to necessary evils. Not necessarily in the exact way they presented themselves, but "no weapons" and "no one-hit kills" seem like decent rules for a game like this to employ. Perhaps if you'd been given the option for fisticuffs to get you out of a tight spot? Not enough to make fighting a viable solution, but enough to get you out of a corner before you're pinned against the wall. Cabin in the Woods is certainly a strong reference to pull for the twist near the end, but the game itself had shades of Quarantine/Rec to it with that camera being so important. Horror has been seeing some great efforts from the indie scene of late, and it has my imagination all excited for potential projects. Given that the SCP: Containment Breach game has already touched on it, the idea of a Cabin in the Woods inspired game actually sounds really intriguing. The "found footage" style might work well in a game that borrows a little bit from Dead Rising and rates your recordings. Maybe a game about a paranormal investigator (like the R in F.E.A.R.) sent in ahead of a containment crew. Good games always put dreams for more in my head. It's a good sign.

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  • MilkyAlien 11 months, 3 weeks ago

    Really liked this review, summed the game up really well based on your playthrough and has put it on my radar as something I'll pick up on PS4 just to play it for myself. Shame Brad kind of lost interest in it.

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