Insane in the membrane.
As someone of a relatively nervous disposition when it comes to the horror genre—I am embarrassed to admit that I watched the entirety of the Paranormal Activity series through a gap in my fingers, as my sweaty palm spent the duration of each film covering my eyes in fear—scary video games are not my forte. The masochist in me still enjoys playing them, though, and with Outlast being pegged by many as the most terrifying game of the year, I was eager to play it.
Nowadays, survival horror games tend to arm you with only two things to defend yourself with: your legs. Ever since Amnesia: The Dark Descent made us sleep with the lights on for two weeks back in 2010, there’s been an influx of PC games that don’t give you so much as a baseball bat to fend off your monstrous assailants, and Red Barrel Games’ Outlast is no different.
As protagonist Miles Upshur you’ll be doing a lot of running in Mount Massive Asylum, the game’s setting. Being a freelance journalist, Upshur isn’t exactly built for venturing into such a volatile environment, but chooses to break into it anyway in response to an anonymous letter he receives informing him of a terrible truth lying at the heart of the facility. Upon entering, Upshur discovers that the asylum has been overrun by its inmates and is warned by a brutalized SWAT officer left for dead at the facility to get out as fast as he can. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Upshur only has the abilities to run and hide to defend himself from his monstrous assailants. While this is standard fare for the genre, a neat addition made by the developers gives you the ability to look behind you while running in order to see who is chasing after you. However, as Mount Massive is largely made up of tight corridors, I rarely used this feature in the heat of the moment, as looking the wrong way whilst running obviously lessened my chances of escaping. Despite this, being chased in Outlast by one of its brutish inmates is truly terrifying, and I frequently found myself hopelessly running into one of the plethora of locked doors and dead-ends scattered in the maze-like environment as I desperately tried to make my escape. These make for the best moments of Outlast, but unfortunately the game falters on a number of other key areas that games in the horror genre are expected to achieve.
There are two things that ultimately determine the effectiveness of a horror game, and that is its setting and its enemies. Being trapped inside a mental asylum proves to be quite a claustrophobic experience, with inmates wandering its halls mumbling to themselves, blood smeared along its walls and the dead bodies of its former employees often strewn across its floor. However, after several minutes of navigating through its narrow corridors and dimly lit rooms, I found its familiarity made it less intimidating to explore over time. While there are the obligatory jump-scares, I didn’t find myself consistently unsettled by my surroundings, something which the best horror games achieve. Outlast relies too heavily on the sight of mutilated bodies and the asylum’s disfigured inmates being enough to scare the player, but due to the game’s sub-par character models, I never felt too threatened by them. Even the enemies who chase you aren’t very threatening when confronted up close, with the majority of them simply being humans with a few grisly scars.
But Outlast’s visual misgivings are masked when you’re viewing it through night-vision mode on your video camera, which is a necessity when having to make your way through the asylum’s darker areas. The camera, which Upshur brought along with him to record the goings on in the asylum before those goings on wanted him dead, proves to be an invaluable tool, and the segments in which it is used kick the terror up a notch. While the asylum’s inmates don’t look all too imposing in the light, when viewed with the night-vision camera they look terrifying. As the camera is powered by batteries, there should also be the looming threat that it is going to power down at any moment and leave you trapped in darkness, but these batteries are in curiously plentiful supply so that’s never really an issue.
As a budget Steam release, Outlast offers some cheap thrills for fans of the survival horror genre. Unfortunately its underwhelming visuals, combined with Red Barrel Games’ over-reliance on jump-scares ahead of more psychological frights, made my experience with it feel similar to walking through a haunted house: It’s scary, but not in a very clever way.