With more and more studio’s opting to try and find the next multiplayer cash-cow it would appear that the days of the survival/horror title are well and truly numbered. But if developers such as Red Barrels show anything with their latest launch it is that there is still a huge demand for the suspenseful chiller in videogames today. Join us now as we take an in-depth look at the nightmare shocker Outlast.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset shall we? Survival/Horror is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite genre in the vast array of gaming pigeonholes. That chilling sensation you get creeping up your spine as your character edges along a darkened hallway lit only by flickering shadows is a far more tangible experience than anything else, I feel, offered up in any of the myriad genres littering the shelves of your local gaming retailer.
Nothing else seems to draw you in to the atmosphere like a horror game, and nothing comes even remotely close to the real-world feelings drawn out of the player as they greedily suck in shallow breath after shallow breath as they stumble and fumble their way across game zones spattered with traps, troubles and blood stains in equal measure.
No, there is nothing quite like a good scare-fest of the kind a survival/horror title delivers. Enter stage right the cracking Outlast. This outstanding piece of work is the product of twisted minds from the Red Barrels Studio, and oh!, what a tangled web they weave.
Starting off in the rain-soaking vehicle of investigative reporter Miles Upshur, we enter into our latest assignment after receiving an anonymous tip from a whistleblower regarding the sinister going’s on at Mount Massive asylum. This dark and looming building is the staple of horror films and comics time and again, but familiar though its architecture may be what is contained within its whispering walls is anything but.
Set up in the Fifties as an asylum Mount Massive was quickly closed but re-opened again in the Eighties after being snapped up by the same shady corporate empire our intrepid reporter is currently investigating. This explains our man’s interest in the area, but you can bet Miles wasn’t prepared for anything like he finds within the walls of the ‘asylum’ as the mental health institute is merely a front organisation for the worrying medical research into sleep deprivation and REM dream pattern control.
Entrance to the asylum serves as a short tutorial and we welcome back to the gameplay format that one time fan-favourite, survival/horror tradition of squeezing through gaps in walls and debris to gain access too, or to escape from, whatever demonic entity is currently seeking to chomp on your entrails.
Some may argue that the ‘squeeze through’ is a little passé, they are wrong, No argument, no debate. Just wrong. It’s a great addition to the game, and that is all there is to it. Racing towards a narrow fissure in shattered walls whilst all the time being to afraid to even take a quick glance back at your pursuer for fear of a grasping hand clawing at your startled face is far better than merely ‘Press and hold X to enter’.
Speaking of opening up a door, upon reaching the main entrance to Mount Massive players must shimmy around to a side door to get into the place as the main imposing portal is barricaded and locked up tight. If anything this should have served as a red flag to our intrepid journalist but no! He just has to be Captain Bravepants and push right on in there.
Upon slipping into the ominous abode our Journo gets his first signs that all may not be quite peachy inside Mount Massive. You know the sort of thing? Lights flickering, eerie silence, a couple of broken windows here and there…oh, and the bloodied handprints and pools of ‘claret’ making Escher patterns on the floor. Time, in the words of that time-honoured beer advert, for a sharp exit.
I think the phrase we are looking for, now that we have plummeted through the floor of the asylum, would be something along the lines of ‘the fecal matter has most definitely struck the wind farm now’.
From here on, dear GmP readers, the best thing to do to get the full effect of the atmospheric and down right chilling psychological horror provided by Red Barrels would be to turn off the lights, grab a few drinks and munchies and get settled in for around 6 hours of pant-wetting terror. Oh, and while you are getting all your supplies and preparations made for your late-night fright-fest don’t forget to grab a shovel for your underwear.
Okay, now that we are inside let’s get a couple of things out of the way shall we? Graphically, Outlast may not be the prettiest game on the planet but I’ll be damned if that makes it a bad game, far from it. The game looks no more grainy or rattled than anything on display in a Dead Island or a Castlevania, and certainly with its ‘non violent’ approach to the ’ gameplay it is one of the most inventive of the year.
Do not be fooled, however, just because Miles doesn’t turn into Billy The Kid and go blasting his way through a horde of zombies the moment things turn sour does not mean that the game is in any way diminished by the lack of player combat. It just means that you have to be a good deal more realistic in your approach when facing enemies and problems.
Got a huge hulking brute with arms like Arnie in front of you? Try using the most powerful ‘muscle’ in your body instead of your trigger finger and ‘think’ about how you are going to get out of the situation you find yourself in.
Moving right into the fighting mechanics brings us to to a point that will have some gamers scratching their heads and others nodding said melons in sage-like approval. Outlast may have many rumours circulating the interwebz that it doesn’t even have a combat system in place, however, this is simply not true. Outlast ‘does’ have plenty of violent moments of arm-rending gore and outright extreme blood thirsty savagery, its just that they will all, ( without exception ), be performed ‘on’ your character as opposed to ‘by’ him.
Instead, what players are treated to, by the lack of fighting abilities from Mr Upshur, is a non-stop nightmare where every corner can bring you face to face with a mutated monster whose only thought is to rend your body until it resembles nothing more than chump. Where every step on your journey may be your last, and every laboured breath is nervously caught short in your chest for fear of being overheard and overpowered by any one of the asylum’s unfettered inmates.
The lack of firearms, and even melee weapons, makes for a far more terrifying and frantic affair as players desperately try to navigate the corridors and chambers of this Hotel of Horror without alerting the assorted foes that line the halls and cellars just awaiting the arrival of an unfortunate fly into the blood soaked web. Stealth and subterfuge are thee orders of the day, and in a tip of utmost importance we ask you all to learn from our own mistakes with the adoption of a far more patient approach to your game play, as opposed to hurtling around the zones tearing from room to room like you are participating in some kind of demented speed round of hide and seek.
Don’t get me wrong here, there was more than one occasion when I’d stamp my feet and spout a “…if I had a gun or a club I could have killed him easy!” line, like a petulant child, but over-all the depth of desperation that the lack of even the most basic weapon offers you more than makes up for having a moment or two with yet another predictable outcome delivered with yawn inducing inevitability thanks to the possession of a rifle or machete.
Hell, you don’t even have the option to stand there and put your ‘dukes’ up before engaging the heavyweight in the corner to a round or three of Marquis of Queensbury. Nothing! Nervous types need not apply and those prone to bouts of diarrhoea had best install a steady supply of auto-assembly nappies for just such moments of pure unadulterated terror.
This is, without a doubt, a brave decision by Red Barrels, particularly in an age when the shooter reigns supreme and many former survival/horror stalwarts such as Resident Evil have gone from being out and out stealth scenario’s to nothing more than tired Call of Duty wannabee’s.
Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned here by many of the so-called ‘larger studios’ in that gamers are a funny lot, and although we may love the occasional hour or three spent blasting lumps out of each other on some Godforsaken battlefield in an online shooter, does not mean that we want ‘every’ subsequent title we purchase to be of a cookie-cutter formula. After all, variety, as they, is the spice of life.
Another major factor in the appeal of Outlast is the brooding atmosphere inside Mount Massive’s towering walls. The crushing blackness of the rooms and passageways populated by shuffling inmates is tangible in its oppression, and downright nerve-racking from start to finish.. It’s almost as if even the light bulbs have thought better of their situation and made themselves scarce rather than shine illumination onto the many horrors and atrocities being committed by doctor and patient alike.
Populated as it is by the now garish figures of former inmates and staff, Mount Massive is home to a collection of crazies and cranks the kind of which would make even The Shining’s own Jack Torrance seem like the most sociable and mentally stable fellow a chap could ever hope to meet.
Mad scientist types, paranoid schizophrenics, sociopaths, psychopaths and a particularly excellent cameo from a vengeful ‘artist’ are among the more noteworthy of our new ‘friends’, but all of these pale into the background compared to the madness behind the men and women who created such a programme in the first place.
The sense of oppression raining down upon the characters shoulders is almost palpable as you stumble and fumble your way along bleak walkways and fetid sewers. The only light you have is the power-permitting UV glare of your trusty camcorder as you stagger your way through and around this maze of misery.
Of course, many players will be tempted to keep the garish green tinged light from their video camera always on for fear of becoming injured , lost or surprise-attacked by any one of the lurking former inmates in this art-imitating-life-imitating-art scenario as the lunatics have very much taken over the asylum.
And many of them will die…repeatedly.
Our advice is to take advantage of the camera’s light sparingly. Not only because finding batteries to power the unit are few and far between, particularly on the higher difficulty settings, but because the time will arise when you need the camera to find a certain clue or log entry and you will by pass the moment because your low battery alert is beeping like a sailor on daytime television.
The inky blackness permeates everything and even seems to infest the very air you breath as you weave your way under, over and around obstacles and wade through everything from rank sewage canals to bloodied body parts. This is compounded by the fact that players are not only tasked with finding an exit at all costs, but also because you are charged with locating extra batteries for your camcorder, audio and text logs that reveal snippets regarding the back story and events that have led to this current situation, as well as a myriad of additional tasks and objectives that are part and parcel of Miles’ survival in order that he may eventually emerge from this nightmare as unscathed as possible.
Outlast is the kind of game that horror fans have been longing for; suspenseful, chilling and outright nerve-wracking. The skillful use, by the developers, of music and mood is to be commended, and whereas others may simply have resorted to the tiresome ‘jump scare’ method Red Barrels have, instead, gone all out on a far deeper experience more along the lines of something Hitchcockian, if you will.
Naturally there are the more common-or-garden ‘boo!’ moments, where players will be squeezing through a thin gap in a wall, for example, only to be grabbed violently by a screeching inmate from the other side and yanked unceremoniously across the room like a rag doll, but it is with the well thought out use of lighting and atmosphere that Red Barrels truly capture the essence of what a genuine horror game is meant to be, and never once do they ease up on the player throughout the entirety of their torturous trek through the halls of this nightmare.
Hiding in closets as you hear the thump and drag of encroaching enemies is enough to set anyone’s nerves on edge, but Red Barrels add so much more to melting pot than this. Tension is built in so many different ways from reaching for a crumbling outcropping as you try frantically to escape your pursuers, knowing that if you fall that you have nothing to defend yourself with. Your shaking fingers struggle to replace the batteries in your failing camera as the looming darkness, and insane inmates lurking in the shadows, creep ever closer with every passing second. Lunatics whose minds have been callously ripped from their brains by tinkering surgeons cackle in the distance as they make crazed collages of severed limbs, and modern art masterpieces from the body parts of former guards.
All of this and more makes up, what has to be, the underground hit of the year and without a shadow of a doubt the most entertaining and enjoyable survival/horror title since Condemned. If publishers want to be able to make big bucks from their titles without having to constantly dream up new idea’s to steal the Call of Duty/Battlefield install base then it is in titles such as Outlast and studio’s such as Red Barrels that they will find their answers.
Gamers want an assortment of titles, in a variety of genres. Not just point and shoot causal shovelware doled out in annual spoon-fed portions, with just enough content taken out so that Season Passes and the predictable DLC scam inevitably follow. Gamers want role-playing, ( Japanese and Western ), FPS, RNG, MMO, P&C,4×4,strategy, hack’n’slash, fighting games, survival and horror. What we do not want is the same format in every genre, it does not warrant a purchase, and hopefully the woeful sales of titles such as Bioshock Infinite, Resident Evil 6 and FEAR 3 and The Darkness 2 will have pointed this out?
( of course, what will happen in reality is that publishers will just ‘drop’ said franchise and instead of investing in new and exciting IP’s they will undoubtedly fall back on tried and tested tedium such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA and Uncharted )
Gamers need to begin the process of demonstrating ‘people power’ by voting and speaking with their wallets. Outlast is the perfect stage to demonstrate this consumer strength from. I’m not saying don’t buy your regular installment of your favourite annual, far from it. What I am hoping to recommend is that you should be purchasing such cracking titles as Outlast at the first opportunity, and then advising your friends to do the same. The only way to get publishers to promote more games such as Outlast is to prove to them that they are commercially viable. We can heap plaudits after accolades onto Red Barrels and their amazing work, but if the sales do not raise the eyebrows of the ‘suits’ then it means nothing in the end.
Red Barrels have done a remarkable job with Outlast, and we wish them every success with this and future titles, but we need to show them the financial support of a Forza or an Uncharted if we are ever likely to see the success matched time and again with follow up smash hit titles.
Do not let this game go un-purchased, un-played and unnoticed. Outlast is a fantastic title, and one that every gamer should have in their collection whether they are fans of the survival/horror genre or not. This game could mark a huge turning point either in publishers returning to the time when actual investments where made in forward thinking and innovative studio’s, or in the way that more and more studio’s go down the self-publishing route. Whatever the result the winners in all of this are ultimately ‘you’, the gamers.
An epic title, this breath of fresh air almost feels revolutionary in its approach as it flies in the face of today’s staid formats and carbon copy videogames market. Outlast is a tour de force, and one that should adorn your game collection already and if not…why not? Remarkable and inspirational, Outlast should serve as the benchmark for all future independent studio titles. 9 out of 10