After hearing a lot of buzz about Outlast, a first-person horror experience developed by Red Barrels, I expected one hell an experience. Interestingly enough I never had to purchase the game. A close friend of mine decided that he wanted it, but that it looked just terrifying enough that he would rather pay to have me preview it first before he bought his own copy. I'm glad he did.
You play the game as Miles Upshur, a rather moronic investigative journalist who seems to think that breaking into the Mount Massive Asylum at night with only a night-vision camcorder is a good idea. Miles cannot fight in any sense of the word, and as he enters the madhouse he's confronted with what can be aptly described as a bloody mess. His attempt to find, and more importantly, escape with evidence of Murkoff Corporation's sins occupy the plot of the game.
Outlast wastes no time in establishing ambiance. It's something the game is rather good at. The asylum is nuanced with its broken interiors and disheveled corridors. The environments range from sewers to rooftops and it all looks great, but the problem is that these choice locales are often brought down by haunted house style scares and a pacing that never gives you time to feel safe, something which is crucial to getting a really good scare.
As Miles enters the asylum he's confronted almost immediately with a big scary house, blood-covered walls, a giant rampaging psychopath, a delusional priest, a mad doctor, a Nazi scientist, a frightful ghost haunting the patients and an evil corporate conspiracy. The only way it could have more tropes in one serving is if you had to save a princess somewhere. Outlast feels like it tried to hit every note in this department and it just comes up sour.
Things pop out and chase you, you lose your way in the darkness, you find corpses nearly everywhere, and after a while the initial shock value wears off. The game shocks you often enough that eventually the psychopaths don't really impact like they should. When the scares are 24/7 you naturally start to acclimate. I even found myself laughing as Chris Walker, a giant ex-soldier patient, continuously bursts through walls like the Kool-Aid guy, always managing to find me.
Miles himself is a silent protagonist, giving the player the occasionally frightened breathing and grunting to clue you in on his personality. Miles does however have a journal, which is a mixed blessing. Occasionally Miles finds documents lying around the asylum from doctors or patients and reading them is rather interesting, however the notes section, which serves to document Miles and his emotions, draws you out of the game. Miles never screams any obscenities or expresses his emotions as a pair of creepy psychopathic killers banter about which one of them gets to rip off which body part...he writes a note about it later. It seems like a huge missed opportunity in the character development department.
Don't get me wrong, I can definitely Outlast scaring a lot of people, but not really in a meaningful kind of way. As the player moves through the asylum using his camera to see in the darkness there's a lot of fun gameplay mechanics the reinforce vulnerability. Miles can duck into lockers, hide under beds, push objects in the way of oncoming attackers(doors, cabinets, etc.) but in the end it's all one non-stop haunted house experience and you're just waiting for the next scare to pop up.
I did enjoy how the game thrusts you into situations where you either think quickly or you die. Numerous times I found myself ambushed in such a way where the solution was getting into a space too big for my pursuer to follow, or pushing an object in front of a door to barricade myself, or even crawling into sewer drains and air vents. The music does a great job at ramping up the tension at points like this, making you feel quite immersed in your own survival.
The game continually hints that the unstable patients in the asylum are being experimented on, and frequent references by them about a "Walrider" suggest that there's a little more going on than your standard experimentation. After about half an hour of gameplay I had become quite interested in the idea that perhaps the mad doctors were going into the dreams of unstable patients and somehow bringing them to life, explaining the mentions of the Walrider. This however was not the case. The revelation of what the scientists are actually doing to the patients hit me in a way similar to the ending of Mass Effect 3, although I confess it didn't break my heart like that game did.
Outlast sets up some great environments with some fun gameplay mechanics but the scares are cheap and the tropes are numerous. If you're a sucker for horror games it'll get you for sure, but more seasoned gamers and horror fans are going to find themselves disappointed in the failed potential of the game.
Outlast is currently available through Steam only.