Horror, much like comedy, is a notoriously hard genre to get right. When it comes to the world of film there’s now very little out there that has the impact we used to get from horror films. Think of anything you find fearful and it will have been done to death (literally) in dozens of horror films.
As with anything else it’s a the law of diminishing returns. Every horror film you watch the next one becomes less frightening, desensitising yourself to a position where The Human Centipede barely makes you bat an eyelid. Step forward, gaming. Still in its infancy in comparison to other media, gaming is perfectly poised to deliver the next evolutionary leap in horror. Make no mistake about it, Outlast is, almost always, terrifying…
Wrestling control away from a director and placing it the player’s hands is almost a guaranteed recipe for success. Previously disconnected from an event that would play out identically no matter how much you tried to hide behind that cushion, you’re forced to get hands on and do it yourself. You remember that idiot that thinks it’s a good idea to go poking around a mental asylum? Well, you’re that idiot now, so you’d best buck your ideas up if you’ve got any hope of leaving Mount Massive Asylum.
First things first, Outlast wears its influences plainly on its sleeves. It combines the powerless horror and sense of place of Amnesia: The Dark Descent with the physicality and atmosphere of Monolith’s criminally underrated Condemned series. It’s almost like Red Barrels sat there and dreamed up the perfect storm of horror. Prepare yourself for a cocktail of psychopaths, necrophiliacs, naked mentalists and shear-wielding surgeons. This barely scratches the surface of Outlast's warped world.
Now, everyone’s got their own fears and foibles that particularly scare them when it comes to horror; be it clowns, axemen or ghosts. Mine's wheelchairs. Specifically wheelchairs that move of their accord. Usually in mental asylums. Booting up Outlast for the first time I was disappointed to see an abandoned wheelchair on the title screen. This wasn't what I wanted. Cue putting the kettle on for a cup of tea, delaying the inevitable for another five minutes. Once I’d psyched myself up I went for it, confident that I'd achieved a satisfying mental state to keep ploughing on. Now, to say that Outlast is terrifying is almost offensively banal. It’s frayed nerves, frightening scares, horrific imagery, and an almost perfect blend of prolonged and short-term scares that leaves you toppling off the edge of your seat.
Outlast pitches the player as an investigative journalist named Miles Upshur who receives an anonymous tip-off about some nefarious goings on at a local mental asylum. He of course does what every plonker does, and sets off on jolly up the imperious looking Mount Massive, amid driving rain and rolling fog.
I strutted my stuff into the asylum, clambering in through a suspiciously ajar window. It was about this time that the nervous whistling began and my finger edged off the run button, inching forward through the suffocatingly dark environments. Armed only with a video camera for comfort, nearly the entire game is played out through its lense, with a respite of sorts brought through the use of the camera’s light function. Or should I say nightvision. Because of course a simple torch wouldn’t have been terrifying enough; a dim green glow was clearly required to edge it even further into inappropriately intimidating. You remember that last scene in Rec that probably had Arnie reaching for his dummy? Stretch that out for dozens of times its length and that’s how Outlast feels when you whip your camera out. It’s horrible and yet it’s genius. A constant toss up between peering into darkness or using up precious battery supply to get your fix of that eerie green glow.
While shadows dance and floorboards creak a lot of the goings on in the early stages of Outlast were left to my clearly verdant imagination. Where there was literally nothing, my mind quickly quickly sprouted up grotesque creatures and demonic imaginings. It’s not very long at all though before those nightmares become real, and Outlast is one game that clearly isn’t going to pull any punches. It easily ranks as one of the most graphic games I’ve ever played, casually throwing you some alarming scenes of torture, graphic sexual images, and a surplus of gore. At times it almost feels as if Red Barrels is obviously showing off, pushing the boundaries of the grotesque. The wrecks of human beings are scattered about, decapitated limbs littered in toilets and hideous corpses strung up in surgeries. It’ll take you some time to get over two naked men calmly talking about how they’ll kill you when they get a hold of you, all the while listening to the wet thunk of a man battering his own skull against a wall.
In terms of what you can actually do in this asylum, there is no fighting mechanic whatsoever. If there is anything out to get you, there is only one solution, and that's to run and hide. It’s this mechanic that proves the most nerve-racking. The basic flow of Outlast revolves around moving from one area to the next, usually hiding from a single insane enemy in the ultimate game of cat and mouse. The shadows will ultimately be your friend as you dash haphazardly from one locale to the next, with an array of murders pounding down corridors behind you, breathing down your neck as you seek refuge.
The audio in Outlast is undoubtedly its strongest card. Put on a decent pair of headphones and start playing this and I can almost guarantee you'll wish they did Pamper's nappies in adult sizes. The environmental noises are enough to send a chill up your spine, with creaking floorboards, ambient muttering, distant wailing, shuffling of feet and clanking of chains. All of these noises eat away at your already frayed nerves, sending you spinning around trying to attempt the location of imminent terror. On more than once occasion the shuffling of feet was enough to send me scampering across the asylum in a blind panic, more often than not running straight into the exact trouble I was trying to avoid, the music exploding with a staccato of discordant strings.. The worst times though, are those when it's completely silent. You know something awful is just around the corner, that things are just that little bit too quiet. It's these moments where it makes it genuinely a challenge to continue moving forward, facing the fear of what's the other side of that ajar door.
Outlast is a five-hour or so experience that begins to lose its scare-factor the further in you get, occasionally falling into the classic trap of showing you too much. The campaign is generally well-paced but by the time the ending starts to roll around you'll no doubt be ready to finish this game and put it to one side, most likely permanently. The almost on-rails experience is extremely scripted and linear, something that doesn't hold up well when attempting sequences repeatedly or bode well for future playthroughs.
Over the course of this review it became clear to me that unlike the majority of video games, Outlast is in no way designed to be fun. For me at least, it was an ordeal, something I felt compelled to go through but I had no idea why. It is oppressive and morbid, maniipulating common fears of imprisonment, isolation and madness. From the moment you step out of your car at the beginning you will yearn to get back in it and scramble away to safety. I guess at least that’s the very aim of horror. Outlast is memorable and gripping, but Outlast is also guilty of being a one-trick pony with little to offer beneath its terrifying surface. Once you’ve blasted through it once there really is no need to revisit it, the curtain’s been pulled back and the puppeteers at work are laid bare for all to see.