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Outlast (PlayStation 4) artwork

Outlast (PlayStation 4) review

"Survival horror fans will thrive on Outlast's cheap thrills, but those after a more substantial horror experience will be left wanting. It is scary, if not a little confused."

Outlast marks developer Red Barrels’ first venture into the world of indie development. The game is a fright-fest which does little to dismiss the popular but mistaken notion that mental institutions--and individuals suffering from mental illness--are to be feared. There’s no question that this weaponless first-person adventure is a genuine nightmare, but it’s one that I also found disappointing because it asked me to care about a lead character with whom I struggled to empathise.

As a journalist, integrity and credibility are of the utmost importance. Outlast’s protagonist, a reporter named Miles Upshur, should perhaps be commended only for his determination. After receiving an anonymous tip regarding some suspect “charitable research” in the abandoned Mount Massive mental institution, the intrepid reporter duly responds to the call of duty. Undeterred by a locked front door, he breaks in through a first-floor window. Thus begins his descent into this forgotten facility, all in the name of investigation.

Outlast (PlayStation 4) image

A quick succession of events leads Upshur to briefly encounter a man who he impetuously labels an “alcoholic kiddy fiddler,” a description based solely on the stranger’s idiosyncratic nature. For a man who supposedly makes a living based of his grasp on reality, Upshur seems all too willing to make absurd leaps of logic. His credibility as a journalist--and as a character worthy of our empathy---is there and then lost in an instant.

This is an important point because Outlast’s narrative introduces players to Project MKUltra, the CIA’s highly controversial behaviourial engineering scheme of the mid-20th century. Someone at Red Barrels appears to have invested a sizeable amount of time researching that piece of history. The player’s ability to believe in what the game tries to pull together--a mixture of real-life events and fiction--hinges on the credibility of the principle hero. Upshur’s failings may not be an absolute deal breaker, and all of this is very possibly an overreaction on my part, but my aversion to the protagonist meant I was unable to take seriously any other piece of the story Outlast attempts to sell, to the point that my entire experience was nearly compromised.

Protagonist aside, however, Outlast offers a generally solid survival horror experience. Thanks to sometimes gorgeous aesthetics, the game’s asylum setting offers a raw sense of realism that fuels the sense of terror in a number of ways. One good example of that comes whenever Upshur approaches a door. Instead of simply having him barge through, the player can guide the reluctant hero slowly towards the opening. Automatically, the character grips the door frame as he draws near. Then he can peer around blind corners before tentatively making his next move, as if genuinely terrified. This works particularly well in concert with the game’s first-person view and the absence of any HUD.

Outlast (PlayStation 4) image

Thanks to Upshur’s possession of a battery-powered video recorder, a night vision mode is also offered. It becomes his one and only dependable ally in the dilapidated surroundings. Upshur must regularly rely on wit and stealth to outrun and outlast some of the institution’s more aggressive clientele, masterfully operating the recorder’s flash to guide the way. It’s reminiscent of the cinematic style featured in 2007’s horror cult classic film, “Rec.” In theory, conventional use of night vision is recommended since the camera’s battery life is limited, but in a remarkable stroke of luck, Mount Massive is absolutely overflowing with AA batteries.

Without any real means of defense, paranoia is amplified by creaking floorboards, short and sharp bursts of breath and cliché screeching violin strings. These are the components of quintessential horror, and Red Barrels uses them all for great effect. All too often, I found myself worried more by what wasn’t there than what actually was. The majority of scripted scares are forced upon the player and that does wear a little thin at times, but being constantly on edge definitely accentuates the ever-present and regularly burgeoning sense of dread.

Not every inmate is out to get you, however. One of the game’s most harrowing moments is an early encounter with two passive residents as they sit in darkness, fixated on a static television screen and completely oblivious to Upshur’s presence. In the shadows, a third inmate is perched upon a sofa, rocking back and forth in distress, his knees pulled to his chest, his head buried between his legs. A fallen bookcase rests on his upper back, which he seems not to even particularly notice. This scene better resonates with the apparent reality of Project MKUltra than the deranged, chain-wielding brute who hunts Upshur at predictable intervals throughout the other portions of the game.

Outlast (PlayStation 4) image

During such crude encounters, holding your breath and pegging it past the behemoth in the opposite direction is often the best method of escape. The alternative is to idle in the conveniently placed lockers, but that tends to become a tiresome case of hide here, wait there, and then try again. Judging the giant’s patrol patterns tends to feel like Russian roulette; for all his strength, the lumbering foe seems unable to shift the regular clutter of bookshelves, desks and computer chairs piled up throughout the halls of the institute. Upshur, meanwhile, is always able to squeeze past them to safety. That is not to say the encounters ever lack excitement, but elsewhere a run-in with a deranged would-be doctor leads to a cat-and-mouse sequence executed with such finesse that it makes the more regular meetings with the man in chains seem almost bland by comparison. Add to this a host of fairly mundane search-and-retrieve quests and a slightly bizarre supernatural revelation towards the story’s end, and any momentum built at the beginning of the five hour long affair becomes lost in the process.

Overall, Outlast should be commended for what it achieves for the survival horror genre. Entering a genre which has (aside from the Amnesia series) largely seen its most noteworthy entries head toward more action-orientated design in recent years, Outlast does well in its attempt to scare the shit out of players at any cost. However, the off-putting lead character presents an obstacle that I personally found more difficult to overcome than any puzzles or scares. Again, this may or not be a deal breaker for everyone, but I believe when the protagonist’s sense of morality is as terrifying as any scares the game design offers, that’s a problem...


deaco2000's avatar
Freelance review by Joe Donnelly (March 03, 2014)

Joe Donnelly likes writing about games whilst wondering who introduced the whole 'talking about yourself in the third person' thing. Perhaps one day I'll, ahem, he'll find out.

More Reviews by Joe Donnelly [+]
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Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC)

Life is easy when you consider things from another point of view.


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