Outlast is a survival horror game, which is essentially a video game version of a horror movie, yet because of its video game nature, Outlast can offer a more personal and more terrifying experience.
I will preface this review by saying that I am fairly hard to scare, I have played through popular horror games like Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent without so much as a flinch.
In this game, you are a journalist who is trying to get a big story out on a corrupt corporation that had once run experiments in an insane asylum. You are attempting to be a whistle blower and expose the Murkoff Corporation.
When you first start the game, Outlast begins to build its universe around you; it doesn’t try to scare you right away, as it gives the player some time to soak in the environment and to really get immersed in the world. By doing this Outlast increases its potential to scare you, as you have been given some time to adjust yourself and familiarize yourself with its controls. That way, you are not fighting with them by the time all hell breaks loose.
Once you are assimilated, the game quickly begins to introduce the amount of eeriness and creepiness of the situation that you have put yourself in by factors of ten. Each step forward in Outlast means that events will spiral more and more out of control. Outlast wants to make you feel alone, desperate and very afraid of what is lurking around in the compound.
Instead of a flashlight (like most horror games), your character has brought a camcorder with a built in night vision feature. Don’t be fooled, the night vision function drains the camera’s batteries quickly so you can’t just run around with it turned on all of the time. When it runs out, you have to find replacement batteries throughout the asylum; there’s no running back to the store for batteries here. I found myself sucked into the experience and invested in the character.
What Outlast does exceptionally well is introducing aspects of the game that you will assume and deem to be harmless. However, the game will violently pull the rug from underneath you and surprise you whenever possible. It is fairly unpredictable in what it throws at you and definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat, shouting loudly at your screen, horrified by what you are witnessing.
The sound design of Outlast is fantastic; you will find yourself walking through the asylum and hear the faint sound of a telephone’s tone disconnected sound, making you feel isolated from the world. You may hear the frantic screams of someone who might still be alive and sane. The sound design is truly remarkable and adds much to the experience.
Despite its strengths, I still found some aspects of Outlast to be frustrating. For example, it is a game for pacifists. You cannot fight in Outlast and the only option is to run away from bad guys. This design choice is puzzling because the game does a very good job of invoking the “fight or flight” response, but forces you to pick flight.
This is frustrating because the enemies usually boil down to an insane man with a pipe and the wrecked asylum is plentiful with potential weapons due to its decayed infrastructure. I found myself to be particularly frustrated when I was being chased by an insane man down a long corridor only to find myself at a dead end with nowhere to hide.
“If only I had a baseball bat or some other way of neutralizing this threat!” I thought to myself as I sat there with my camcorder and watched the man slowly beat me to death. Because of this the game also does not give you much feeling of agency nor does it give you an illusion of agency, which can remove you from the experience and the immersion that it does such a great job of creating.
Outlast is flawed by attempting to make you feel afraid when there are just some instances where you are not; it forces you to run when you feel like you can stand and fight. Horror games that employ this no-combat mechanic do this to try and make the player feel weak and vulnerable.
In reality, it can actually make a player feel as if he is a hamster on a wheel, fighting with locations where the developer decided to place a spot to hide. If a horror game wants a player to run, it should be because the player is truly afraid and believes that there is no good outcome of attempting to stand and fight.
Despite its weaknesses, Outlast is surprisingly fun and extremely scary. Within the first half hour of the game, I was more scared than I have ever been with a video game. The game takes you through quite a spectacular ride and is definitely one of those games where you might have to take frequent breaks from because it is so scary.
If you enjoy horror games and can move past the fact that there is no combat whatsoever, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Outlast.