Following a recommendation from our own Drew Pontikis in his article ‘Oculus Rift – 5 Reasons Why’, I got into the Christmas spirit and rung in the new year by playing brutal first-person survival horror game Outlast, available now on Steam and soon on PSN.
In the list of clichéd horror settings, mental asylums are up there with abandoned space ships and deserted towns, but things become clichéd for a reason and the reason is usually because they work very well, like zombies for instance. Outlast is a prime example of a game that takes the established conventions of horror games and shows just how effective they can be in the right hands.
Ridiculously named investigative journalist Miles Upshur receives shocking information from a disgruntled worker regarding a mental asylum situated on the also ridiculously named ‘Mount Massive’. Sensing a huge story, Miles breaks into the asylum to investigate.
At first the story shows lots of potential. Once Miles gets into the asylum and realises that it is literally a living hell inside, and that he is in danger of being tortured to death and eaten by its inhabitants, instead of saying ‘I have to get to the bottom of this’ like most dim-witted horror protagonists before him, he instantly thinks ‘I have to get out of here now’, which is the correct response.
However, forces transpire against him and he is trapped with only a mysterious priest for direction on how to escape. Miles’ primary goal through-out the game is to reach the priest. Characters come and go and horrific events happen along the way, but the goal never really changes to any significant degree. Giving the player only one objective and simply delaying them until they reach it is a lazy way of telling a story.
Outlast’s strength is not in its story-telling. The narrative is compelling enough, despite how ludicrous it gets towards the end, but the game’s strength is its ability to completely immerse the player in a terrifying state of complete horror and panic.
I can say without hesitation that Outlast is possibly the most frightening game I have ever played. It might not be the most sophisticated horror game, with some areas of the asylum literally swimming with blood to the point of meaninglessness, but it will make your heart palpitate.
The techniques used in Outlast to terrify the player are so competently employed that they work to an impressive degree. For example, some games advice the player to run from the enemies when they see them, but avoiding and escaping the monsters becomes relatively easy. Every chase in Outlast is frantic and disorientating. Through-out its five-hour run-time, the player never feels safe. Whether it’s through sheer terror or through harrowing imagery, the horror is relentless.
The game is so immersive because of its mechanics. The player controls Miles first-person and experiences much of the game through his digital camera. To gather notes on the events transpiring in the asylum, the player has to record the events with the camera. The camera fits very naturally into game play and forces the player to look at the horror in-detail and really take note.
An additional feature is that when it gets too dark to see, which is often, the only way Miles can navigate is by using the night-vision mode on his camera. This gives everything a sickly green hue that really adds to the scare factor.
The A.I. deserves special mention. Out of all the disfigured, tortured patients still alive in the asylum, only maybe a fifth are actually aggressive. The rest wallow in misery and madness, sobbing in corners and hiding beneath beds. The fact that not every living thing is trying to rip your face off makes the game unpredictable.
Despite its incredibly effective horror, sometimes it feels as though Outlast doesn’t really know what to do with the player. As a result, there are about four different occasions when Miles reaches an impasse and can only progress by turning a number of valves or pressing a number of switches whilst a murderous giant is on the prowl. The first time this happened, it was frightening and interesting, but repetition soon wore these sections down.
Also, as I stated earlier, Miles’ goal is never really updated through-out the game, so consequently the game has to find ways of delaying the player. Towards the end you’ll find yourself falling through floors on more than one occasion, or tasked with finding the most unintuitive way round an inconvenient obstacle.
As a horror game, Outlast is a complete success and I couldn’t recommend it enough. It’s thrilling and terrifying to the last and a must-have for all horror fans. It’s also a fascinating insight into the state of mental health institutions in America.
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.