Outlast has a map of your brain, and it knows how to make you scream
“Outlast contains intense violence, gore, graphic sexual content, and strong language. Please enjoy.”
That's the opening sentence that's displayed on the screen the first time you load Outlast, a horror game in the style of genre classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The second of those two sentences entirely changes the meaning of the former. Usually when a game declares its contents, it's a warning sign. It's meant to communicate that children and the squeamish should turn back before it's too late.
But Outlast's developer, Red Barrels, a studio stacked with ex-Ubisoft talent, is obviously looking at this differently. The list reads like a waiter describing the contents of a fine meal. “Bon appetite.”
This isn't a warning; it's an enticement.
Outlast is a horror game that wants to scare the living crap out of even jaded horror game fans. It revels in gore and violence.
You play as an investigative reporter who has ventured to the Mount Massive Asylum on a tip from a contractor who clues you in to some shady dealings. You'll creep through the shadows as you hide from the horrors you'll find deep in the asylum, armed with only a video camera.
There's no combat in Outlast, and you'll spend most of the game looking at the world through the lens of the camera. This view looks similar to your normal view except with a crosshair and a battery timer.
The main tool you have at your disposal is the camera's night vision functionality, which gives you limited visibility in the game's darkest areas. You're forced to run and hide if you're ever discovered, and these are the times you'll be glad you have slightly better night vision than your attackers.
Night vision is a false comfort; it drains the camera batteries so quickly you'll be forced to use it in short bursts or in very important situations. You can't afford to waste the batteries just to make yourself feel a bit more comfortable in the dark.
House of horrors
At no point is Outlast subtle. It's not a game about creeping dread like Silent Hill. The horror is on full blast at all times, starting from the first moments you set foot inside the asylum.
I don't think I've ever literally screamed at my computer in fear before, but Outlast reduced me to that state several times.
The trouble is that at times it becomes clear you're being manipulated, even if you can't stop it from being effective. Outlast is proficient at letting your fear grow, then picking the perfect moment to harvest.
It's so good at it that it can become fairly obvious when things are going to happen. The best scares happen when you least expect them but, in Outlast, they're often so expertly timed that it's when you most expect it. That doesn't stop these moments from being scary, but it can make them feel cheap.
At one moment, for example, I had to squeeze through a large crack in the wall to advance. I looked at the crack and said aloud, “Oh great, so this is the part where I squeeze into the crack, let my guard down, then get grabbed by some horrible monstrosity.”
A few moments later I squeezed into the crack, was grabbed by a horrible monstrosity, and pig-squealed in terror.
Outlast is at its best when you're crouching in a dark corner, too afraid to open the door you know you must open. Outlast is at its worst when you open that door and a jack-in-the-box monster pops out and makes you jump.
The jack-in-the-box scares are a bit disappointing, if ridiculously effective, but they're far from the only tool in Outlast's repertoire. In perhaps its most brilliant move, the developer chose to vary the artificial intelligence of the many inmates of the asylum. Not everyone is trying to kill you.
A few will be sent to hunt you down or guard areas, and some might just personally want you dead for pleasure. But most of the resident inmates don't know or care that you don't belong here.
Sometimes you'll see an inmate who is obviously crazed and wielding a baseball bat. That's clearly not a guy you want to go near. Other times it's not so obvious, and there are several different temperaments that each inmate can have. They might be completely oblivious to your presence. Other times they may notice you, but be indifferent. And occasionally they may be very specific, only attacking you if you get too close to their trophy corpse then backing off when you leave.
This sets up some memorable moments in which you're gazing out from the shadows, analyzing a character to see if they will be harmful, before ultimately being forced to take a gamble and try to walk right past them or even among them.
In a game about crazed inmates trying to bash your skull in, the most terrifying thing the player could be asked to do is to voluntarily walk right out in front of a potential enemy. It's narratively enriching, too, as this is an asylum full of people who have had their mind tinkered with. They should be unpredictable.
Much of this magic is dulled when you must re-play a sequence after dying. Once you've been through the area you'll know where the enemies are and when you can run rather than tip-toe. You can also blindly navigate through the dark, saving your night vision batteries for later.
Dying isn't common, but when it happens it can essentially break the experience, and because of the extra night vision batteries you'll save, it affects later sequences as well.
I doubt there's anything the developer could have done to solve this problem, but it's there and it can occasionally throw off the game's pacing.
Outlast is a great horror game, but it's not a crossover title. If you don't like horror games, you won't like this. It is an often painful experience that will twist and stab your mind in all the right / wrong ways.
It's often brilliant, but it's not always enjoyable. I've either talked you out of the game with that sentiment or, like the welcome at the beginning of this article, only set the table for your feast.