Sometimes I don’t know why I volunteer to play games like Outlast. I’ve always had a penchant for horror, and when done right, it’s not something you enjoy, it’s something you endure. Outlast is definitely not a game I would classify as fun, at least by a more traditional definition; it’s full of armed nut jobs, mutilated innocents, and oh so many long dark corridors. And if you can get over a few tedious fetch-quests, Outlast is a frightening ride worth taking.
Outlast begins as investigative journalist Miles Upsher enters the Mount Massive Asylum. After being contacted by an anonymous source, he breaks into the seemingly abandoned sanitarium in hopes of breaking a story. Soon enough he finds himself knee-deep in dead bodies, and the former patients are running wild. Through various documents Upsher collects along the way, we discover the sordid past of the doctors working there, and the dark secrets they uncovered. Armed with only a night-vision capable camera in constant need of batteries, players must delve into the ruined asylum, slinking by and hiding from any threats one may encounter.
Where a game like Amnesia gives the player time to soak in the atmosphere, allowing for an ebb and flow to the tension, Outlast goes for a more rapid-fire approach. Jump scares are plentiful, and one never truly feels safe, even during the most sedated story-driven moments. But this isn’t always a good thing. As the second half of the game sets in, many of the quick-hitting attempts at horrifying the player become tired or predictable. Scripted events, like having to shake off the occasional deranged patient, do still provide a bit of a jolt, but the fear instantly wears off as the experience just feels cheap.
After staring down one too many stitched up faces, they all begin to blend together into one familiar generic mass, which quickly loses its ferocity. That being said, when the patients themselves aren’t under such close scrutiny, Outlast can be insanely frightening. Darting figures in the distance, the heavy steps of a nearby behemoth, the stressed gasps for air Upsher feebly tries to stifle when hiding; it all blends together to create a very specific atmosphere. It successfully creates an environment in which the player never feels comfortable.
But the effective atmosphere doesn’t always carry Outlast, as the occasional odd gameplay design choice can knock the wind out of a terrifying scenario. A few too many fetch quests are littered throughout this already short 4-5 hour game. Encountering one would often bring the game to a screeching halt, as now I wasn’t exploring a maniac-riddled mansion, I was watching pre-determined enemy patrols, waiting for my opening to walk by and grab a fuse, turn a valve, or engage in whatever piece of busy work the game wanted me to do.
These sections laid bare the mechanics of the game in a way that ripped me out of the experience each and every time, without fail. One even resulted in my running circles in a pitch-black room, two neutered psychopaths armed to the teeth biting at my heels, as I tried to find a damn fuse for a laundry chute. All that was missing was a little Benny Hill music. But overall, the engaging tension and richer moments outweigh the more comical.
Navigating environments itself rarely becomes tedious, as amazing sound work is always there to remind you that death is right around the corner. Fleeing from enemies becomes something physical, providing an instantaneous tension in your chest that doesn’t subside until some semblance of temporary safety is assured. It may not be the best horror experience out there, but damn is it ever a great first attempt.
To be completely honest, Outlast isn’t for everyone. It’s the kind of game you’ll play for an hour only to take a break because you need a few minutes to compose yourself. While there may be a few sections that drag, fleeing from the endless flow of mutilated inmates is a genuinely frightful experience. And those moments of brilliance make it worth the price of admission.