It has been three years since Amnesia: The Dark Descent both frightened and delighted fans of the horror genre. Since then the gaming community has waited with bated breath for something, anything that can deliver a horror experience that even compares to the visceral terror that Amnesia provided.
In comes Outlast, a recent title by Red Barrel games. Red Barrel has made a bold claim. They claim that Outlast qualifies as the “Scariest Game Ever”.
That’s a big claim, but does the horror live up to the hype?
You play as Miles Upshur, a journalist investigating ‘Mount Massive Asylum’ for corruption and wrongdoing. You spend the game running from the mad and the monstrous, through blood soaked hallways, and through corpse ridden corridors. In a similar vein to Amnesia, there is no combat. You have only your trusty video camera to stand between you and the horrors that wait. You need to rely on a mixture of speed and stealth to survive. You’ll run. You’ll slam doors behind you to delay pursuers. You’ll hide in closets and lockers. You’ll wait as a creature searches for you in the darkness.
The core gameplay borrows much from Amnesia, while still introducing a bit of its own original flair. Like Amnesia, resource management of your only light source plays a pivotal part of the gameplay. Instead of a lantern, you will be relying on a night-vision camcorder. The camera is vital for seeing in the dark, but quickly runs out of battery. You’ll soon fall into a ritual of searching for batteries in every room, turning off your camera when it is light, and turning it on when it is dark. Unlike Amnesia, however, you aren’t discouraged from looking at the creatures that are out to slaughter you. Instead you’ll stare straight at them, bathed in the neon-green light of your camera’s night-vision. You will see them, but they won’t see you. The effect is a delightfully terrifying experience. You’ll spend much of the game looking at horrible things in this way. This gives the game an effect comparable to found footage horror films such as the Blair Witch Project, the Spanish horror film REC or even Paranormal Activity.
A lot of what Outlast tries to achieve is aided through its use of atmosphere and sound. The environments have a strong, gritty atmosphere. You’ll see mangled corpses, blood-soaked mirrors and messages written in blood. The games graphics help assist this. I played this with the graphics set to ‘Low’ on my mid-range laptop. It ran perfectly fine, and still looked excellent. The character models are a bit bland, and towards the end of the game you will notice some recycling. However, you’ll spend most of this time staring at them from behind a night-vision camera, which cleverly serves to mask the graphical flaws in character designs.
The way your character moves, breathes and talks further aids this effect. Your avatar, Miles Upshur, moves with a sense of corporality. When sidling on a wall you see his hands. When you run and crouch the camera shakes and bounces chaotically; when hiding Miles will hyperventilate. And unlike many games, the protagonist’s arm stretches out in full view of the gamer upon opening a door. Subtle touches like this have the effect of making your in-game presence feel personal and real.
This corporality is mixed in with an excellent and highly intuitive control scheme. When running away in a moment of panicked frenzy you’ll find yourself easily and intuitively jumping, sliding and climbing at the tap of a key. Hiding spots identify themselves to the player as they approach with a subtle button prompt, aiding the player without ruining the tension or atmosphere. A minute into the game and you’ll find yourself effectively using your camera, reloading the batteries and turning the night-vision on and off with complete ease.
Yet despite all of its clever game design, Outlast quickly outstays its welcome. Although only a 6 hour game, after an hour or so of gameplay Outlast will turn from horrifying and fun to dull and repetitive. Unlike Amnesia, Outlast lacks subtlety in its horror. You’ll soon grow accustomed to the sight of madmen suddenly leaping out at you and struggling with you. Jump scares are everywhere. Jump scares may be fun the first few times, but they quickly ruin the tension as the player becomes desensitised to their effect. Soon you’ll find yourself responding with cynicism rather than fear. The gory and blood soaked levels soon become tired and cliché, as the levels barely vary in design or feel. A few novel experiences and levels are thrown in, but for the most part each minute of Outlast plays much like the last. When the ending credits roll, you’ll be glad they’ve arrived.
Has Amnesia: The Dark Descent finally met its match? Not really. Outlast has excellent game design, an intuitive control scheme and is initially delightfully scary. The tangible and real effect of Miles’ body, and the sounds of fear he emits, make the game feel real and terrifying. Unfortunately, Outlast relies too heavily on ‘shock’ horror and jump scares, and the levels soon grow repetitive and stale. At $19.99 on Steam, you’re getting good value for your money. But its lack of subtlety means that Outlast doesn’t live up to the title of ‘Scariest Game Ever’.