I’ve always been a big fan of horror in general and horror games in particular. There is something about playing a horror game, being an active participant rather than a passive viewer, that makes the genuinely scary horror games even scarier. Unfortunately, my options for true horror games have been scarce lately, with only independent PC titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or A Machine for Pigs to tide me over, which doesn’t really fit with my heavier focus on console gaming. So when a major horror title does come to consoles, you better believe it’ll make me sit up and take notice. Especially when it’s the most exciting new horror title since The Dark Descent.
The plot…is actually pretty standard. You are Miles Upshur, an intrepid reporter who has gotten an inside report of illegal dealings going on at a corporate run asylum. He arrives to discover that the inmates are literally running the asylum. After being attacked by an almost inhuman inmate, he finds himself unable to escape via his route of entry and must piece together what happened while trying to escape and avoid attackers.
Okay, so it’s not the most original of setups, but it’s the execution that makes it special. See, while this game has gotten famous on the internet for its jump scares, what really struck me about is the atmosphere. An asylum may be a fairly well worn setting, but that’s because they work, and this game commits to its setting whole heartedly. Much of the game is seen through the eyes of a video camera, with it acting as your flashlight (night vision technically, but the effect is the same) and the narrow field of view, combined with the intense darkness and camera readouts actually manage to draw you in and immerse you. Sure it gives you the found footage effect that movies have beaten to death by now, but video games haven’t really touched it much, so it feels more fresh in this medium.
That’s not to say that jump scares aren’t present, but that’s not a complaint. I’ve never been opposed to jump scares; they’re honestly a lot of work to pull off (a lot more work than the torture porn that swallowed the horror market for basically the entirety of the 2000s) and I’ve been enjoying their recent resurrection in the wake of Paranormal Activity. And Outlast has some of the best jump scares I’ve seen in a game, especially towards the beginning.
The character work is also a bit better than I was expecting, with Miles having more characterization than the average silent protagonist due to his notes taken during certain sequences. The real great character work comes from the villains. Characters like the twins and Dr. Trager are instantly memorable and while Chris Walker, the most common recurring villain, isn’t as interesting, his thudding footsteps and rattling chains make for great tension building. The enemy AI is also pretty interesting, in that a good portion of the inmates won’t attack you, which honestly just makes it more frightening as you won’t know who’s going to be attacking you and who won’t. Trager and Walker’s AI’s are also very impressive, with unscripted patrols and the ability to check multiple hiding places, which keeps you on your toes a fair bit.
The control scheme is mostly pretty natural as first person stealth games go. The peek around mechanic is mostly functional, if a little iffy occasionally (and crying out for a mechanic that allows you to peek up and over something, rather than just around it) and the lack of any way of fighting back against your attackers does leave you feeling more desperate than if you had some sort of combat alternative (Amnesia does this as well, which I think is a good move for a horror game). And since I played this on my recently acquired PS4, I will say that this game’s inclusion of the PS4’s hardware gimmick, IE sliding up and down on the touchpad to zoom in and out with the camera is pretty natural and doesn’t interfere with gameplay at all.
It’s not perfect, with most of its shortcomings probably stemming from its independent origins. The AI detection can be kind of dodgy with what it will and won’t recognize at times. It’s not a gamebreaker or anything you can knowingly exploit, but you will curse the moments when an enemy failing to recognize you when they should jolts you out of the experience. You also do get acclimated to the way the game structures its jump scares at around the 2 hour mark (which is, non-coincidentally, around the time a movie based around jump scares would be wrapping up). It still manages to pull a couple really solid ones out later, but you do tend to see them coming a bit more.
On the story side of things, I did kind of wish the game could reduce its use of Chris Walker and maybe give us more time with the other villains. Okay so maybe there’s nothing Trager could do to top his teeth grindingly terrifying introduction, but the Twins are great characters and don’t get near enough screen time. Also, while I’m not as irritated with the ending as some people seem to be, I do think the final level, in particular its setting, is a little bit of a letdown and they probably should have avoided explaining things.
Survival horror is a genre that, outside a few big name entries, has been in incredibly short supply in the console market lately, and even the big names like Resident Evil, Dead Space and Silent Hill have been short on both survival and horror. Even if Outlast wasn’t a great game, I’d be tempted to tell people to buy it just to prove to the big companies that real horror games can still sell. Fortunately it is a great game so I don’t have much of a conflict of interest. If you’ve got a PS4 (or a PC that can run it) do not miss Outlast.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure he saw one of the first instances of male nudity in a major console release here.
– great atmosphere and jump scares
– solid character work and mystery
– good stealth gameplay
– weak final level
– occasionally dodgy AI