I play a whole lot of horror games and yet the same two games have topped my list of the scariest titles for many years – Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame. The former has one of the best game stories ever written and is loaded with unsettling atmosphere and disturbing moments. The second is the best at delivering sheer funhouse style thrills, loaded with jump scares and fucked up ghosts yelling at you about how they’re missing their eyeballs. Oh and for the record, I have not played Amnesia: The Dark Descent as my computer has issues playing any game released post 1998, hence it’s absence from the list. As far as I was concerned, Fatal Frame and Silent Hill 2 would remain the top contenders forever.
That is until Outlast kicked open my door, grabbed by the collar, shoved its mutilated face into mine and screamed “You scared now you fuck?!”
Why yes Outlast, yes I am.
As I mentioned, my PC is not terrific at running any games released after Sim City 2000 so I was genuinely disappointed when Outlast was released last Fall and I was completely unable to play it. I hung on to the hope that it might see a console release and not only were those prayers answered with the announcement of a PS4 version, but they were going one step further and making it free for all Playstation Plus subscribers. Huzzah! I’d have gladly paid 20 bucks for it but I also won’t argue with free. I’d heard the hype about how scary it was but had avoided the details as to exactly why, so I went in both excited and terrified.
The narrative in Outlast is pretty sparse. You play as journalist Miles Upshur who is given an anonymous tip to come and check out Mount Massive Asylum, a formerly abandoned mental hospital that has recently been reopened by the Murkoff Corporation. You arrive to find the main gate to the building locked so you’re forced to climb up through a side window. It isn’t long before dead bodies are falling down on you, impaled SWAT guys are screaming at you to get the fuck out, and big burly inmates are smashing you through bannisters. Things are way fucked in Mount Massive and it only gets more insane from there.
The game takes place from a first person perspective and they add lots of little touches that really help with the immersion. Of course when you look down you can actually see the rest of your body, something still oddly missing from many first person games even now. You can reach out and open doors either quickly or gradually, and when you peer around corners your hands actually come out and grip the surface in front of you. All of these are small touches that come together to give a real sense of weight to the Miles character.
Of course the primary gimmick here is the presence of a video camera. Pressing the R1 button brings up the viewfinder and you then see everything through the camera. There’s really no reason to ever not be recording as not only does it provide you with the ability to zoom in and out (occasionally helpful to spot something in the distance), but certain events, if recorded, will cause Miles to take down notes which you can them pop into a menu and read.
Where the camera really comes into play is with the use of night-vision which you can access at any time by pressing R3. The asylum is full of pitch black rooms and hallways so night-vision is an absolute necessity for large chunks of the game. It’s also a large reason why the game is so terrifying. The night-vision effect is perfect. It looks exactly how it would were you to look through a real camera and lights up just enough to see what’s immediately around you, maintaining a sense of dread that something could be just out of sight at any given time. Those glowy eyes man, *shudder*.
After playing the first section of Outlast, I was a little concerned that the primary scare tactic would be your standard jump scare. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of them in there and they are damn effective. They are great at playing on your expectations and not always delivering the obvious scare. They are also not afraid of stacking jump scares, delivering one and then immediately throwing another one at you before you have a chance to come back down from the previous moment. However the terror of Outlast goes far beyond just simple “BOO THERE’S A DUDE WITH SKIN OVER HIS EYES IN FRONT OF YOU NOW AND HE WASN’T THERE BEFORE OH SHIT” moments. It has an incredible sense of atmosphere, with the look of the asylum perfectly reflecting a building that is seemingly on the brink of collapse. A lot is done using sound, with creaking doors and distant voices surrounding you almost all the time. It’s the kind of game that shows someone in the distant running into the room you know that you now have to enter. It creates a never-ending sense of dread and unease, often making you want nothing more than to stand in place and not enter the next room.
There is absolutely no combat in Outlast. You are not able to attack enemies or defend yourself from them. All you’re able to do is run away and hide. Primarily you either duck under a bed or hop inside of a locker. This concept isn’t new to the horror genre, with past titles like Clock Tower and Haunting Ground employing similar mechanics, but it’s executed very well here. Being able to peek out and watch as the enemy searches the room for you is a tense experience, especially in the later parts of the game where the chances of them actually finding you are significantly increased. Having an enemy rip open the door to the locker I’m inside ranks up amongst the more terrifying moments in a game that is full of them.
There is a downside to these enemy encounter sequences. Outlast is a very linear title so once an enemy begins to chase you, there is often a set path you are meant to take in order to evade them. If you make a wrong turn along the way then you are done for as you can only take a few hits before you’re down. The checkpoints are usually generous but these sequences tend to reset you back to the beginning and once you have to redo these moments a couple of times, the tension is entirely gone and frustration starts to set in. Often though the chase sequences are extremely intense experiences and the ability to look behind you as you are running away is a genius stroke.
Another complaint, albeit a minor one, is about the aforementioned notes that Upshur makes as he chronicles events on his camera. The notes are written in a very sarcastic and often humourous way that doesn’t necessarily fit the overall tone of the game. This character is being put through the ringer both physically and emotionally and these notes don’t really reflect that, often making snide remarks about the events around him. It certainly doesn’t affect the game too much as reading these notes is entirely optional, but hey, I figured it was at least worth mentioning.
Outlast isn’t a very difficult game, though granted I played through it on the Normal difficulty setting and there are a few levels above that. You’re never going to get lost as there is always a single path forward, and although you may fail the stealth focused sequences a couple of times it never takes long to get a handle on how best to proceed through them. Using night-vision does drain your camera’s batteries, which requires you to find more, but this never posed much of a threat as I never had fewer than three batteries and usually had six or seven at any given time. It’s also a relatively short game, taking me a little under five hours to make my way through it. I doubt you would want things to go on too much longer though as it would definitely start to get redundant. This felt like the perfect length for this experience.
Outlast is an absolute must play if you care even slightly about the horror genre. It has some clunky elements and the narrative doesn’t always work but they know exactly what to do to scare the shit out of you. Wait until dark, grab some headphones and prepare to be fucking terrified!