It's a first-person horror game, set in an insane asylum awash with the blood of countless victims, its denizens having been physically and psychologically brutalized by the terrors they witnessed (and participated in) at the hands of evil, ambitious men.
|This is all the context the game gives you before it begins. I love it when a piece of media acknowledges that the stuff in its warning advisory are selling features.|
If you're looking for a horror game on PS4, or the eighth console generation entirely, the list currently begins and ends with Outlast - which is an enviable spot for any genre piece. Thankfully, it doesn't squander its position, or really disappoint - I'm looking at you, here, Knack.
I love the game's premise. The setting of a lunatic asylum could be viewed as a cliché as much as classic, but I lean towards 'classic.' There's a reason it works so well - mad shrieks in the night, indecipherable ravings scrawled on the walls and the often-horrific things people with degrees and white coats will inflict on those most in need of their help.
Set in this classic cliché, it bases its gameplay in another - the found footage horror movie. In Outlast, you play the person holding the shaky camera, dutifully documenting the terror you've stumbled in to for posterity.
That's so inspired but so obvious for a video game, one wonders why it hasn't been done before. Possibly because the horror genre went largely (not entirely) dormant on the 7th console generation (PS3, 360) before it gained a foothold on the PC in recent years (Outlast dropped on PC last September, and the Amnesia series has been keeping the home fires burning for years).
Like many horror games, the narrative here is peeled back via documents you discover through your exploration - but half of these are written by player-character Upshur himself. If you have the camera pointed at an event or scene - if Upshur has proof - he'll scribble down his thoughts on the evolving mystery, which encourages the player to have the camera up at all times.
Outlast doesn't use it as a mere narrative device - it's terribly functional. The game constantly requires you to stumble your way through pitch-black darkness, with not so much as a shadow to guide you - which is where your camera's infrared light comes in handy.
Ewww. That got too real.
Like the setting, its central mechanic relies on what's worked well historically - and seeing an environment in the eerie green glow of infrared has been creeping people out since Buffalo Bill stalked Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. Heck, even watching the noble lions of the Serengeti becomes chilling when they turn towards the camera at night and you get that evil reflection from the backs of their eyes.
If there is a "survival" aspect to Outlast, it is the batteries your camera consumes, only while infrared mode is active. Batteries drain quickly, and - along with documents to flesh out the narrative - are almost exclusively discovered when you wander off the game's expected path. It consistently rewards you for such exploration, and so the player spends most of the game nervously rifling through broom closets and offices in search of a little double-A or file folder.
The game is a series of similarly wise choices, all equally reverential (and referential) of classic horror. The player-character, for example, is utterly powerless against the demented inmates that stalk him. Your options are to run or die as a giant madman pounds down the hall towards you. The chase itself is intimately prepared, with nice mechanics thrown in like the ability to close doors - which takes a second or two as you zip the camera around, tap the button and slam it before taking off again - but it slows your enemies down as they bash the wood to splinters before resuming their search for you.
Once they've broken a door off its hinges, you can't use it to slow them down a second time - and if they catch sight of you, the chase is on again. As you dash away with an enemy tearing after, Outlast thoughtfully includes the ability to look behind you - trading, for a moment, your ability to gauge what comes next in the chase for the knowledge of how much breathing room you have to spare.
Not every choice indie studio Red Hook (comprised of industry vets) make, here, is the wisest one. Unfortunately, load screens can appear as you, for example, walk down a hallway (?), and while pop-up objectives are terribly handy, they shatter one's suspension of disbelief. Their function could be retained without damaging the atmosphere if Upshur simply wrote them in a journal for the player to discover.
While the game's chases - perhaps its most meaningful sequences of player interaction - are thoughtfully-assembled, there's something pallid about them. From the very first time you hide in a locker and watch a monstrous inmate stalk by, the player gets the sense that Outlast doesn't actually want your enemies to catch you. They can, of course, and you can die via mildly horrific means, but after the first few encounters, the player becomes instilled with confidence when a foe appears at the end of a hallway instead of terror.
The game's pattern emerges - "all I have to do is run away, and if I keep running, I'll find a vent or crack I can squeeze through that my enemy can't."
Take these two beasts, for example. Two of the better villainous characters in the game, you meet them through the bars of a cell block, where they're discussing whether or not to kill you. They stalk you for the rest of the game, and there's one potentially-brilliant moment on a narrow walkway overlooking a large room. As you move forward into the dark, one of them emerges from the shadows in front of you, a machete in one hand.
If you turn around (I'm told) and try to run away, you'll turn smack into the other one, coming up behind you. I didn't, though. I turned to the window, hit the action button and shimmied along a ledge as they discussed how stupid they both were for having lost you.
I love you boys, but you are. You are stupid.
This doesn't stop the game from, largely, achieving its ambition - but it's worth noting that part of its mystery and so, crucially, its ability to immerse the player, can be lost through its buttery-smooth design.
That being said, Outlast is still a first-person game on the PS4 about exploring a totally creepy insane asylum. That, alone, is pretty awesome.
|By this point in the game, the player understands that this fellow's lack of genitals is an artistic choice.|
It has dongs, is what I'm saying. Floppy, uncircumcised dongs. In infrared.
The game's greatest strength is, perhaps, its audio. Turn on some surround sound, put on some 7.1 headphones and the game wraps its icy tendrils of terror around your heart, purely informed by the panicked breathing of Upshur as an enemy stalks past. Even opening and closing the menus is accompanied by a horror-movie sting - just enough to send a chill up your spine before you return to the game - and the game, un-examined and all alone, is an excellent horror experience.
The simple act of feeling your way around in the dark as Upshur struggles to stop himself from screaming, nosing around offices and crypts in suffocating darkness, making sure you check that dead security guard at the end of the hall for the battery in his radio - as a pure exercise, in the moment-to-moment 'play it offers - Outlast is a success.
It's worth noting, its ending sucks. Chamberlain is right, the last hour - which should have been the game's crescendo of pressure and tension - begins by utterly deflating any sense of mystery the game had earned up until that point, and sends you on a frightless fetch quest down brightly-lit hallways in service of the narrative's final, disappointing twist.
It's a good game. In its finer moments - and for most of its duration, in fact - it's a great horror game. The ending?
The ending is stupider than the two boys - but let us not close on that. In its finer moments and almost all of its moment-to-moment gameplay, Outlast is an excellent horror experience. It's not entirely consistent and falters at the finish line, but it remains worth its $20 asking price, and your time.