**This review originally appeard on Gamers Sphere, another site I write for**
Outlast is outstanding, and this is coming from a player who had never finished a true horror game before attempting Outlast. In fact, the only two other “horror” games I have ever played were Resident Evil 5, on which I think we can all agree was not scary at all, and Slender: The Eight Pages, which I never finished. Outlast, despite the fact that it scared me more times that I would like to admit, still managed to keep me coming back for more even though most of me never wanted to see the inside of Mount Massive Asylum ever again. In a nutshell, Outlast is the most suspenseful, intense game I have ever played. Its realism astounded me because I felt like I was truly on the run from a real enemy who could kill me at any moment; I was always fully immersed in the action. Outlast is one of my favorite games of all time, despite its few, very minor flaws. I’m insanely glad that I overcame my fear of the unknown to finish this masterpiece, and I cannot wait for an Outlast 2, if it is ever announced.
Outlast put me in the shoes of Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter who takes on the stories others will not attempt to cover. His current task is to find out more about what’s going on inside the Mount Massive Insane Asylum, which is run by the Murkoff Corporation. Apparently, some weird stuff has been going on there, but it’s been very mysterious, so there isn’t much information to be had. Miles is sent in with a notebook, a press pass, and a camcorder with night vision. His job is to find out what he can about the current state of the asylum, and he must report back with his findings so that the anticipated corruption can be exposed.
It seems like a cliche “I’m going to get to the bottom of this” approach, and maybe it is. But from these simple beginnings, things get worse… fast. Instant cues that something is up would be that a) Miles is going in at night, during a storm b) the only way to get into the asylum is through a window, which requires climbing up scaffolding to get to, and c) the fact that the interior is falling apart, phones are off their hooks, TVs are showing static, and furniture is broken, and books are strewn everywhere. Basically, entropy took place, big time.
After walking in and out of rooms, I finally make my way down to the end of the hall, where the only way to continue is to jump into an AC vent that’s dripping blood and guts. Cool. I slide through the vent, hop out, and open a door next to me where I get my first jumpscare and I also see a dying man screaming at me as he slowly bleeds out on the spike he’s been impaled with. He warns me to get out before the Variants get me. I don’t have much time to contemplate what he means because within a minute or so, a big mutant I call Big Pig (really called Chris Walker, apparently) freaks the crap out of me and throws me off a balcony and onto the floor below where I black out after being visited by a presumably insane “priest” who goes by the name Father Martin. He refers to me as an apostle, sent to him. Wow. Everything I described in this paragraph took place in a span of about 10 minutes, and that’s just the introduction. Another 6 hours of scary, bizarre stuff follows this insane opening.
The storyline is very engaging, and I really won’t go into more detail than what I’ve already given since the storyline is a huge aspect (the focal point, really) of Outlast. I want so badly to just spill the beans to you all, but you need to experience the game in order to fully appreciate it all. Let it just be said that the storyline was full of surprising twists and turns, especially within the last hour or so. There were so many unexpected moments that caught me completely off guard; I was amazed.
My only complaint about the storyline itself would be that there were a couple of occasions where it became a bit tedious; it seemed like it became a “go here, then go there,” game. Really, though, this cannot be considered a legitimate issue because most of the re-routing was plausible. For example, there was one point where I had to try to escape by making it through the showers. When something happened (being specifically vague here) to change my current objective from “escape through the showers” to “find an alternate route through the showers” I was torn between being irritated at being senselessly rerouted and being understanding in the fact that this is what would most likely happen in reality, given said situation. I hope this makes sense to you. Although the storyline sometimes became a game of finding alternate routes, it would be the most likely scenario in reality that you would encounter major hindrances, especially if giant foes are constantly trying to kill you, forcing you to reroute. The only time I could honestly say that the rerouting was a mood killing flaw was when Father Martin sent me on a couple of irritating missions that seemed to be there simply to stretch out the game. However, I did receive more story development along the way, so it somewhat made up for it in the end.
The story developed in an interesting fashion; it was somewhat two-pronged. On one hand, the main point of Outlast was that I needed to escape. On the other hand, I also am a reporter who is supposed to gather information as to what’s going on in the asylum, so there’s a secondary story as well. This story unfolds through notes written by Miles as he records footage through his camcorder, documents that he finds lying around throughout the asylum, and tidbits of information written on the walls (usually in blood) or explained by inmates or other characters. This passive take on storytelling required me to put thought into the storyline. Rather than having an NPC spout off information, literally explaining the storyline in front of me, I was forced to put two and two together to realize that X and Y had a relation. Next thing you know, I’m sitting there like “holy crap, is this really happening right now?” It was like solving a mystery as the mystery simultaneously unfolds right in front of my eyes in a glorious, almost indescribably fascinating fashion.
Outlast puts a focus on recording events through the camcorder and collecting documents. If one does not do this, they will likely be confused when certain events happen in the game, especially later on. This is what I mean when I say it’s a two-pronged story. You can go through the game without collecting any documents; you just won’t have any idea what’s going on. This requires the player to put effort into advancing the story and makes them active in figuring out what’s going on. Then, when the player realizes who or what they’re seeing, or they make an inference as to whether or not this thing is the same as what was described in that document… it’s fulfilling to say the least. This is part of the luster that made me want to come back to Outlast constantly. Rather than having my hand held through the story, I was taking an active role in advancing my understanding, and this magnified my insatiable desire to learn more about the asylum and the characters mentioned, such as Big Pig and Father Martin.
Making the game (and storyline) even more immersive and convincing was the fact that the voice acting was spot on. I never felt like any of the main characters were flat or boring; they all had their own distinctive personalities, from cocky and arrogant to insane to bloodthirsty. There was one character in particular that was voiced so brilliantly that despite my terrible situation at the time, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how much I appreciated him for being original. As Miles writes in his notes after an encounter with this sadistic, humorous freak, “Talks like a white collar business school douchebag, probably has a set of golf clubs in the trunk of his Audi.” My favorite line in the whole game; just saying. I may as well mention that the writing is spectacular as well. Great writing goes hand in hand with amazing voice acting to bring a storyline to life. Outlast does this magnificently.
There really are no legitimate “cutscenes” in Outlast. Rather, the important strings of dialogue happen within the game as it plays out; Outlast never cuts away from the gameplay to show a video clip that you have to watch or choose to skip. Again, this creates a seamless, immersive experience. Now that I’ve spent about a thousand words describing the amazing storyline of Outlast, let’s move on to something new: the gameplay and controls.
The gameplay is completely pacifist; Miles does not fight, he cannot wield a weapon, and his only defense is to run and hide. Playing hide and seek with twisted, demented, emaciated men is actually a lot more fun and suspenseful than one might think. Honestly, making me run and hide was very different for me; I can’t say I’ve ever played a game where I had to avoid combat. I’m so used to attacking enemies and winning that running like a chicken felt so different… it felt real. I guess if I were Miles, I’d do the same thing; there’s no way I’m fighting Big Pig! I’m going to hide under a bed too!
Running and hiding was amazing because it really created a sense of urgency. Oftentimes, I would think to myself “quick; which way should I turn?” I’d slide under a bed and hope for the best. Other times, I’d panic, and I’d hope my evasive maneuvers would be enough to lose whoever was chasing me. The most genuine, original experience came in the showerhouse. Machete Twin 1 (my name for him) was standing in front of me, slowly walking toward me with a big knife in his hand. As you might see in a movie, I slowly backed away, never taking my eye off him. Then, before I knew what was going on, I was slumped on the floor dead; Machete Twin 2 had been behind me all along, waiting for me to run. It caught me off guard and threw me for a loop; I really was never safe! I hadn’t expected to be so deftly cornered by a couple of brain-dead twins. I was impressed.
While I’m on this tangent, I must add that there were only about 12-18 enemies in the entire game, and some ran in groups of two or 3. Since guys like Machete Twins and Big Pig pursued me multiple times during the game, I would say I only had about 15 encounters with enemies. I’m being honest when I say that. They were spaced out perfectly that I always had to fear being chased, but I wasn’t constantly on the run, either. It was a great, happy medium. Each encounter felt intense and organic since they weren’t so frequent that they became old hat or tiring; I loved that about Outlast.
The amazing controls make this sense of immersion and realism possible. Opening doors, looking over my shoulder while on the run, sliding under beds, and vaulting obstacles all felt smooth and sleek. I never had to fight or fumble with the controls; they always performed well. I loved having the ability to lean right or left; I could simply peek my head around a corner to see if somebody was after me. I have no complaints at all with the controls, and I am very thankful that there are several control schemes to choose from, since I could move the “reload battery” button to the square button, just like my control scheme in Battlefield 4.
The HUD in Outlast is nearly nonexistent. The default screen is clear; all you see is what Miles sees. There are no gauges, meters, or radars. The only HUD comes in when you lift the camcorder to your eye. Then, you see a focus reticle, like a camcorder would have. You also see an indicator showing your battery life, how long you’ve been recording, and how many batteries you have left. It’s very minimal, and again, it adds to the senses of realism and immersion. I am seeing exactly what Miles would see without having any information that only an omniscient being would have, such as ammo counters and health bars.
Furthermore, the audio and sound effects really add to the realism. When I walk on tile, it sounds different than when I walk on wood, and when I’m walking in the AC vent, it sounds different as well. Unlike a lot of games where a footstep sounds the same on all materials, there are distinct sounds for each material in Outlast. To show the attention to detail, there was one spot where I hopped out of an AC vent and onto the top of a row of lockers. On the top of the lockers was a piece of plywood, but it only covered part of the ledge. When I would stand to the left, I would hear a metallic clank; it is where my feet would hit the surface of the locker. Then, if I moved to the right, the sound was more muffled since I was on the plywood. I stood there for a few seconds just walking back and forth because I was astounded to this attention to detail; little things like that make all the difference.
When I run, my stamina indicator is presented through my own labored breathing. If I’m huffing and puffing, I’m almost to the end of my sprint, and I have to calm down. Also, when Miles is in an especially harrowing situation, he’ll find it hard to catch his breath; I’ll hear him sucking in breath with choppy inhales and exhales due to the nerves. Oddly enough, these are the same situations where I instinctively don’t want to proceed because I’m scared as well. If somebody is chasing me and I hide under a bed, for example, I’ll likely hear him gasping for breath. Again, details like this make it so immersive.
My only complaint in the audio department comes from the soundtrack. The soundtrack isn’t very obvious until the game gets suspenseful. Jaws-like music plays when Miles is running from a foe, and this is an audio cue that something bad is happening. Sometimes, I’ll know I’m being chased before I even see the guy because I can hear the chase music. The problem is that it gets loud; ear piercingly loud. I’ll hear my footsteps, the yells from my pursuer, and Miles’ labored breathing. In order to be heard well above that, the music must be insanely loud, or so the developers thought. It became obnoxious, and I couldn’t stand to have the sound that high, even when the rest of the game was mainly quiet.
Graphically, Outlast isn’t a standout. This isn’t to say that the game fails; it does just fine. It’s just not great. I suppose playing on my PS4, I expected to be blown away, but once I take into consideration the small team that put this game together, it can be justified a bit. The one thing that annoyed me about the game, graphically, was the lack of character models. There are only a few character models, so it looks like I’m seeing the same inmates a dozen times apiece over the course of my adventure. Again, I suppose this can be forgiven, but it’s really my only complaint in the graphics department, which is to say that there’s nothing really wrong with it. There are no untextured locations, no graphical glitches, etc.
My only other complaint with the game as a whole is that there was one loose end that made no sense to me. At one point, I made my way into the Female Ward. I assumed I would see emaciated women crawling around like I did men in the Male Ward. Nope; there wasn’t a single female to be found in the whole game. In fact, the Female Ward was inhabited by men instead! From a logical standpoint, I think there should have been female NPCs, especially in the Women’s Ward. I found documents telling about women who used to reside there, but there are no other traces that a female ever set foot in Mount Massive Insane Asylum. It created an unexplainable inconsistency in the game, and it annoyed me because it would have been easily fixable. For example, Red Barrels could have designated Mount Massive as a male-only facility, thus eliminating the need for a Female Ward, female characters, etc. It would have made a lot more sense this way, and the game would not have possessed this glaring inconsistency created by not following through with the inclusion of females.
So really, the only things I have to complain about are the lack of female NPCs, a lack of varied character models, Father Martin’s annoying time-wasting mission, and the occasional spike in sound volume. Given that most of these were either minor issues, or issues that didn’t really affect the game itself, I would say this is a pretty good scorecard when compared to all the aspects I absolutely loved about Outlast. It is truly an amazing experience that everyone should try, regardless of their view on horror. I’ve never played any game so suspenseful, and I’m very glad that I steeled myself and experienced what Outlast had to offer. For this, I give Outlast a 9 out of 10; it is truly a remarkable game.
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