Last week when I reviewed Alien: Isolation, I referenced another game that a friend had told me about, that had a similar scare factor. I didn’t quite flesh out what I was talking about, so for the sake of this review I will now elaborate…
In late 2013, a gaming buddy of mine told me about a game that had been released and was causing quite a stir. He said it was a new kind of horror, along the lines of the Penumbra series, where you couldn’t run around and hoist up shotguns or assault rifles when you ran into the evil entities; you were unarmed. Your only weapons were your wits, quick-thinking, and ability to run and (hopefully) choose a good hiding spot. The things hunting you would then chase after you and, if you didn’t lose them, rifle through lockers, or peek under beds in an effort to locate you.
He’d said that he tried playing it, and after about twenty or so minutes, simply quit. But not before guiding Outlast’s main protagonist, intrepid journalist Miles Upshur, back to the beginning of the game’s starting area, where he tried to jump into his car and leave. He explained that he was just role-playing, and that since Miles had become so frightened at a certain point in his investigation of the sprawling Mount Massive asylum, he’d reached his breaking point and just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. He said that Outlast was the most unnerving thing he’d ever experienced in PC gaming.
I snorted and sniggled at his account, much to the chagrin of said friend. Slightly miffed, he then explained to me that his brother, who is more of a manly man’s man like me (and undercover geek), also attempted to play the game; with similar results. He made it a little farther in, but just couldn’t rally the nerve to go past a certain point. Although I giggled at this as well, this time he had me thinking; if his macho brother couldn’t bring himself to get too far into Outlast, then just maybe there was something about the game that was unusual.
A few weeks later, my untamable curiosity got the best of me and I purchased the game. From the get-go I knew that something was different about it. The stark and ominous title screen gave way to an account of Miles receiving an anonymous tip that strange things are happening at the recently re-opened Mount Massive mental ward.
Miles drives up to the asylum one storming evening, and after gaining entry to the grounds, finds that the security gatehouse’s bar falls down into place behind him, locking him in. From there, the player is given a short tutorial on some of the game’s main elements such as the use of Miles’ main tool, his trusty camcorder (which runs out of battery power constantly), and his ability to collect notes which shed light into some of the backstory, and camcorder batteries.
From there, as Miles seeks to find a way into the creepy building, the player become acquainted with the main movement controls such as kneeling, climbing, and jumping. What really struck me is that after I finally gained entry, through unprofessional means, into the asylum, I was treated to a new level of immersion that was beyond just seeing a nicely rendered shadow of my character. Looking down I saw Miles’ feet move individually, and as I leaned around the door frame of the first room I’d explored and down a darkened hallway, I could see his hands braced against it. His breathing would become more exasperated as he looked out at the unknown, just as someone would do in real life as they became increasing uncomfortable. It really feels as though you are in Miles’ shoes, for better or for worse.
I can only describe the actual gameplay as being an experience in sheer, nerve-fraying terror. For example (spoiler alert!), I remember a certain scene where I’d made it down into a basement area. I could hear the pathetic cries of tortured, restrained patients, as a demonic doctor sharpened his knives somewhere, muttering malevolent things.
The doc had heard me in the dark, and I crouched down behind a gurney, trying to hide. My camcorder was held up (it features night vision) and so I could see my hunter scanning around in an attempt to locate me. Suddenly, he stopped and looked directly at me; I could see his glowing eyes in the dark. He couldn’t see me but he could sense that I was there. He slowly began to approach me…
I’d been so preoccupied with the doctor’s actions, that I forgot to monitor the camcorders battery power level, and it promptly shut down. Just great! At that point I didn’t know where the doc was in relation to me, so I just took off running like a bat out of hell. I haphazardly shoved another battery into my camcorder as I ran terrified down hallways, looking back over my shoulder. I slammed doors behind me, pushed objects up against them, and hid like a frightened wee-lad under a bed.
Between the sparse, atmosphere music filled with ominous, impending dread, and Miles’ incessant whimpering and disrupted breathing sounds, I realized right then and there that my gaming friends had been wise after all to spare themselves of this level of horror. But it was so damn good! Soon, the door to the room began to splinter as my antagonist thrust his blood-caked blades into it over and over and over again, like in the iconic “Johnny’s Home” scene out of The Shining.
The graphics are spot-on for what I’d imagine they should be in a hyper-creepy horror game; they are gritty and slightly grainy, and lend a 70s grindhouse cinema appeal to the proceedings. In 4k they are even more immersive, making you feel as though you are playing through a horror movie. The aural dimensions are also fully realized, with sparse sounds such as creaking boards and indescribable ambient sounds in the background. The music is never intrusive, and periods of contemplative quiet are suddenly encroached upon by gradual tones, giving a sense that something foreboding is about to happen.
Look on the web and you’ll see that it is highly suggested that you play Outlast with the lights out and a pair of good headphones wrapped around your dome. I attempted to do this a few times but found myself taking frequent breaks. I usually ended up with the lights on, nervously looking around my room. “It’s just a game,” I kept murmuring to myself, “That’s all it is…a game…”
If you have the stomach for a genuinely frightening and unique horror experience, then by all means, try Outlast. I am a little hesitant, however, in praising the game and suggesting that people play it, since I don’t quite sit well with feeling responsible for people jumping out of their pants in their darkened rooms. Quite simply Outlast is one macabre PC gaming masterpiece, and one that triple A gaming companies are now feverishly trying to duplicate.
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