Darkness. You wait, crouched under some bed you found at the last minute. You hear steps, but cannot make out where they’re coming from as your heartbeat and your breath echo deafeningly loud in your ears. You only know that whoever, whatever, is roaming out there comes closer, comes for you. Your heart beats faster, your breathing distorts to a wailing as fear threatens to overwhelm you. You pull out your camera to peek at your surroundings and in the greenish, unreal view of the night vision feature you see two legs, slowly approaching…
Welcome to Mount Massive Asylum. Welcome to Outlast
First of all: Bad news, guys: You don’t get to shoot stuff in this game. Or blow stuff up. Or even punch someone. There is basically nothing you can do except running away and hiding under the bed like the little bunny you are. Oh, and you get to film stuff. Mostly bloody, disgusting or plainly disturbing (and disturbed) things. I will not go into detail here about the storyline of this game, that’s for you to discover on your own. Let me just say this: You are a journalist who was tipped off about something weird going on in a psych ward and you’re there because … well, you go to where the story is, right? And if the story happens to be in a building full of blood and you really should have known better in the first place, well, you kind of had it coming.
As said above, you have very few basic actions at your disposal to reveal what’s happening and of course to survive: You can run, you can vault over things, climb into vents and crouch under beds and you can film things with your night vision camera which will become the most crucial tool in the game as you will have to pass large areas that are completely dark. And there are also things living in there. Most of them want to hurt you. Hence the hiding and running away. To make it worse the batteries of your cam last for about two minutes in night vision mode so additional to outrunning and outsmarting the bloodthirsty inmates you will have to explore the area to find more or you’re gonna be really screwed.
Sounds fun, right?
If you haven’t played it so far and you want to one day, do not read further!
You have been warned.
So, as the concept of running away and hide instead of killing stuff sounds quite interesting to begin with, you wouldn’t expect that game to get to you that much. Example? Sure: When I played it for the first few hours (lights off, headphones on as is customary for someone who is NOT a chicken) I was trying to listen to footsteps in an adjacent room. I was doing that for quite a while and really concentrated to hear the sound when my cat pushed his nose against my face from the very same direction that sound was coming from… I swear, I never jumped off my chair that quickly. Ever.
So, what the hell? Why is this so freaking scary?
The game uses very standard visual means of creating horror. Lots of blood and gore, the night vision camera surely is a nice and scary idea as everything looks pretty unreal with it, light flickers, there is lightning and thunder, the asylum theme is kind of a classic, too, you’ll have your usual shocker moments like ghastly things jumping you from the dark, doors slamming in your face, ghostly visions, this sort of things … nothing we haven’t seen a million times in horror movies. Bad horror movies I might add.
The things that really get you are far beyond the visual: One of them is the sound. You’re being overflodded with layers and layers of ambient sound: Something is cracking, there is whispering or screaming in the distance, the flickering lights, water is dripping from somewhere, footsteps, wind, rain… Everything is very subtle though, you will not notice all of it right away, but all of it means something. This is not just random ambience. What they actually try to emulate here at times (I guess) is the lack of sound – like when you’re at a really, really, quiet place and you start to hear the blood rush in your ears because your brain just cannot handle no sound. So your breathing and heartbeat are so tremendously loud that you will focus on that a lot more and that goes straight to your subconscious. You will actually start to synch your own heartbeat to that. Which is freaking scary – well, until the moment you figure that out. (Told you, there will be spoilers in here!)
It’s also practically impossible to move silently. The effect resembles those times when you sneak in late at night after your curfew, trying to be really quiet and you hear every floorboard crack as if you just started a box of firecrackers.
Flooding the player with sound isn’t actually a new idea though. The Dead Space series did it – and failed gloriously, because nothing of the stuff you hear means anything. It’s just an annoying carpet of wanna-be creepy noises that actually starts to destroy the atmosphere – not that there was much of it to begin with which I assume is why they tried shoving it down your throat that this is supposed to be a scary game … or something. Like: Whoa, you need to dismember things AND stomp on their corpses that’s like really totally badass! Oh, and let’s make a bunch of random noises, too, so really everyone gets it!
You don’t get to dismember stuff in Outlast – stuff gets to dismember you. And there is nothing you can do about that. The game leaves you with a profound feeling of helplessness. In every other game or movie of the genre you will eventually find something to defend yourself with pretty quickly. Let’s take F.E.A.R. for instance. The beginning is basically the same – abandoned place, lots of blood and lots of creepy things going on. Both games use the same visual methods of building up that atmosphere – things jumping at you, weird sounds, unreal visions, blurring the line between reality and hallucination, making the player question if what he sees is actually happening or not. In F.E.A.R. you get to shoot the things that haunt you (well, some of them). You won’t do that in Outlast. Instead you will spend long hours hiding in lockers (You might want to take a picture of your face when they start searching there, too!) or under the bed, listening to the noises of your surroundings and your pursuers to determine when it’s safe to come out. (Hint: It never is.)
Again, the key concept behind this game is helplessness and they’re really pushing it – very rarely to the point where it gets annoying. You will however learn to adapt to that as certain patterns begin to show. There are limits to the (pretty crafty) AI which you can use to sneak past them, you will spend a lot of time listening and observing their movement patterns (like you did in the Thief games) and you will eventually stop being scared – until the next thing jumps at you when you least expect it.
So, do I like it?
Yes, I definitely do. In order to do that too you will have to be open to the idea of being helpless most of the time. If you’re the guy who wants to be the hero then this game is not for you. It requires you to accept and embrace the fact that you will not be able to defend yourself as much as you want to and that you cannot just shoot yourself out of a sticky situation. And you will have to be patient. Very, very patient.
(Plus, after a few tweaks courtesy of the devs it also runs fine on my not-a-gaming-PC which is definitely a point in their favour!)
Here are the few things I didn’t like too much: The character design. Some of the main antagonists do not even remotely resemble human beings. One in particular looks as if the character artist was given the instruction to create something demonic on two legs. While the inmates are supposed to be somewhat physically distorted this particular one is way too much. He is also the one guy that really annoyed me as he seems to be everywhere – against all reason. (But maybe that mystery will unfold later in the story, who knows.) There is also the – very small – issue of repetitive tasks you have to fulfill in order to advance. Basically every wing of the building you enter has some sort of technical problem which requires you to find stuff to fix that. Turn two valves, find two fuses, find a keycard – especially the keycards are really – for the lack of a better term – lame. You will always run into antagonists while doing that – usually the annoying guy I mentioned above and after the third time it gets a bit boring, especially if you’re a bit further along in the game and are not scared so easily anymore. But that’s about it.
So, essentially: Yes, this game is scary as hell and it’s quite awesome if you’re open-minded about it and let it drag you into its nightmarish atmosphere. It works through the carefully designed sound carpets and classic horror movie visuals with the key element of throwing the player in a situation of complete and utter helplessness which will dissolve after a bit of playing and understanding the mechanics behind it – then it turns into a stealth game with smart AI. So: fun!
Tl;dr: Scary game. Use headphones.