The lights are on
I've got to admit- I love Outlast. I don't really know why just yet, as it is quite scary and unforgiving, which aren't exactly my two perfect choices for gameplay, but hey- it's really interesting. There's really not too much gameplay going on other than running away from creepy maniacs wielding knives, and using your camera as your only source of light and vision, and occasionally doing some simple platforming. Honestly, in its own way, there really is no gameplay, or at least not much. It's not like Gone Home or The Walking Dead where things are more interactive than pure action, because Outlast has plenty of action indeed. It's just the fact that most horror game essentials aren't there that make Outlast both a simplistic blessing and an unconventional title. But hey, I guess that's why it's an independently developed title, because most bigtime producers wouldn't be willing to take the risks to make a game like this.
You can't attack your enemies or fight back, you aren't a particularly stealthy person, you aren't honestly any good at platforming- although you can manage at times, and you really shouldn't be in the asylum you're now trapped in. Those are all things that I've come to realize over the last few days, and that have thus far made Outlast an endearing, if a little short, experience for me. When I say that there isn't much in the way of gameplay, I am referring to the fact that all you can really do is run and hop (it's not really a jump so much as a skip). You can't fight your attackers off, and you can't even really sneak around them with much success. I guess that's just what makes Outlast challenging and interactive and realistically scary at the times it needs to be, which, *hint, is pretty much all the time. What's worse, is that I'm not really quite sure whether or not it was intended to be that way, or it was just a matter of budget and time. Either way, it works in its own way, and the experience is all the scarier for it.
You don't need the massive inventory system of the Resident Evil games- you have your camcorder and batteries. You don't need to scrounge for items aside from aforementioned batteries, which are like gold. You don't need a massive open world to explore- you have the creepy Colorado asylum that is big enough to get lost in and small enough to feel claustrophobic at times and with enough differing environments to be refreshing, even if it is always dark. You don't need mini-games- you have too much on your mind just focusing on staying alive without having to deal with crossing wires and connecting the dots. You don't need perks or weapons- you just die when your enemies corner you anyway. You don't need upgrades- there's nothing to upgrade, aside from your camcorder, which already has infrared and night vision, so what more could it possibly need (a longer battery life, maybe?!)? Getting where I'm going with this? Outlast is a game with a simple premise, that many horror games have forgotten over the years as they try to get flashier and flashier- scare you sh**less every time you play.
The game has a text-based exposition, but quickly thrusts you into the heart of your horrific misadventure, which takes place completely within (and without and about) a massive (literally, it's the name) asylum set high in the Colorado mountains. The story is slim, but gradually expands over time as you explore the insides of the insidious nightmare itself, and investigate just what fishy business is going down. The asylum was shut down amid cries of malpractice and scandal in the late seventies, and later reopened in the later months of 2009 by a research company. If that doesn't scream "horror story", then you're as insane as the people who opened it are. (But wait, there's more!) You play as a reporter who, for the sake of the story, doesn't really need a name, but is called Miles- as he investigates the strange goings-on after receiving a tip from a contractor for the research group at the facility. In cliched horror movie format, the dingus falls into what soon becomes- not the "scoop" he thought he would get, but an undeniably horrific and scarring experience of a lifetime.
The moody and oppressive atmosphere and environment should foreshadow all the hell that is to follow your seemingly incognito entrance into the closed up and darkened asylum. Which- by the way, was a terrible idea, especially once you get a look at the conditions of the outside of the place alone, much less the inside. The place seems haunted, although I wouldn't go as far as to say the inhabitants won't be able to harm you, because that would definitely be a mistaken thought. There are blood trails just about everywhere, rambling inmates and patients cursing and huddling, sobbing in corners- when they aren't thirsting for your blood (manic depressive in its extreme format, I suppose), the classic shutting door scare, and jump scares galore, all just waiting for you inside. Don't think the story or gameplay is rooted in the realm of realism either, just because things aren't so high-end as games like Dead Space or Resident Evil- no, there are some truly insane moments here as well. They just don't require massive explosions or over-the-top action to be scarily frantic and tense. Enter: Deranged men with knives jumping out right as lightning strikes. Yes- tense.
To be fair, the majority of the inmates aren't trying to kill you, and are instead striving to survive as well- mainly by staring mutely, while shaking uncontrollably, at their television screens or howling in corners and under beds. You'd almost pity them at times- if you had time, or weren't constantly trying to distance yourself from their slightly more manic compatriots of course. Don't be fooled into thinking all of these pitiful souls are insanely benign, because there are a few conniving predators who will playact as the sobbing victim only to leap onto your back and stab you to death with a glass shard, and then pull your guts out as the omniscient camera watches on in gory detail. Yes, it's moments like this that scare the daylights out of most sane human beings- if you can stomach them, that is. Then of course there's the stereotypical hulking serial killer figure who constantly appears to give you hell and follow you about the asylum, all the while trying to kill you in a variety of fashions. Yeah, he almost makes the Raincoat Killer seem tame by comparison, and far less disfigured anyway.
The gameplay, with its lack of mechanics, is what really gives Outlast its kicks and giggles, and players a hard time and challenge. Your only real defense is to run away from the horrors chasing you, very much like Amnesia, might I add- and with equal success in terms of terror and death, the majority of the time. I don't know what else can get your heart racing and blood pumping faster than suddenly seeing a scarred face poke under the bed and a clawed hand rip your camera away, leaving you practically blind before eviscerating you and feasting on your remains. Quite, quite, quite horrific indeed. Hiding and running are your only two real options in most scenarios, and that can be a turn off for some players, whereas for me, it was nice to just focus a bit on the story and then have some really tense moments present for the majority of the game. It might not be realistic in the sense that most people would find objects to use as weapons and fight back with, but hey- it sure scares you every time to not be able to and to get cornered, knowing that you're totally screwed. Finding that perfect locker or corner where you can break the line of sight of the creatures' chasing you is a godsend and as good a feeling as reaching that bathroom in Dead Rising with one chunk of health left, broken weapons, and no food.
Some of the more detrimental aspects of having limited resources and very little gameplay and virtually no HUD whatsoever are the fact that you literally cannot sneak by enemies due to your noise level, can't track them when trying to avoid them because your line of sight is virtually nonexistent and there is no heads-up on when they appear, and there is no map system with which to chart your progress through the dilapidated hellhole. I get that Red Barrels wanted to craft an Indie, low-key horror experience, but come on! Even the game I would compare it to most (or series, rather), Penumbra, lets you utilize objects to solve environmental puzzles and other such things. Another game very similar in setting and story would be Dementium, but it also allows you to use weapons and other items as well. So, I guess in terms of originality, Outlast is pretty unique, because despite its similarities to Amnesia, it never really lets you use any other items at all.
Another reason the experience is so horrifying is once more because you have no way to successfully navigate through the facility. The place is unfortunately a maze, basically, and when you have missions or goals on the other side of the place or in a certain area, it's pretty improbable that you will be able to find it without stumbling upon the same places or enemies thousands of times. Which could be quite a frustrating experience for most people, even those open to some classic trial and error. Being trapped somewhere with maniacs wielding sharp instruments of your destruction is quite an experience, but even its horrors only hit the tip of the horror iceberg that is not having a navigational tool or technique present, as well as the world being a pretty big one (or seemingly so) to navigate without a map. You might also want to note that you will almost always be scrounging for spare batteries with which to power your camcorder, a la Alan Wake's flashlight. As annoying as this might seem, they are pretty abundant, and the only trouble comes from when you either unexpectedly run into an enemy and have to hide so long that your batteries die and you are left in the pitch black, or when you don't pay attention to your camera's life and it goes off unexpectedly. Yeah, that sucks. The good thing is, for all these mundane tasks and seemingly boring thoughts of exploration, there are certain setpiece moments such as mini explosions and homicidal maniacs dropping from the rafters.
Don't ask what the above substance is, but my guess is its not kool-aid, or water, for that matter... While it is quite true that many aspects of gameplay were seemingly sacrificed in the production process, I'm glad that Outlast was made the way it was, instead of maybe incorporating combat or something into it, and then it sucking and ruining the aesthetics and atmospheric experience. What it might lack for substance, it really makes up for in originality and fast-paced terror. It has its moments where it is stuck in the doldrums, but for every one of those, there are two or three scares that leave you shaking and hiding in some closet for minutes to come, hoping that the prowler that you stumbled into has gone away, but not knowing for sure until you step out of your sanctuary...
I'll admit, it might not be every gamer's cup of tea, but Outlast is a very fun and terrifying game, if that's your thing. Especially if you want a more retro, classic experience, with the updated looks of a current generation game. It gets a check in each box.
Concept: Taking a few cues from classic horror titles, as well as from movies such as Rec. and V.H.S, Outlast proves to be a terrifying and adrenaline inducing experience on the whole.
Graphics: The environments, while very similar in most parts, all look pretty good, and match with the mood. The characters, however, are pretty much all hairless, buffed up miscreants and murderers. But that's alright, because you're probably going to be too busy running anyway, rather than engrossed in the "beautiful" animations of an inmate ripping your guts out of your throat.
Sound: There isn't a score so much as there is a chaotic blend of high pitched whining, low moaning, distant- and close screams, terrible grating noises, thunderous crashes, and meaty chomping and slicing or flesh. It's horrifically engrossing, but if you're playing at night, I'd recommend going with the volume off. It's scary enough without it.
Playability: There aren't really any controls to complain about, seeing as how there are essentially only three anyway- pulling up and putting away your camcorder, running or walking (mostly running), and occasionally hopping low barriers with monsters in pursuit.
Entertainment: I hope you like atmospheric scarefests, because you've just paid for one if you purchased this game. Oh, your friend told you it was a platforming game for kids? How mistaken you were in trusting him...
Replay Value: Moderate.
Overall Score: 8.5
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