When I started up Outlast, I suddenly remembered it had been a while since I played one of these super-scary first person horror games. Sure, I played through Amnesia when it came out and I joined the Slender craze with everyone else last summer, but that was the last time. As the criminally reckless journalist that the player controls in Outlast pulls up in his car to an insane asylum atop some Colorado mountain in the middle of the night, I realized I was in for something pretty great. Luckily, this new first-person horror game from developer Red Barrels maintains the illusion through an occasional carefully-scripted scare that's punctuated with a kind of emergent gameplay that ensures that not everyone's experience will be the same.
Outlast stars a nosy and foolhardy journalist named Miles Upshur, who chronicles his descent into insanity in his notebook as he enters the Mount Massive insane asylum and almost immediately is assaulted both with the sights of dead people and then physically by the few grotesquely deformed denizens left alive in it. The game gives Miles no weapons to fight with; all he's got is a camcorder with a woefully weak infrared nightvision mode on it, which allows him to see in the dark - the downside is that it only really makes out shapes several feet in front of him. Even when walking into a darkened small office, you still won't be able to see everything in the room until you walk into it a bit, and larger rooms, well, there could very easily be things lurking in the dark. What's important for a horror game, though, is to have a masterful sense of pacing - scare people too many times in the same ways and it becomes routine and boring.
In this sense, Outlast does a good job mixing up both its big scares and its less-scripted encounters Miles has with the enemies that he can't fight back against. In one section early in the game, I had to turn the power back on by going into a basement and starting three generators, pulling a lever, and then flipping a switch - and there was only one enemy in this rather large, slightly maze-like basement that could catch me during any part of this. He'll come running when he hears you start up any part of the power, and you have places to hide like under a bed or inside a locker, but if you enter room and the enemy sees you, you'll be followed; if you don't get into a hiding spot in time, you'll be yanked out of it and must try to hide again with a few chances before the hits take their toll and kill you. The game gives lots of second chances and checkpoints are pretty liberal, which is good: annoyance and frustration are the quickest ways to derail the fun of a horror game, more so than nearly any other genre.
And so the game falls into an interesting kind of rhythm of exploration, advancement, and dealing with its very evil-looking enemies. Along the way, the player is tasked with finding batteries to power the nightvision mode on the camcorder, requiring a little bit of searching off of the beaten path to hunt for supplies as well as notes strewn throughout the asylum that add an optional backstory. It's in these spots where the player has a little bit of control as far as diving as much into the story and into optional rooms as they want. And what you might be surprised to find is that many of the asylum's denizens won't actually try to kill you. Players won't exactly find them to be meaningful conversationalists, but I do like that some are just so far out of their minds that they don't immediately see the player as a threat that must be eradicated.
Outlast offers a lot for the $20 that the developers are asking: great visuals, a decent story, some solid scares, plenty of checkpoints, and a little bit of openness in both exploration and in dealing with the enemies that can't be fought back against. When put together, this ensures that the game is primarily dealing with fear and not anger, and it's keeping you moving forwards to see more of the horrors of the Mount Massive insane asylum. With a balanced combination of the kind of cheap scares that we love in these games along with exploration and creepy atmosphere that add the depth we demand, Outlast is a winner. And if you're saving your money for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs which comes out in a couple of weeks instead, that's understandable, but they are very different games. In that case, maybe pick up Outlast when it goes on sale on Steam.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final copy of the game provided by the developer over Steam.