Night has fallen as investigative journalist Miles Upshur drives up to the gates of the imposing Mount Massive Asylum. With “dark” covered, it only remains for “stormy” to follow – which it soon will. Alerted by an anonymous tip to unbecoming goings-on at the asylum under the watch of the unscrupulous Murkoff Corporation, Miles is determined to get to the bottom of things. However, as he makes his way into the eerily quiet building it doesn’t take long for him – and the player – to get the feeling that indeed, something has gone seriously awry with the standard of patient care. Someone needs to make a call to OSH.
Welcome to Outlast, a first-person survival horror game that aims to do only one thing: scare your pants off. Zombie-blasting combat junkies need not apply though, for Miles is armed only with a notebook, camcorder, and what turns out to be a useful level of athleticism. Fighting what he finds in Mount Massive is not an option; hiding from it will do in a pinch; but perhaps more than anything else, Outlast is about running. Not mere running, though, but the more specific art of Running Away.
The environment of the asylum is seriously disquieting. Even outside the main doors on arrival, it’s evident that things aren’t right, and it only takes a blood stain and a rattling door to start pulling the player’s nerves out into a long, taut string. This gives the inevitable but nonetheless effective jump scares maximum impact. Worse sights than rattling doors will follow though, as Miles is drawn inexorably deeper into the gory bedlam that Mount Massive has become, all of which is rendered in marvellously fine and grisly detail by the excellent graphical presentation.
Abandoned workstation monitors lend dark rooms just the right ambient electronic glow, cracked and blistered paint looks like you could reach out and flake some off with a finger, and viscera gleams wetly on floors – when there is light enough to see it by.
Fortunately, Miles’ camcorder has night vision, and much game play time is spent peering nervously into corners and inching down hallways via its otherworldly green glow (another accomplished visual effect). Film makers have already exploited the night vision/handicam look to notably scary effect, and it turns out that it’s no less effective in a game. Using the camera’s zoom down a hallway and suddenly picking out a glowing pair of eyes approaching in the inky distance sends a shiver down the spine each time.
Night vision mode requires batteries though, without which it dimly illuminates just a metre or two directly ahead – a distinctly nerve-racking state of affairs. Batteries are scattered about here and there, but the persistent fear of running out of them ever completely recedes. Documents are also strewn about, and some provide the backstory of what has gone so horribly wrong at Mount Massive. Elsewhere, in-engine cutscenes move the story along without losing the player’s sense of immersion.
And what the player is immersed in is pretty horrific. Outlast is most definitely not a game for the kids, or the fragile. The nature of Miles' encounters with other beings are unpredictable, and this nicely keeps the player on edge. He may be defenseless, but the man knows how to hurdle a bed, and several set-piece chase sequences that send him bolting full tilt into the darkness ahead are utterly exhilarating. In a minor stroke of genius, a “glance over your shoulder while running” function is included, which can be heart-attack inducing to use, but hard to resist.
Smart level design in these sequences also avoids the frustrating trial and error play so often seen in other game chases. There are few actual dead ends or wrong turns, but instead a constant feeling that one might suddenly appear out of the darkness.
In more open sections, Miles can look for a bolthole, sliding under a bed or table or into a locker to hide, and his terrified, stifled breathing therein is just one aspect of the game's excellent sound design.
However, staying hidden in Outlast’s more staged cat-and-mouse sequences is difficult. In particular, inmates have a suspicious fondness for lurking around the very area Miles needs to get to.
This often leads to a frustrating cycle of approach, get detected, run away, hide, repeat – and it’s amazing how even being pursued through a dark asylum by a murderer can become humdrum if repeated often enough.
The solution is often just to leap out in front of the would-be murderer, have him chase you off to more distant rooms, and then lose him with a Scooby Doo-like manoeuvre around a piece of furniture. This unfortunately results in the death of tension and suspension of disbelief far more frequently than it leads to the death of Miles, and as such, these sequences become a massive chore to get through. It’s also a little disappointing that the ending of the game undercuts its own hard work and settles for something a little more familiar.
Even so, Outlast succeeds memorably in its aim of terrorising gamers, so if you don’t like to be scared, this is not the game for you. It’s difficult to face the idea of taking Miles through his ordeal for a second time, but I’d be tempted by an Outlast driving sim spin-off: an alternative universe version of events where Miles pulls up to the gates of the asylum, takes one look at the place, promptly turns the car around and goes home.