It’s finally here. After waiting months for a chance to play it I finally have. Praise be to the Walrider I’ve finally played “Outlast”. Released last year on PC, I bought the game on Steam only to discover my laptop couldn’t run it in a way anyone would describe as “smooth”; I even wrote an article about it. I was eagerly anticipating the game since its very first trailer: horror and stealth are my two favourite genres in games. Add in an interesting mechanic in the form of the game’s video camera and some screenshots showing one hell of a villain (the one shown above) and I was all set. Only I couldn’t play it. Fortunately I knew it was coming out on PS4 in Q1 of 2014, and that it would be free for Playstation Plus subscribers. So I bided my time, patiently waiting to 1. Get a PS4 and 2. Have access to Outlast. Well the wait ended on Wednesday 5th February. So here it is: my review of “Outlast”, and my first review of a PS4 game.
“Outlast” is a horror game in the same vein as “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” in that it prioritises stealth and evasion to the point where it has no combat system. Get spotted by the enemies here and you’ll have to employ a mixture of sprinting away like you’re re-enacting the opening of “Trainspotting” and hiding like… well like you’re hiding in the dark from a lunatic armed with a pipe. Unlike Amnesia however, there are no real puzzles or the like to solve- the focus of the game is moving to the next area, sneaking around enemies, and sometimes seeking out a few switches or valves to aid in your passage to the next area. Now that may sound sparse in terms of gameplay, but it really doesn’t feel that way, as I’ll get into shortly. Point is, this is pure horror- it’s come to slap modern gaming across the face, scream at it and let it know that horror games are making a come back. It’s basically doing the job that everyone seems to think “The Evil Within” is going to do. Only far better.
The game’s story and visual design are top notch, as are the tone and atmosphere it creates. You are Miles Upshur- a young, brave/stupid/hey he’s being controlled by you so it’s your fault Journalist who, after a tip from an inside source, breaks into Mount Massive Asylum to investigate claims of corruption and horrific experiments. From there it’s a pretty breakneck descent into gory, bleak-as-hell madness as Miles is forced to go deeper and deeper into the asylum, confronted by all manner of terrible things. The story is told in two main ways: backstory on the asylum and what went on before you arrived is handled in collectible documents scattered throughout the world, and events happening here and now are documented in Miles’ notebook, provided you film certain things with your video camera (more on that in a moment). It’s a good way to do it- you can miss certain documents but still get a good idea of what’s going on, and getting more documents means you get a decent amount of extra information, all of which is well-written. Mount Massive Asylum is beautifully crafted- battered corpses, blood pools and various organs are all over the place, and every area has a great sense of macabre to it that fits the genre perfectly. The asylum is physically incredibly dark and foreboding, with the few respites you get still managing to feel unsafe thanks to the game’s visual style, music and the fact that you often don’t know whether the people you encounter are hostile. Yes, in a brilliant change from the norm, not every patient in the asylum bears you ill will, and if they do then they aren’t necessarily going to attack you. Apart from a couple of – for a lack of a better word – “boss” characters whose sole purpose is to hunt you down and kill you, a lot of the patients will act in ways varying from completely ignoring you, through spouting gibberish or indeed attacking you at random. Some will act as “enemies” and patrol with weapons, attacking you on sight. The point is, you often don’t know who’s going to do what until they’ve acted, and by then it could be too late. It’s a brilliant touch that really fits the tone of an asylum where the inmates have all been left to their own devices, and it’s refreshing to see a game where not all mentally ill people are violent psychopaths. The game is consistently creepy and every encounter is filled with dread. It’s a proper horror game- and it revels in it. The story goes to a slightly odd place right at the end, but I felt it worked- the story really builds up to its conclusion, and although I still had some questions, everything I saw made sense in the context of the story.
Now, the gameplay side of things. As I mentioned before, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of “Game” elements, per se. Sure, it’s an actual videogame with gameplay and challenges and not some David Cage interactive movie bullshit, but it is, how should I put this… streamlined, to a certain extent. The only pick-ups are batteries for your camera. You have regenerating health, and the only time an objective becomes more complex than moving to a different area is when it asks you to turn two valves or press three switches. The game is often broken up into sections with more neutral patients and exploration, and finding said valves and switches while an enemy patrols the area. This enemy is at most times Chris Walker- a huge, self-mutilating ex-MP and star of the game’s PSN dashboard art who is completely relentless and capable of tearing your body off. Not your head. He holds you by the neck and tears your body off. Seriously. The one tool in your arsenal to really help against your pursuers is Miles’ video camera, which comes with a battery-draining night vision mode that acts as the game’s flashlight. This is easily the game’s most unique and best-implemented feature. Not only does it add to the atmosphere- drenching everything in an eerie green glow and illuminating areas while not giving you full clarity in dark areas – it enables you to keep tabs on enemies in the area and plan your movements around them, adding a layer of strategy to proceedings that really helps. It also means that you can effectively hide in most dark areas, as you can see enemies but they can’t see you- making running away and hiding a valid tactic, particularly as enemies will have a hard time keeping up with you and tracking you in pitch-black areas. The enemy A.I can be very forgiving, at times bordering on stupid, but given the genre I find this to be fair. Of course you can bump up the difficulty levels if you feel the game lacks challenge. Overall although the gameplay can and has been described as a “haunted house simulator”, I really feel this doesn’t do the game justice at all. It’s challenging, rewarding and the stealth is good, particularly when coupled with the game’s superb horror sensibilities.
Any problems? Well, one or two. The aforementioned A.I had a couple of issues in which I sprinted right behind enemies’ backs (close enough to reach out and touch them) and they didn’t react at all, and one time I ran into Chris Walker (in an attempt to spring past him as he was clearly about to discover me) only to die for no apparent reason. Also the pause menu’s save function does NOT manually save the game anywhere, but instead saves progress to the last auto-saved checkpoint, making it effectively useless. This only really caused me trouble once, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Anything new added to the PS4 version? A new difficulty- “Insane”, in which you can hold two (as opposed to ten on “Normal”) batteries at a time and have to complete the game in one sitting. The touch pad can be used to zoom the camera and the light on the back of the gamepad lights up green when using night vision, and all other times represents your health: white is fine, through yellow and orange to red, which means you’ve been killed. Most likely in a horrible fashion.
Overall, “Outlast” is easily as good as I’d hoped. The atmosphere, tone and environment are top notch. The gameplay is tense, scary and the night vision camera is a brilliant idea wonderfully implemented. If you’re like me and you love horror games, pick this up without delay. It’s in my top ten games of all time (possibly five) and if I had reviewed it last year it would have easily made my 2013 GOTY list. Expect it to feature in this year’s list.
Now if you excuse me, I have an appointment with Dr. Trager…
By James Lambert