Outlast’s asylum setting might be hackneyed, but don’t let that fool you into thinking Red Barrels’ debut isn’t capable of surprise. In fact, the studio, founded by former Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, Uncharted and Splinter Cell developers, has done for modern horror what Visceral did for sci-fi with Dead Space. Rather than riff on Alien and The Thing, however, Outlast taps into modern horror-movie exemplars such as The Descent and Rec.
It also owes much to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Outlast’s world is populated by enemies against which you cannot defend yourself. This is a game of hiding, running and stealthy avoidance, and you can conceal yourself in lockers, under beds or simply slip into the shadows, hopefully avoiding detection by the asylum’s grotesque, recently freed inmates.
The game begins, of course, at night, as you drive up to Mount Massive asylum, a remote Colorado institution that was shut down in 1971 amid scandal and secrecy. As investigative journalist Miles Upshur, you’re following up on a tip from an inside source who reveals that the intentions of Murkoff Psychiatric Systems – which outwardly reopened the long-abandoned home in 2009 as a charitable organisation – may not be entirely honourable.
During your first few steps in the shadow of the Unreal-Engine-conjured moonlit asylum’s façade, there’s little to suggest that this will be anything other than a fairly standard, if undeniably good-looking, firstperson horror plod. But then a locked front door forces you to find another way in, and Red Barrels deploys the first of its surprises. Some scaffolding leads up to an open window on the first floor, and you clamber and jump your way up to it in a manner more reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge’s Faith than, say, Gordon Freeman (although there’s a wonderful Half-Life reference later on in the game). While seeing your hands and body is nothing new in firstperson games, it feels remarkably refreshing to have such a strong sense of physicality, and agency, in a survival horror.
This increases your connection with the game world, and allows Red Barrels to lean even harder on your gradually eroding fortitude. The team has lifted Amnesia’s door trick, wherein you can click to bust the obstacle open in an instant (particularly useful if being pursued), or use the mouse to gradually crack it open for a quick peek into the next room. Rather than an abstract pointer shifting the door in front of you, here you must be right up against the door, moving with its arc into the darkness beyond.
Stand near a doorframe or corner and your hand will automatically rest against it, allowing you to lean round with a press of Q or E. Sometimes, though, for all your careful creeping, running is the only option you have left, and in another brilliant touch Red Barrels switches those keys’ function to looking back over your shoulder, allowing you to check just how close the raving guy with the baseball bat is. The game’s audio work also deserves special mention: Upshur’s breath becomes more panicked as you see enemies or enter particularly dark rooms, while the rustle of your clothes and the creak of the floorboards sound perilously loud.
Thanks to your line of work, you have a video camera, handily equipped with night vision. Since much of the asylum is pretty much pitch black, the camera’s lens proves essential to your progress. Using night vision quickly depletes the camera’s power, though, so you’ll have to scavenge for batteries along the way – usually found next to long-abandoned radios or cameras, and mostly secreted in the asylum’s darkest corners. Even if your battery fully depletes you won’t be left entirely blind: it retains some weak functionality, necessitating a panicked, wall-hugging search for more batteries. These moments are so nerve-shreddingly enjoyable that we can’t help but wish batteries were a little less generously distributed.
Not all of the asylum’s inhabitants are intent on killing you, and in fact, many are as frightened of the outbreak of violence and associated religious fervour as you. Others still are aggressive, but pose no real threat. In most cases there’s no explicit visual cue, which sets up some clever moments in which you can’t be sure whether you’re in danger or not.
For all its innovation, Outlast is content to reuse some of its tricks. On several occasions your path will be impeded by a broken pump or generator that can’t be activated before other switches are found. At these points the levels open out, forcing you to navigate corridors or rooms in the dark, and usually in the presence of a patrolling madman or two. But the game is at its best when you’re given space to improvise, and this, combined with its relatively short duration (the game can be completed in four to five hours) means such moments never outstay their welcome.
Red Barrels is savvy enough to switch up the pace towards the end of the game, too, playing two superbly cruel tricks on you that force you to abandon the steady, stealthy approach that has carried you through the game until that point. And there’s plenty of variety along the way, with some great use of elevation and pitch-black humour that stops the game from becoming overbearing.
And that balance is key to Outlast’s success. While there’s rarely any let up in the tension, it always feels like you’re in the hands of a developer at the top of its game, revelling in making the player uncomfortable, but never forgetting to delight at the same time. Outlast’s combination of stealth, platforming and horror is exceptional, the benefits of the diverse experience of its highly talented development team always in plain sight.
Outlast is out now on PC, and will be released on PS4 next year.