I move forward with an unease and patience that's immediately unusual.. I'm harried.
And something's not right. Chains rattle down the beautifully rendered hall and behind them, the heavy boot-steps of a lunatic, his hulking frame made all the more terrifying in the floodlight that silhouettes him, reverberate off the hall’s emptiness.
I run for my life, for my soul, for my sanity. His breathless grunting draws nearer and nearer. I feel the dense shadow around me constrict. I slam a door. Another. I duck. I hide in the dense shadow as the door behind me trembles, shudders, and then explodes into shards that dance in the light pouring in from the other side. I duck into a nearby locker. Against the darkness, I watch his still darker silhouette prowl the room.
Finally, he leaves. I grip the controller that much harder because now I must again venture out into that terrible void, that terrible unknown that clutches my deepest fears.
For someone who enjoys horror, there aren’t too many horror titles out there that do it for me. But Outlast, Red Barrels’ first foray into the gaming space, fells a bit different. It isn’t a fun game in the truest essence of the word. It doesn’t shift the paradigm for horror games. But what it does, it does oh, so right. Its sole purpose is to terrify, to be obtuse, and confounding. It’s oppressive and often unforgiving.
It’s the most terrifying, most engaging survival-horror game I’ve ever played. And I’ll tell you why.
Underscoring this is its often gaudy violence. Players continually find themselves in the dregs of just-happened murders and stomach churning mutilations. The patients looks human until closer inspection reveals them to be disfigured, defaced shells of their former selves. Blood pools in the halls and bathrooms and basements; dismembered heads float in toilets, eyes wide and staring into a forever hell; freakish creatures prowl the darkness babbling to themselves, self-mutilating.
It's vintage Alighieri.
In these instances, where light is diffuse and features often obscured, the graphic fidelity gleams. Like an old slasher flick, the quiet grain added to the dynamic world mimics some old CRT. It adds to the overall tonality of unease. It makes you squint a little sometimes, question yourself. It makes the grotesque real and unreal all at once.
In a world of digital smoothness, the analog feel deepens the disjointed experience. It’s only in the latter parts of the game that the quality dips and that the grain becomes a bit too excessive, a bit too muddy when exposed to the direct fluorescence of brightly lit corridors and perfectly perceivable faces.
Gameplay in Outlast conjures from the likes of Amnesia and Mirror’s Edge, but while similar to both in perspective, Outlast is really its own game.
There are no weapons in Outlast; to survive, players must employ their wits and reasoning, and all of it if they intend to make it to the end. The only tool available to the player, and one that becomes immediately priceless, is the camcorder. Without this device and it's ubiquitous night vision, the player becomes virtually blind in many of the Asylum’s rooms and corridors.
However, there’s no spamming allowed; the camcorder quickly becomes a device of strategy as it runs on low-capacity batteries that sparsely populate the environment. Use is too much here, and well, you might not have enough juice to get you past the roving darkness there.
There’s nothing more terrifying than combing the darkness for batteries only to have the last battery in your possession die, and be plunged into impenetrable darkness. Well, that and having a raving lunatic incessantly searching for you there, one that you may bump into at any moment, one that you, in all reality, now won’t be able to escape. One quickly becomes an expert at discerning differing shades of gray and black to conserve battery life, and by proxy, his own.
Where Outlast shines the brightest, even in it’s own macabre den of self-deprecation, is its sound design. Immaculate in every register, the nerve-wrenching score stalks all about the diegesis and the player more potently than any adversary. It often starts low, shrilly suspenseful and foreboding before quickly crescendoing into booming staccatos and frenetic timbres that race the heart and sometimes, when coupled with the Asylum’s mania, stops it.
The sound design is so good that players don’t have to ever see their stalkers to know if they’re around the next corner, or if they’ve trudged into the distance of another room. Breaths and footsteps sink into the void or stomp into the fore with abetted vivacity. Every scream, every thunder strike, every bated breath, every pin drop echoes with or closeness or distance, reverberates like sonar from the sea’s darkest depths.
Never a more spine tingling, all out stress filled terror-rush, Outlast unhitches itself from the normative survival-horror experience while still managing to revere its past. Even with a few hiccups in mechanics, a few gamily infuriating moments, and a mediocre story line that we’ve seen countless times before (religious zealotry that spirals into mania, rage, carnality, and carnage that's never truly explained outside of some strange ephemerality), Outlast still manages to find a way to be unique in a veritable slew of rehashes, remakes, and sub-par firsts. Red Barrels has come out of the gates swinging and captured the attention of at least one gamer who’s glad for it all to be done with, not for the fact that he didn’t enjoy himself – which he did immensely despite his now continually pale pallor – but because his lack of sleep and sense of utter paranoia was finally becoming far too much for him to bare. If other games are deemed successful because players don't ever want to put them down, Outlast succeeds because you always want to put it down, but never can.