I vividly remember waking up from nightmares as a small child. Peering out into what appeared to be never ending darkness, a sea of shadows that the longer I stare always seem to stare right back at me. Wondering as you watch, if you are in turn being watched, something is almost smelling you, waiting for you to stumble into the darkness and straight into it’s arms. This is how it feels to play the recently released on the PS4 (previously PC exclusive) first person survival horror Outlast.
Outlast is a profoundly and continually terrifying experience. Set in the remote mountains of Colorado, at fictional Mount Massive Asylum, we find ourselves thrust into the shoes of Miles Upshire, an independent journalist acting on the tips of a former insider at the institute. We begin the game by stepping out of Miles’ car and onto the harrowing and beautiful grounds of the asylum. It’s from this point on that our defenceless four hour journey into the heart of darkness begins. It’s a unique and brutal experience like no other. Despite having endured and enjoyed all the Silent Hills, Resident Evils (before they got all awful) and Amnesias that the world had to throw at me, nothing has chilled me, thrilled me and consistently thrown me from my chair as often as Outlast did.
One of the things that makes Outlast such a unique experience is the shoes you are thrown into. Miles is a journalist. Not a former marine or a super muscled Batman-esque anti hero. He’s just a dude with a night vision camera and as Outlast continues to scare the holy balls out of you, it becomes abundantly clear that Miles had no idea what he was setting himself up for when he stepped onto the grounds of this godforsaken nuthouse. Outlast is a beautiful experience, with astounding lighting that makes up much of the dynamic of the game, using darkness and shadows as places to hide but stark hallway lighting or swinging disembodied florescent bulbs as neon signs for the inmates of Mount Massive to use as a visual GPS. It also sounds fantastic. I have read reviews that stated that Outlast’s sound design falls down if not enjoyed through a headset but I can personally tell you that the ambience and effect of the soundscape is not lost on regular speakers. Running dually through my TV and a 7.1 top of the line sound bar, every creak, grunt, smash and harrowing laugh was heard to a near pitch perfect level.
Having never played the PC version (this is a port, after all) I can’t speak for the original control scheme, but the PS4 version is dead on in terms of the usability and functionality of the use of the Dualshock 4, using your limited abilities and mapping them brilliantly to the controller. I was in terror of every turn of every doorknob. Every small rumble of the controller as I waited inside a locker or under an upturned hospital bed filled me with suspense and a burning desire to soil myself and hide under my own bed. The world that is created within Outlast is one that I was yet to experience before this week and I doubt it is one I will experience again anytime soon because within the walls of that institute, I, a grown man, was reduced to a shaking & swearing shell.
Details are key within this world. Whether those details be inmate’s following you through footprints left by traipsing through a puddle of blood, or a door left open where it was previously closed before. Every detail has meaning and that meaning usually leads to turning a corner into a psychopath wielding a knife or a bat or a severed human arm.
With so many small gorgeous details, all of which fill a very well realized world, brimming over with malice and ill intent, the one thing that seems to have gone amiss is attention to detail in the enemy character models. They are downright ugly and I don’t mean because they have missing lips or a patch of skin stitched over one eye. The character models are.. average, aside from a few stand outs. Including one particularly nasty customer met later on in the game who bares a striking resemblance to Doctor Satan. Points for anyone who get’s that reference.
In Outlast, your aim is to discover the truth but you can’t do that if you can’t stay alive. There are no shotgun’s in Outlast, you can’t charge at your attackers with a knife or swing a bat at their enormous, hideous faces. You have two choices, run and hide or die and sometimes, running and hiding will get you lost or thrown into a corner or a dead end and when you turn around and are faced with an axe wielding inmate. You only have the other choice, die. Within the walls of Mount Massive, I died. I died a lot. I ran, I hid, I jumped, I screamed and most of the time, I died but in no way should this be considered a bad thing. You need to watch, learn and adapt to survive in Outlast and once you’ve mastered hiding and taking the chances you need to in order to get away, that is when Outlast is at its most rewarding.
Your saving grace in Outlast comes in the form of your camera. For Miles Upshire it’s a fantastic way to keep a record of the horrors he experiences but for you, it’s the only eye you have in what sometimes feels like a never ending stretch of dark hallways. Lined with dried and fresh blood and the parts of the dismembered men who came before you and it’s this camera that brings us some of the games stand out moments. The scramble away from a maniac as your battery dies, hunting frantically for another in an attempt to use it to find a way to hide. Or in order to find your way around the environment, avoiding conflict as best you can, just to get to the next doorway or the next lit bulb. Your camera is a gift but in those moments when it dies or for some reason is unusable, the fact you are without it becomes a horrifying burden.
Outlast is an exercise in exploration and survival, it’s an experience like no other I have ever had and frankly, it’s one I’m not sure I’d want to experience again. It’s a tense, well-written, bleak and thoroughly harrowing journey into not only the depths of a home for the depraved but also the minds of those inmates. Not to mention, in many cases, the closet maniacs entrusted with caring for them. Stumbling across diaries, documents and case studies about the experiments that have gone on within these walls and in some cases, beyond them, only serves to create a darker world. A bleaker outlook for Miles and what may lay in front of him. It’s dark, terrifying and in most cases, I find it defies description. If you have a PS4 and a PS+ account, I implore you to download Outlast and give it four hours of your life. I guarantee they will be four hours well spent. Just don’t let Mount Massive get into your head, because when you power down your PS4 and put down your controller, those harrowing screams may just keep ringing through your brain and if they do, I can only apologise and sympathise.
Eventually they will go quiet. Eventually.