Blair Witch Project gets the Montreal treatment in this tepid Tour de Horror.
By Ian Ramsay on September 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm
Outlast is a first-person horror, a debut title brought to us by Red Barrels — an indie outfit based in Montreal. The team boasts an impressive résumé of talent, with credits on titles like Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell and Uncharted, and promises to create experiences “in which the player goes on an emotional and unforgettable journey.” Ambitious and talented are two traits the much overlooked horror genre could do with — so how did they fare?
The game opens with a casual drive to a mental asylum on the back of a tipoff from a Snowden-like character. The Murkoff Corporation, a faceless transnational, has recently reopened the Mount Massive Asylum out of the goodness of their hearts and has no profit motive, seeks no recognition and is definitely not hiding any illicit experimentation. How nice of them. Enter Miles Upshur: certified mouthbreather and feisty reporter chasing a big lead.
Miles, a man with limited self-preservation capabilities, serves as our main character and spectator for the length of the game. Outlast‘s primary mode of gameplay has you exploring the hospital for evidence armed with naught but a video camera, recording strange encounters and picking up documents that hint into the asylum’s checkered past.
As light fades, your camera comes with a handy night vision mode that affords you scant vision — just enough to fumble your way to the next checkpoint. That is, of course, in between running, crawling, and vaulting behind cover to escape whatever it was that locked eyes with you back there. You are completely helpless, unable to fight back, and you spend most of the game with heavily restricted vision — all the right ingredients for a good horror.
So why is Outlast not scary?
It is not because I am a tough guy. I have the constitution of a twelve-year old girl. The reason this game fails to deliver is simple: a wilful and systematic destruction of suspense.
The biggest and most active perpetrator in destroying suspense is served up, most surprisingly, by the soundtrack. Long before you see anything suspicious, you are told how you should feel via audio cues. Subtlety and timing goes out the door, with a standard sound recipe delivered every encounter.
So formulaic is it in fact, that I have created a three-step checklist for upcoming scares:
- Is the main character suddenly breathing harder than a games journalist on a treadmill?
- Have the violins recently been handed to a team of excitable children?
- Are the sopranos doing their best operatic impression of a fire engine?
If the answer to all of these are yes, you should act totally surprised when something scary happens in the next two minutes.
Lesser, but still problematic evils include the limited level design and average coding. Enemies follow rigid paths that are predictable and give the game a sense of being heavily scripted — add to that the fact any threat can be shrugged off with a brief sprint down a hallway or a quick loop around the outside of an office, and suddenly the monsters present no threat. Likewise, any time you are unable to move the camera to manoeuvre a tight spot or crawlspace you are pretty much guaranteed to be delivered a jump scare with the same predictability, which only dilutes the suspense further.
The narrative and the concept of story in this game is also a bit hit and miss. There are the same pseudo-religious and semi-scientific themes present in a lot of the genre, but it is genuinely interesting being drip-fed excerpts of story — especially pieces based on real life mental patients. Despite being mute, Miles sure runs a foul mouth in his notebook, but when you piece the notes together, too many holes surface in his story.
Why is he angry at Murkoff Corporation? What is tying him here and driving the player forward? Why did he choose a horrible shade of blue pen to write with? Knowing where the game is headed half-way through is not what the player needs – the big reveal needed to be saved. The art seems promising on the surface, and it fits. It is not exceptionally good, or creative, but it does the job. Antagonists are designed aptly, but sadly fall short of the heights set by Clock Tower or The Suffering. And hey, did I mention the nonchalant approach to onscreen male nudity?
So is Outlast worth the $19.99? The answer is actually a maybe. Standard low-tier horror elements are duly satisfied: there are the requisite gore and jump scares, and for some there will even be an element of atmosphere. Any emotional or psychological reaction will be quite accidental, and while good horror should aim to draw on all of these elements, Outlast at least delivers at the base level.
If you can suspend disbelief for long periods and are happy without full immersion, Outlast could be for you, and is definitely worth a second look.
- A cheap addition to a genre with not many offerings
- Spooks and gore galore
- Provides 100% daily requirement of computer-generated wang
- Suspense routinely broken by predictable cues
- Nothing new to the genre and nothing really improved on
Outlast is available for $19.99 on Steam.
This review copy purchased by the reviewer at their own expense.
Screenshots used in this article supplied by the reviewer.