I played Outlast and Whistleblower live in a single sitting for Extra Life 2014. You can watch my edited Let’s Play series here.
I’m a complete weak sauce when it comes to anything horror. I’ve never understood the concept of purposefully terrorizing yourself for entertainment. Obviously, a lot of people feel differently as it’s a successful, if niche genre in the scope of gaming. When I do Extra Life, I always make a stretch goal to play through a well known horror game, partially for the hilarity of watching me try to do it but also because it forces me to play a type of game I normally wouldn’t and helps broaden my experience. Two years ago, I played through Amnesia: The Dark Descent and while I found it interesting, it didn’t leave the impression on me it has on many others. Most people I read considered Outlast good but not in the same league. What I discovered was a game that not only scared me more but one I found much more enjoyable.
Outlast comes from small Montreal indie studio Red Barrels which is apparently largely seeded with talent from the AAA industry who are horror fanatics. Outlast was their passion project. You can certainly see that this is a game with a lot of love put in it, if by love you mean mental anguish that probably needs years of therapy. To put it mildly, this game and especially its Whistleblower DLC are fucked up, both in general subject matter and what your characters end up enduring through their different, yet parallel quests to discover the truth.
In the base game, you are playing a journalist who receives a tip from your character in Whistleblower that some seriously deranged science is going down at the Mount Massive Asylum by Merkoff, a stand-in for any number of real-life evil megacorporations. You arrive with little more than your infrared equipped video camera and a determination to expose and take down Merkoff. The story is not overly complex and your progression through the it is very linear but it sets a good tone and fiction for horror set in modern day. It’s peppered with plenty of deranged but unique characters and a twist at the end that surprised me, despite my thinking afterward that it was rather predictable. It’s also relatively short at about 5 hours (plus another 2.5 for Whistleblower) and doesn’t overstay its welcome. You can get the nuts and bolts just by watching cutscenes but there are collectible files strewn about the levels that flesh out the details and back story. You can get by without them but they’re a good way to learn more and best of all, they make collectibles useful and worth finding, as opposed to just something you grab to see some lame concept art.
Like many other popular horror games, you are alone most of the time and your interaction with other characters is only in cutscenes, after which they promptly take off. There are plenty of inmates to be found but not all of them are hostile and while an enemy will sometimes be clearly designated, you’ll sometimes get jumped by someone you thought was passive. Since you’re a journalist and not a supersoldier, all you can do when spotted is run and hide. On the normal difficulty, you have regenerating health and can take a few hits but this doesn’t diminish the terror you feel when running for your life, especially when the route to safety isn’t often clear. Sometimes, enemies will also check hiding spots and find you at random. Some areas of Mount Massive are lit and others require that you use your IR lights on your camera, which have a limited battery supply that depletes fast. Batteries are found randomly about for no particular reason other than “it’s a video game” and at least on normal, they’re common enough that I never ran out. I’ve been told that on higher difficulties, they’re both harder to find and you can carry fewer of them.
Where I feel Outlast really excels over Amnesia: The Dark Descent is in its pacing and the fact that it’s so linear actually helps this. What really bugged me about Amnesia was that too much of the game had nothing going on. There were large sections where there were no enemies (and you always had a clear telegraph when one was nearby) and beyond that, there were large puzzle levels where it was made crystal clear that you’d never be in any danger. The best kinds of horror are ones that keep you riding up and down from terror to calm but Amnesia had too much calm and made it too obvious. Outlast does rely a lot more on jump scares than tension (though it has plenty of that too) but it never lets you relax for very long. Even during some of the calmer areas, there are things that kept you on edge, like a passive enemy that just follows you around or bigger goons behind a locked door, chatting about what they’ll do to you when they catch you later. Even when there’s not much happening, you always feel a need to look over your shoulder. It’s this ability to calm you but still keep you vigilant that really makes Outlast a more enjoyable experience for me over Amnesia, even though I still think that’s an excellent game in its own right.
What I did find frustrating were its attempts at puzzles. These consisted of several points where something had to be activated and it always involved going to two different extremes of the level, doing the same thing in both locations, then returning to the middle and doing something else, all while avoiding patrolling enemies. The tasks you were given often didn’t make a lot of sense a real world context and these sections really felt like padding. They served their purpose as it was still terrifying to be spotted and hear the music swell but they also broke the immersion for me a bit. Some of the later objectives also involve meeting up with someone who refuses to stay in one place and keeps going on ahead, through areas that would really be easier to traverse as a pair. It fits with what the story is trying to do but it’s also kind of silly when you think about it.
The Whistleblower DLC thankfully doesn’t have any of this. It’s a shorter and further focused experience that I enjoyed even more than the base game, though the amount of seriously disturbing subject matter and imagery in it (even compared to the core story) made me really glad it wasn’t longer. The core mechanics are the same (though how it narratively justifies giving you a video camera is kind of hammy) but it’s a very different tale. Without spoiling anything, what I think really sets it apart is that it starts as a prequel to the main story but through some clever narrative tricks, ends up becoming a parallel story and concludes in what I would call a nice full circle with a great “Fuck yeah!” moment near the end as well. It doesn’t give full closure to the Mount Massive story but it does conclude nicely and isn’t a pure setup for a sequel.
Technically, Outlast isn’t state-of-the-art but looks good nonetheless. It’s an Unreal Engine 3 game and while it shows that it was made by a small team, they did well with what they had available to them and still created a dreary and terrifying environment. I played on PS4 and being based on older tech means it ran at 60 frames per second which is a welcome rarity on a console. There were infrequent but very jarringly placed and long load times that reminded me a lot of Half-Life 2 and it twice froze during these, requiring a force close and restart of the game. I would have liked to see these handled more elegantly. The sound design is top notch which I believe is a must in games like this and while the music isn’t something I really remember, it was well done and critical to the “tension and release” cycle they so masterfully executed.
I went into Outlast not really knowing what to expect and though it still hasn’t made me want to play horror games unless I have to, I think it was not only a good horror experience but also a good video game besides. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was good but had pacing issues and was too open for its own good in places. Red Barrels knew what their limitations were in making Outlast and they stayed focused within them, making the best game they could with what they had. What we got was something that played well despite some pacing annoyances, had a simple yet memorable story and without a doubt, scared the shit out of me many times.
Outlast 2 has been confirmed since I played through this and I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and maybe newer technology like Unreal Engine 4. If they can get it out by next Fall, it’s definitely going to be my next Extra Life stretch goal. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a horror enthusiast but if stuff like Outlast keeps coming, I think I will enjoy the times I have to partake. If you actually dig horror, this is certainly not one to be missed.