You thought that Frictional Games had the answer for gamers praying survival horror becoming scarier without fighting and shooting in their Penumbra and Amnesia series? Think again when you see what Red Barrels has in store…
Outlast is the latest in psychological and brutal terror in which using a video camera is no gimmick but becomes a tool for survival. Those having a weak heart or stomach should rather not apply here, others please continue reading, if you’re man or woman enough.
(Canada 2013, developer/publisher: Red Barrels, platform: PC)
Freelance reporter Miles Upshur discovers the horrifying truth behind a remote mental hospital’s experimentation on its inmates and tries to record the ongoing events with his video camera.
Reading a standard B-movie
Story-wise, this isn’t much more than what one would expect from a B-horror movie’s simplistic plot, but just like R.E.C. which inspired the game’s look and feel, it doesn’t necessarily have to be very deep. The same holds true for the main character who remains anonymously flat throughout. The only way the player can connect with him is by the horrible things which happen around or to him, something so many horror flicks have made use of. Most of the background story of the asylum is told in documents which can be found or by environment clues the video camera records and which are then put down in Miles’ notebook. Suffice it to say that it’s not the most intriguing story ever told, nor are there many surprises in the plot or character development, while the language with its f-bombs also comes across as a bit exaggerated. It’s very much what one would expect from a gory, violent horror flick, although there are also some more psychological terror parts.
Playing a brainless B-movie
The gameplay isn’t very varied which is also reflected in the environment. Asylums have been done to death since Silent Hill, sewers are also an expected area which doesn’t hold many surprises, and even the final act borrows heavily from campy Resident Evil. The main thing one does is hiding or running from enemies. This is only interrupted by turning a valve here or picking up a key there. Puzzles are almost non-existent due to the absence of an inventory, although knowing the area is a plus to find a way around sometimes identically-looking corridors or rooms. Being a survival horror game, it is clear that avoiding enemies substitutes the fighting, but when this is done repeatedly with more or less the same enemies, it can get tiresome and at some points excruciatingly difficult due to the checkpoint system. Granted, there are some pretty intense scenes in which this works very well, but a bit more complexity in the tasks at hand would have been nice.
Feeling AAA fear
Fear is at the forefront of the experience. Fear of being detected by crazy inmates who chase the player until he’s out of sight, fear of being stabbed from behind, fear of seeing disgusting things happening in the light of the night-vision. The things the game throws at the player are not for the squeamish. Even for seasoned survival horror enthusiasts or gore hounds who are familiar with torn limbs and bucketloads of blood splattering the walls, there are still enough visual surprises to keep them on the edge of the computer screen. Granted, there are provocative scenes with inmates mutilating themselves or each other and parts in which torture plays a big role, although these feel a bit too much, too controversial for controversy’s sake. Where the game succeeds more is in subtleties like hearing a door closing or opening behind the protagonist or slowly moving through a courtyard whose complete darkness is broken by lightning, evoking an atmosphere seldom seen in the genre.
Seeing 3D terror through the lens of a camera
Of course the biggest selling point and also innovation to a certain degree is the use of the video camera. This is both an alternative way to experience the first-person view, complete with a real-time counter and the R.E.C. sign at the top of the screen, and also the only way to see in the dark with night-vision. But the latter comes at a price: when activated it more or less quickly uses up batteries, and if one runs out of them, it means finding the way through completely dark areas is nearly impossible, so it’s a good thing (but maybe not the most realistic) to find them littered around.
The effect of playing through the game through the lense of a camera which can even get broken is pretty unique, and it adds to the found-footage atmosphere and also creates the illusion of being the producer of one’s own horror movie.
Watching and hearing AAA
The graphics are simply too good to be true for an indie game, even on medium settings (although they require quite a lot of power, as my PC shut down a few times due to overheating of the graphics card, something which hasn’t happened since Doom 3 fried my old desktop’s power supply ages ago). The environments might lack a bit of variety, but the disgusting details are shown in high resolution, and it remains to be seen how the upcoming PS4 version will look like. Sound design is excellent throughout with creepy screams, shuffling noises or banging of door in addition to thumping music being turned up a notch when chases by enemies, while voice acting is also of a high standard. This is again something which is not a prerequisite for indie games, especially in the field of horror titles. What is maybe more important is that the controls are responsive enough and the screen is not cluttered with unnecessary HUD info and that one doesn’t need to go into an inventory, making it an even more immersive experience. The effects of being held, thrown around by inmates or seeing more violent things with the first-person perspective makes it even more visceral and horrifying.
An impressive schlockfest
Red Barrel presents with Outlast a surprisingly well-done first game that is both frighteningly provocative in its presentation, source material and tensely captivating in its gameplay, at least until the gameplay and disgusting scenes become too routine and predictable. This is not to say that this is the same campy horror the Resident Evil series is known for, but it isn’t the same psychological horror the Silent Hill titles presented, either. It’s a shocking, creepy experience but at times when too many disgusting scenes and scary jumps turn up also a calculated affair without much of an original story or engaging plot, not to mention suffering from the same hide-and-run gameplay which outstays its welcome a bit. Still, as a title to show how a gory found-footage movie would play like, there’s simply nothing like it and it is highly recommended to those who can stomach the more uncomfortable scenes.
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