Posted by Graham Banas
Corpse on camera
Outlast is the first title from Red Barrels, a Canadian developer founded by industry veterans. It also happens to be an absolutely cracking debut. Originally released on the PC in September of last year, the survival horror has shuffled onto the PlayStation 4, where it’s available as a free PlayStation Plus download at the time of writing.
To start with, it should be noted that this is very much just a port of the Windows-based iteration of the game. There’s very little difference between the two versions, aside from the addition of the DualShock 4, which works perfectly with the title. In fact, so good is the implementation that using a controller is arguably the best way to play the game.
You assume the role of a reporter named Miles Upshur, who has received a tipoff from a stranger telling him to visit the Mount Massive Asylum located amidst some shadowy mountains. This refuge is owned by the macabre Murkoff Corporation, an evil group who partake in equally shady activities. The whistleblower – of which there will be a DLC expansion based upon in the near future – claims that the company is up to something bad, and that it must be exposed.
Travelling to the menacing mansion – late at night, of course – Upshur brings with him a handheld camera and batteries, and heads into the bowels of the facility, where it’s immediately clear that something terrible has taken place. There are a plethora of corpses and entrails littered throughout, and those who are alive are either hostile or too far gone to really understand what’s happening. But just what is going on? All is gradually uncovered as you explore the morbid facility.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this game is intensely violent and incredibly gory, so if that’s not your idea of a good time, then it’s perhaps best left alone. If you’re up for a few jump scares and a hauntingly foreboding atmosphere, though, there’s a truly mind-bending and terrifying tale to be uncovered here.
You’ll need to explore a variety of locations in your quest for the truth, which are almost always grungy and bathed in blood, vomit, and various other pools of viscera. Many areas also boast poor lightning conditions, which augment the game with the opportunity to showcase its cleverest mechanic: the camera.
Rather than find yourself armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers, the camcorder represents your main item of equipment. When raised, it feels a little like you’re living in the [REC] film series, showing the device’s user interface and listing things like aperture on screen. It also features a night vision setting, which serves as your only means to see in the abovementioned pitch-black environments. However, turning this option on will drain the gadget’s batteries, meaning that you’ll need to be sparing with your use of it.
As you capture the gruesome environments on memory stick, you’ll need to solve simple puzzles and avoid any threats. With no real combat options, you’ll often have to hide from enemies, but this simply adds to the tension of the game. The basic flow of the campaign – which sees you merely moving from one area to the next – may seem tedious on paper, but the differing locales and overwhelming atmosphere manage to keep things interesting. There’s only really one area where the experience starts to drag, and that’s in a sequence involving a particularly twisted doctor.
Still, one thing that never gets tiresome is the audio, which is a real masterclass. You’ll hear objects rattling in the distance, floorboards creaking, and various other ambient noises that pull you into the experience perfectly. Meanwhile, Samuel Laflamme’s score complements the environmental sound effects perfectly, with the use of lots of string work and plenty of startling dissonance biting away at your already frayed nerves. Is there something big around the corner, or is the music trying to trick you? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and that means that it’s doing its job.
But the biggest challenge for a survival horror game is actually being scary, and fortunately this adventure is. It does rely on jump scares a little bit more than it probably should, but it also excels at subtle scenes, and even includes some straight up gross-out moments, such as the twisted doctor section mentioned above.
Few of these moments are let down by technical shortcomings either, but we did encounter some drastic frame drops – with the game temporarily dipping from the advertised 60 frames-per-second to sub-20 frames-per-second on occasion – as well as some chunky loading times. Indeed, as you move from area to area, you can sometimes find yourself waiting up to a minute for the next location to appear, which can kill the atmosphere a touch.
Still, that may offer some much needed respite if your nerves are already shot, as this haunted house of horrors will keep you occupied for at least six hours in total. That’s accounting for all of the collectibles that you’ll find, be it documents or notes written by Upshur about the things that he captures on camera. It may seem a little on the short side considering the ordinary asking price, but in reality, the adventure runs its course without feeling stale, and offers just the right amount of content to make it feel fulfilling.
It’s not perfect, but Outlast is still arguably one of the best survival horror games in recent memory. You’ll need a strong stomach to get through the campaign, but if you can cope with jump scares and graphic content, then this is an exhilarating experience from bloody beginning to chilling conclusion. With fantastic audio work and a clever camera mechanic, Red Barrels’ debut fear fest really will make you afraid of the dark.