Outlast is a scary game. I haven't been this freaked out by a game since I had nightmares about Hunters after marathon sessions of the original Resident Evil. At a play time of about six hours and a price point of twenty dollars, it's a small-but-mighty game that actually adds something to the survival horror landscape. It's an experience that's greater than the sum of its parts, and is based on an alarming number of real-life sources that speak to the depths of scientifically organized human depravity.
You play as Miles Upshur, a journalist on the trail of the story of his career. He enters Mount Massive Asylum armed with only a notebook, a video camera with a night vision setting, and a big ol' head full of stupid. Miles has no combat abilities, so survival options are limited to sneaking in the dark, running away, and hiding in lockers, beds, or the occasional toilet stall.
Miles feels like a character as opposed to a camera with a voice, a rarity in first person games. He doesn't talk much, but his ragged, terrified breathing speaks volumes and the notebook updates give you a sense of how the character thinks. When you look down, there's a body where a body should be. When you peek around a door, hands appear on the frame. When you're backlit while crawling, you see your spider-like shadow in front of you. You even experience first-person vomiting. These seem like small things – well okay except for the vomiting – but they allow the player to inhabit the protagonist in a way you don't normally get in first person games. It increases the immersion... and the sense of peril.
Asthma suffers and those prone to panic attacks be warned though: the rapid, labored breathing effects may mess you up. I found myself having real trouble because I was unintentionally matching the rhythm of Miles' shaky breaths. I couldn't play for more than an hour at a time because when I wasn't holding my breath, I was breathing when the game told me to breathe. Stupid asthma. There were times that my chest hurt so bad that it was not at all fun, and that's not the only Pavlovian conditioning Outlast achieves.
The game masterfully plays on your expectations and screws with them for maximum impact, creating moments of paralysis akin to trying to jump onto the glass floor in Toronto's CN Tower. Furthermore, the more survival horror games you've played, the more you hesitate before going around ominous looking corners, entering dark rooms, or upon discovering that the area you're in has a ton of hiding places. You know these things mean that something bad is going to happen, but Outlast changes things up enough that you're never quite sure what that something is or when it's going to get you.
But there's also definite creep factor that takes the game beyond a collection of jump scares. Of course sexual deviancy is on full display, but it was nice to see nudity in a game that actually added to the story, characters, and environment instead of feeling forced, gratuitous, or just awkward. Body parts are used to great effect, whether by exposure, or by being severed and left in a sink. The elegant design and mastery of horror elements allow the game to overcome its notable but not catastrophic faults.
The characters introduced early-to-mid game are excellent, despite having very little dialogue. You probably won't catch their names while you're running away from them screaming, but they all look and move differently and are easy to tell apart quickly in the dark. After the halfway point, however, things become too gratuitous, the new characters you meet are far less interesting, and the game's story threatens to fly apart into a scattered mess of things generally understood to be evil and/or scary. It manages, however, to hold together and continue to deliver until the last hour, when it falters on a scene of unintentional comedy that could have come out of an episode of South Park. After this, it never quite recovers.
It was around this scene, when I was sent on the last wave of “pull the lever, turn the valve, turn something on” objectives that I realized how repetitive the tasks are throughout the game. However, Outlast does prove that survival horror games can still horrify instead of just startle, so don't plan to go down into your basement alone after playing, and give yourself some decompression time before going to bed.
And since Halloween is coming, it's a great opportunity to get a gang of horror lovers together and spend the evening experiencing all the scares, squicks, and silly moments that Outlast has to offer. Award a prize to the person who can summarize the ending in the most hilarious way. It's a good time, cheaper than a night at the movies, and it's a bonding experience akin to a game of Cards Against Humanity.