Fifteen years ago survival horror was a thriving genre with endless potential. Developers were approaching titles with incredibly creative ideas with one simple objective in mind; instilling a sense of genuine fear in the player. In recent years support from fans and publishers alike has dwindled. Larger studios with massive budgets aren’t particularity excited about investing in such “risky productions.” Thankfully independent developers like Red Barrels Studios are actively pushing the boundaries of horror with titles like Outlast and working diligently to revive a dying genre.
A very familiar trope in horror is the creepy abandoned insane asylum. It’s become almost a cliche in modern film production as the stereotype is so frequently used in a predictable fashion, but there is nothing predictable about the story of Outlast. After receiving an anonymous tip from a mysterious source simply identified as “the whistleblower,” freelance investigative journalist Miles Upshur ventures to Mount Massive Asylum in hopes to uncover the truth about the suspicious activities of the Murkoff Corporation. Upshur anticipated political corruption and patient abuse, but nothing could have prepared him for the horrors awaiting him within the asylum walls.
The basic story is presented in the form of text at the start of the game, but as a way to fully immerse yourself in the world of Mount Massive, Red Barrel Studios hid various text documents throughout the asylum. These small bits of lore contain inside testimonies from doctors, patients, and staff from the institution. These haunting documents reminded me of the classic diaries from early Resident Evil games and helped flesh out the true story of the twisted Murkoff Corporation. Every time I began to feel like I knew where the journey was headed I was violently thrown new information or antagonists that completely changed my perspective. The fantastic narrative carried my curiosity and left me speechless after experiencing the mind-blowing final moments of the game. This was one ending I did not see coming.
As if fantastic storytelling wasn’t enough, Outlast delivers some of the most engaging and hauntingly memorable environments I’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling through. From the haunting corridors of the dilapidated asylum to the dark, dank sewers below, the locations remained fresh and more importantly terrifying, throughout. I never felt safe in any area and I couldn’t shake the feeling of constant stress as I slowly crept through through the darkness. Sometimes the environments themselves were far more frightening than the things inhabiting them.
Another contributing factor to the decline of survival-horror is the sacrifice of “true horror” for action, explosions, and ridiculous fire power. Outlast completely dismisses this trend and boldly embraces a different approach; one that makes the player helpless in terms of combat. There are no traditional weapons at your disposal. The only piece of equipment aiding your survival is a handicam, which simply utilizes its night vision filter to roughly light the darkness around you. Unfortunately night vision doesn’t do much to deter the psychotic mental patients and disfigured creatures trying to strip you of your life. In many cases, it just makes things even more tense. There was always this underlying fear of something jumping out and scaring the sense out of me and knowing that I had no real way to defend myself only made things worse.
Your only real hope of escaping the hell alive relies on your ability to run and hide. When I heard someone or something pounding on a door near me, survival instincts kicked in and I immediately began sprinting towards my closest means of escape. Sometimes this involved diving from a window and desperately clinging to a nearby ledge in hopes that your pursuer would lose your tracks. Other times this meant cramming yourself in an empty locker or under a bed and praying you weren’t discovered. When done in moderation, these are some of the most well-executed moments in Outlast, but occasional repetition damages the overall experience. The twisted game of hide-and-seek with your unstoppable adversaries occasionally became more tedious than anything else. In most cases, the pacing ensures that repetitive chase sequences don’t occur, but there are several spots that force the player to hide from “person A”, collect “X” number of items, or find the inconveniently and irrationally placed key to proceed. Thankfully the excellent narrative and impeccably crafted scripted segments more than make up for some slight repetition.
The icing on this delicious cake of psychotic goodness comes in the form of one of the most tense and effective soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Orchestral strings and jolting chord stabs are fairly commonplace in the world of horror, but rarely are they executed with such careful precision. When an enemy catches your form in the darkness, you know it. Thunderous horns and piercing strings explode into a frenzy creating an immediate feeling of stress as you blindly charge past your surroundings in hopes of finding safety. When you do eventually find somewhere that may serve as a shelter from the monstrosities of Mount Massive Asylum, the maddening music does a wonderful job of making sure you always feel uneasy.
As a huge fan and early adopter of survival-horror, I’ve had a front row seat to the downfall of a once mighty genre. Iconic franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are merely a shell of what they use to be and new IPs are quickly forgotten. Outlast not only delivers one of the best horror games in recent history, but it’s a bold reminder of the untapped potential of survival-horror. If you give a passionate team the proper resources and sufficient time they will create something remarkable and Red Barrels Studios latest is a shining testimony to that claim.
Recommended for fans of: Survival-horror games, Resident Evil, and psychological thrillers.
This review is based on the recently released Xbox One version of the game. Outlast was originally released on PC and is also available on PS4. If we find significant differences in the versions we’ll update accordingly, but consider this our definitive review.
If you’re interested in seeing this game in action, my entire playthrough of Outlast is available over on my Twitch channel.
Miles Dompier is the chief editor and founder of What’s Your Tag?. He is a Seattle native who recently moved to the sweltering heat of Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a composer/voice actor. When he’s not up writing until his eyes bleed, he likes to play a Prince level of instruments and listen to terrible death metal. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter and be sure to join our gaming community; TEAM XBRO.