Since the launch of the PS4, the community has been able to enjoy the PlayStation Plus releases of Contrast, Resogun and Don’t Starve. While each are undeniably worthy of their non-existent price tags, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I couldn’t be happier that the next wave of PS+ benefits has arrived. In keeping with Sony’s, thus far, well handled promise to show more love to independent games over the course of the systems lifecycle, this months addition is the Red Barrels survival horror, Outlast. For PS+ subscribers this one clocks in at everybody’s favourite price of absolutely nothing (or £15.99/$19.99 for non PS+ subscribers), but nowadays there’s hardly a shortage of free games, so the question remains: is Outlast worth your time?
As the story begins, you assume control of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who shares a common trait with his ilk in the willingness to throw himself into any situation despite the end result being 99% certain death, 1% pulitzer prize. Following an anonymous tip, and armed with nothing other than his trusty camcorder, our eyes into the story arrives at the Mount Massive insane asylum, which was reopened in the late 2000’s under the guise of a charitable effort by the Murkoff Corporation. They are a secretive multinational whose PR team seem to only know the words “Let’s just say it’s for charity, everybody loves that!”
Naturally, it doesn’t take long for this this already shortsighted venture to take a turn for the worse when Upshur begins to encounter the physically and mentally deranged inmates of this seemingly abandoned establishment.
Storywise, you shouldn’t expect to see anything drastically unique. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it is admittedly formulaic. For a game like this, a refreshing story is never unwelcome though it’s largely unneccessary when the meat of the meal is to justify late night, lights out, headphone gaming with snacks, energy drinks and a surplus of adult sized nappies at the ready. In this respect, it cuts the mustard well enough with a combination of claustrophobic environments, extremely restrictive combat efficiency, increased urgency in music at the just the right moments, and Miles’ hyperventilation increasing the more foreboding a situation becomes. If you’re expecting me to say there are no jump scares, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Jump scares, creepy silences and creaking floorboards are a mainstay in the genre and if they work, they’re earned. That being said, they’re not as frequent as you may expect and the core of what puts the chills in you is the more persistent creepiness of the general atmosphere.
The highest honour goes to gameplay for its heavy lending to a sense of vulnerability. During situations when you’re being stalked by one of the many lunatics, crouching tends to feel necessary but renders your movement speed excruciatingly slow in comparison to being upright. The line between questionable visibility and AI obliviousness is blurred to the point where you feel that stopping dead in your tracks and pretending to be part of the scenery seems like a viable tactic, and in some cases very much is. Not that I recommend adopting such a play-style though because, in keeping with the “human, not hero” attitude the game embraces, not only do you lack any effective means of self defence beyond doing a runner, you also have a realistic pain threshold versus the evil you will encounter.
The camcorder feels slightly cumbersome when compared to the clarity of image you would get from not using it, but carries the burden of being required more often than not due to it’s features beyond night vision. No camcorder = no notes = less story context and, also, less trophies. With that in mind, a slightly granulated picture quality is not too much of a problem. Plus it’s better to be able to switch to night vision in a pinch rather than adding a few seconds between you and the luxury of sight as Miles raises the camera to his face. The night vision itself serves atmosphere well, too. Opting for a true to life camcorder iteration of night vision with a further increased degrade in picture quality as opposed to a high end military grade perfect-vision-except-everything’s-green type of NV that sneaks into this kind of game all too frequently. There’s no doubt that it is a boon to your vision and in no way is it crystal clear 20/20. A nice touch is the effective range degradation as the battery drains, coercing you to recharge sooner rather than squeezing out every last bit of juice the current battery has in it.
Don’t expect to be taking a slow and leisurely stroll around this pitch dark house of wackos, though. They will give chase and in these times the slow, grating tension is replaced with fast paced hallway dashing and clambering into vents, lockers and under beds. In the quiet moments you’re going to need to remain vigilant and keep an eye out for any potential hiding spots you may need at a moments notice. These guys are not too bothered by your inability to retaliate, so it’s on you to figure out how to survive the sanitarium with your only tools being sneaking, hiding and running like a bitch.
From a design perspective, the game naturally takes on the rundown bloody walled insane asylum image, but sadly doesn’t break the mold. Corpses tangled at ceiling height in roots in one, innards casually strewn across a table in the next. It serves the tone as well as it could but doesn’t show me anything horrifyingly new. Environments are a balance between maze like slim hallways, just varied enough to allow confusion as to which way you came in, and large rooms that are not fully visible from any point in them. Red Barrel has a small team of industry veterans but a big heart and a lot of talent. It’s clear that the standard of production in Outlast far outweighs the budget these guys had to play with and it will be interesting to see what they aim to follow up with.
There is no visual pioneering to be found but what is on show is tight, smooth and remarkably free of graphical and technical problems for an Unreal Engine game. Collision detection is on par with – in some cases surpassing – your standard triple A and the inclusion of hands and feet is implemented very well. From holding a door frame as you peek down the adjoining hallway; to being barged into a wall and putting your hands against it to protect your face; to resting them on the ground as you crawl through Mount Massive’s ventilation system. The game transitions remarkably well to console and doesn’t suffer the same rough-around-the-edges feel a lot of games intended for exclusive PC release tend to fall prey to when surprised by their own success and whisked into the world of increasingly high standards indie devs are being held to these days. Outlast holds it’s own alongside it’s peers like Slender and Amnesia and further proves to the industry at large that survival horror can be done as long as you take the minimalist approach. In this case, strip of them of their gun, make their source of light as diminishing as it is ineffective, operate under a high degree of frugality with resources, and in no time your player base will pick up on how dire their situation is. Red Barrel get’s that.
All in all, I think this is a solid effort but it’s not without it’s flaws. On average it’s going to take you about 3-4 hours to see it through. There’s little incentive to repeat the experience beyond retracing your steps to hunt down document files and note opportunities for all the games exposition and – aside from chapters – that’s pretty much it for trophies. While there are cutscenes, the game relies heavily on your willingness to read official looking documents and Miles’, being a silent protagonist, writes his thoughts on things as and when he sees them rather than simply commenting on them. The documents are well written and chickenfeed just the right amount of info to keep the story going without giving too much away too soon but, and this really bothered me, Miles’ notes showed very little character growth. He’s a douche-y clicky pen and notepad kind of journalist and that’s held on to with excessive devotion in light of certain events.
All in all, if you want to play it, go ahead and play. If you’re not a PS+ subscriber and still want to play it, the wiser investment would be going with the subscription, even if it’s only one month’s worth.