Publisher: Red Barrels
Developer: Red Barrels
Medium: Digital Download
ESRB: RP – Rating pending
If you've ever been to Leadville, CO, then you know it's a place that nobody ever goes to. Locals have adapted to the thin atmosphere at its 10,000 feet of elevation, and the wrath of Colorado storms can ward off passer-by's who would sooner continue on 70 than seek refuge 30 minutes into the mountains in a place that sounds like it died 50 years ago. Technically, it did.
If I didn't know any better, it sounds like some fishy stuff could be going on out there without a lot of questions being asked. Fortunately, we're not going to Leadville today, but instead to a fictional asylum X miles close enough that there are reports of helicopters flying over the incorporated city and others in the surrounding area. Maybe it was just rain; I wasn't listening. Red barrels has some ideas of how a horror game should start, and if they want to start in the drawing night of Colorado's mountain range– then they've got my attention.
Red Barrels has decided to put us in the shoes of a reporter who hasn't gotten the hang of biting off less than he can chew yet, so it becomes a sworn duty to investigate some reported mischief in an asylum at night. I've seen a few episodes of Scooby-Doo and even the live-action thing from the 2000's, so I'm pretty sure this case can be closed within the night. We've got a video camera equipped with night vision, some batteries, and good old-fashioned pen and paper for scribbling down notes. All that we're missing is a talking dog, which I'm sure we'll run into at some point to lure out any bad guys.
I tell myself these things because horror games tend to scare me more than I think they should. My interest in them is now something of a curiosity, and when I played outlast at E3 this year, I noted my chief complaint of encountering too many cheap jump scares. I prefer tension, atmosphere, and a sense of doom far over having my nerves shocked repeatedly to the point of annoyance, and felt like somewhere past the 15 minutes of my exposure on the show floor, there must be something for me with Outlast.
Expectedly, the game seems largely dependent on the theory that things look scary through a night vision lens, which is the focal gameplay mechanic in Outlast. It's hard to argue against this, considering movies like REC and countless (dozens) of ghost hunting shows use the technology so prevalently in scary situations, that I imagine the idea of the entire game being edited together through the lens of its host's camera into a scary found-footage movie probably passed the cutting room floor at least one or a hundred times. While this is a fun angle to approach Outlast at, it turns out that living a horror movie is actually more empowering than watching one.
After all, a light in the dark only means you're safer than without. The infrared light is well-executed, with enough realistic touches and logical restrictions that it's no more powerful than a glorified candle in some of the more cavernous environments. Since it's the only way to get through probably 70% of the game, the effect is complimented with utility that grants a sense of security that can only be taken away if you run out of batteries, which seem to be scattered almost everywhere. The sense of danger is quickly fleeting, and only managed to surface in a few heralding moments of item mismanagement. Unfortunately, those unscripted moments were some of the most tense in my experience with Outlast, where the flickering veneer of hope felt outweighed by an actual sense of doom, should the one light source disappear once and for all.
Using a camera as the main event in an FPS could have easily been a gimmicky fulcrum of horror design, but Red Barrels adds supporting narrative touches such as the main character's reporter job and his essential need to capture as much evidence as possible to cover the big scoop. How else were you planning on blowing the lid off of the place? Not by writing about it, that's for sure– this is 2013.
Outlast does a wonderful job of alluding to what could lie beyond each corner, door left slightly ajar, and the tight squeezes through debris– of which players are immediately taught a lesson about how unsafe those particular close quarters can be. While my anticipation for jump scares was warranted in the opening story beats, the game has more fun toying with whatever expectations it manages to establish in the first hour. Red Barrels understands how limiting a first-person perspective can be, and seem to enjoy putting players in situations where they have to climb a ladder without knowing what waits at the top, daring us to look in bathroom stalls for a rogue item, and while the game is fairly linear, leading us into an unnerving dead-end on occasion.
Certainly, there are enemies to beware, and plenty of NPCs for set decoration, but the feeling of unease is tough to nail in a game. What's more impressive is the game's environment design, which features places to hide from vicious enemies who have nothing better to do than tear after you through the halls of a building. Hiding is your only option, but you have to book it before that's possible. This is where the structure of environments really shines, as players will eek their way into a dark corner to pull a lever, and may end up flying by the seat of their pants back to wherever safety can be found.
The success of a good chase is giving players enough information that with only having seen the way in, they can do some white-knuckle pathfinding just moments later without killing the mood with a dozen deaths just to figure out the real way home. This is one of Outlast's strong suits, and next to unscripted item shortages, are some of the most engaging parts of the game that Red Barrels aimed to make.
Despite the game's tightly contained scope and story, I was disappointed to read a message before starting a new file that read something to the extent of players being tasked to survive as long as possible, which felt like a cruel tease that Outlast was a rouguelike horror game wound within an expertly crafted maze to poke around. Some re-wording may be needed in that opening text, or at least a sequel that delivers my fantasy horror game. I should have known better than to expect former Splinter Cell/Uncharted developers to deliver anything other than a linear, moments-based game with some shortcuts to weasel through in a pinch.
The main crack in Outlast's shiny exterior, however, is the enemy A.I., as it's not a tough nut to crack in gathering what a typical encounter will be like, and that the magic in those sequences is lost once the seemingly crafty inmates turn out to be dumber than their backstories would probably imply. Nearly every horror game suffers from running low on their bag of tricks, and while Red Barrels is no different, they at least have the creativity to mix up a typical scare a few different ways before they're just jack-in-the-boxes. They just don't seem to have found a better way to mask poorly scripted A.I.
Along with some third act design follies, there are enough flaws in Outlast to keep it from being anywhere near perfect. What the title has done is show what a small team like Red barrels is capable of. I would love to be championing a cool new horror title, and to be fair there is a lot of interesting subversion in what throes players will face in contrast to what a majority of horror games and movies have taught us to expect. Red Barrels has also demonstrated a few glimpses of genius in balancing scripted moments against how players typically react in given situations, without giving into the temptation of every 'moment' being a simple jump scare.
There is credit due for showing restraint in a horror title, along with a technical craft for what turned out to be a great-looking game with some snappy sound design. If there's one thing that keeps suckering me back into horror games, it's the light that Dead Space showed us in how instrumental an audio experience is in setting a mood, and Outlast is no disappointment. An idiot, I wore IEMs to play the entire game, and found everything to be wonderfully detailed aside from the annoying breathing from the main character at times. Seriously, we just load a save point if you die, man.
I would have also liked to see some extras, some making-of stuff, maybe achievements or an incentive to replay the game after the first time, but I can't claim to know what had to be cut in order to release Outlast in the first place, so these are petty misgivings. It's probably a good sign when a game leaves us wishing we had more to do, and if there's anything else like this from Red Barrels then my only request would be a little permadeath difficulty and a lot more open environments. I love Colorado's wilderness and was expecting to be running for my life in a terrifying storm in the woods until meeting my untimely death over a cliff at some point, but after having finished the game I realize the word I should be using was that I "hoped" those things would happen.
Outlast is eventually coming to the PS4, and if you can't find the time to play it now, then keep an eye out when it re-releases this fall. Red Barrels is a developer that I hope to see more from, and to my knowledge, there's nothing currently like Outlast that doesn't freely give in to cliches on a regular basis (I have yet to play either Amnesia title), and that's enough for me to call it worth playing.