After what seems like years without a decent horror game on PlayStation, Outlast is going to feel like a gift to scare fans. A horrible, horrible gift. A six to seven hour take on Slender meets Fatal Frame crossed with that bit in Bioshock when you turn around and there’s a man behind you. There’s always a man behind you.
Outlast PS4 review – who needs a good nights sleep anyway?
This is an experience with sights resolutely set on chills over thrills. Rather than focus on big monsters, action or huge boo moments, this expertly uses the gaps between the scares to let you torture yourself stupid with half seen shapes or definitely (probably) heard noises, while slowly opening doors like they could explode at any moment. Only to find nothing on the other side.
That’s not to say there isn’t action and jumps. Oh there are jumps. Unpleasant things that fall in front of your face, unpleasant things that want to remove your face, and then just the unpleasant. Lots of unpleasant. Unpleasant all over the place. At one point while recording the review video tension reached a point where things that made myself and Phil jump included our own hand on screen, our shadow and someone coughing unexpectedly outside the room.
It’s the first person view that does it. The game never breaks character as you play investigative journalist Miles Upshur. He doesn’t speak and you never leave his in-head view with all the cutscenes acted out POV. You are him and he you. It’s an intimate relationship between you and the doomed character: your hand on the door as you peak into corridors or the sound of your own breathing sync the two of you – something you really notice when a 600 pound psychopath pulls your head off and shows you your own body.
The genius touch however is the use of the video camera. Much of the game is pitch black, leaving you to use a nightvision mode as you paw through shadows like the attic scene in Rec. Mechanically, it amps up the terror much like Fatal Frame’s Camera Obscurer – forcing you to face, confront and seek out the very things terrifying you. There’s no ghost zapping photography here but instead the grainy green view forces you to stare intently into shadows and zoom into corners to locate threats trying to hunt you down – because you can’t cheat death unless you know where it is. There is no combat here so all you can do is investigate, watch and evade.
Outlast’s night vision mode creates an oppressive sense of terror.
This nightvision mode is beautifully balanced as you explore a strange asylum full of blood stained walls and crazed patients. The ghostly green glow seems to make enemies materialise out of the shadows – a few speckles of green in a distant corridor seem to shimmer and solidify into some eyes, an arm. It’s almost hypnotic until you realise IT’S COMING TOWARDS YOU.
Similarly, the sound plays with your mind. It’s a recognisable, even predictable, mix of shivery strings, honking tubas and ambient clangs but it’s executed beautifully and, apparently, occasionally randomly to keep you guessing. It’s crafted to raise the tension and guide you into a state where the slightest thing can make you jump out of your skin. Even Miles’ breathing – which ranges from ‘mildly terrified hyperventilation’ to ‘absolute acceptance of sitting in your own filth and not caring’ – piles on the distress in an almost subliminal way. Escape a close encounter with an inmate and Miles will continue to snot and whimper hysterically for a while after, totally ruining any ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive’ buzz you might be hoping to nurture in the safety of a locker.
Escape a close encounter with an inmate
and Miles will continue to snot and wheeze hysterically for a while after, totally ruining any
‘I can’t believe I’m still alive’ buzz you might be hoping to nurture in the safety of a locker
I’m deliberately avoiding specific details here to stay away from spoilers but one thing worth pointing out is that the stealth/evasion/escape gameplay can be a little too one note. Most objectives are ‘get the thing to make the door work’ while a particular character tracks you down (there’s a range of pursuing loons, usually with one ‘star’ per section). In the opening few hours it’s terrifying: listening to your own fraught breathing as you scan dark rooms for moving shapes or hug the walls, snapping your head around like a whip desperatly trying to see everything at once.
But, after a few hours, things settle into a groove: find the thing, avoid the current Mr Killy and get the job done. Later the potency can be diminished further as you realise that even key villains have an invisible line they’ll hit and suddenly lose interest in hurting you. “Must. Return to patrol area” you can almost hear them mutter in guttural Frankenstein’s monster like syllables. Once you reach that point mentally your tactics soon dissolve into more brazen attempts to grab your objective, safe in the knowledge you can just peg… it… to.. here, and you’ll be safe. Repeat until done.
Outlast’s enemies are terrifying & murderous although glued to patrol routes which can lessen their impact over time.
Fortunately, just as it looks like the core mechanics are going to lose their potency there’s a few last minute switch ups that don’t radically alter things but manage to freshen up the last hour or so. And, despite the gameplay rinsing out the same basic mechanic throughout, Outlast gets fantastic milage from the concept simply because it’s so skilfully executed – even when you think you’re going through the motions it can still scare you stupid thanks to the pervading atmosphere of dread and artfully timed surprises. The story also builds up a momentum towards the end, reaching a point where only resolution can truly complete the experience.
Somewhat limited by its own mechanics this is still a masterclass in videogame horror. The overuse of its core ‘run away and hide gameplay’ lessens the impact overtime but the visual and aural execution are flawless, making for a terrifying opening few hours, an unpleasantly distressing close and a satisfying exercise in fear throughout.
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