If an emaciated lunatic started beating me with a stick I’d probably try to throw a punch or two. But Miles Upshur, a mild-mannered investigative journalist, just takes the beating and keeps filming. This was my first of many disconnects with Outlast, a game that nails the aesthetics and atmosphere of horror but distracts and frustrates with its contradictory gameplay.
Set in a mountaintop insane asylum, the game makes a beeline for your nerves with its premise and setting. Armed with a camcorder, you spend much of the game looking through a viewfinder in nightvision. The visuals are every bit as effective as they are in found footage films like Paranormal Activity. Zooming in with the camera often lets you peer into the darkness just enough to see an obese grunt dragging a chain behind him down the next hallway.
I also really appreciate the game’s contextual leaning mechanic, which shows Miles’ hand pressed against the wall as he peeks around a corner. I can’t stress enough how much Outlast’s visuals and animations add to the sense of tension and helplessness. It’s just a shame how often that tension falls apart because of the game’s other issues.
Outlast is linear to a fault. From the beginning I expected a rollercoaster ride of horror — a literal haunted house — and it works sometimes. Often I was navigating the path, wondering when the next scare would come as the game built tension. I definitely jumped a few times. On the other hand, when I saw a scripted scare coming from a mile away, no amount of overblown violin stingers could keep my eyes from rolling.
But it’s when the game “opened up” and asked me to sneak past patrolling psychos that it really fell apart. Almost without fail, Outlast’s stealth sequences are designed around cramped loops that are a pain to navigate. The enemy AI is unpredictable and touchy in a way that’s more frustrating than fun. Unlike, say, Dishonored, a game that lets you make safe assumptions about the enemy pathfinding and their ability to see you, Outlast has enemies that will turn on a dime out of nowhere or break their patrol route unexpectedly. This led to a lot of running around in circles, getting caught so often that it didn’t pay to hide anymore.
I was far more frustrated than terrified, and every time I got caught my option was to take a hit or two and squeeze past the enemy, camera held firmly in hand. I understand that cutting out combat from a horror game can be really effective, but it’s almost always more justified than it is in Outlast. In Slender, the enemy is omnipotent and ethereal. In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the enemies look like small children, and even then, there are mechanics to fight them off. In Outlast, some enemies aren’t even physically imposing, so I really wish Miles would just shove them away or crack them in the back of the head. I know I would.
Instead, Miles has the power to escape, either by hiding or slamming doors behind him (Oh, and if he’s sneaking around, he still slams doors shut, because he’s an idiot). The hiding mechanic tends to break down because your pursuer either checks the spot where you hid or checks another spot and gives up, but the spot he chooses rarely seems dependent on how carefully you covered your tracks. What’s more annoying is when you try to close a door behind you and instead close yourself in with the enemy. When so much of Outlast’s controls are contextual it’s unfortunate that the game doesn’t handle this automatically.
These open stealth sections are made more annoying when there’s a fetch quest involved. Having to skim over the area and backtrack past the same creepers that keep catching you and ruining your day only conflates the gameplay issues. By the time I reached a locked laundry chute that required three fuses to open (what!?), I had my fill of Outlast’s attempts at substance.
I was actually a lot happier when the game avoided substance entirely. It’s a better game, unfortunately, when it’s barely a game. That sounds pretty damning, but honestly there was enough straightforward, haunted house-style scares and genuinely tense, monster-breathing-down-your-neck chase sequences that I powered through the entire five hour experience in one sitting, despite my issues. I’ll probably never play it again, because once you’ve seen it once there’s little point in going back, but it was fun enough (and free enough with Playstation Plus) that I still feel like I got something out of it.
For those keeping track, I should point out that the lower score I’m awarding Outlast on PS4 has little to do with the quality of the port and more to do with me just not liking the game as much as our EIC Mike Splechta did in his review. The controls translate fine to a gamepad, and the PS4’s touchscreen is used for accessing the in-game journal and zooming the camcorder. The graphics are sharp too, with a solid framerate beyond some small loading hitches. I imagine the game still looks better on PC, but it makes its point just fine on PS4.
The bigger issue is that Outlast accomplishes far more as an experience than it does as a game. That would be fine, but it tries to be a game more often than its stealth mechanics and AI could bear. Is it scary? For sure. But it’s also capable of falling apart completely, deflating its own scare tactics, and leaving you wondering why Miles Upsher can’t throw a single punch.
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