Outlast review: Fraught in the dark

Outlast review It's scarier than the name suggests, promise

Outlast begins in an SUV. This is notable for two reasons: First, the name Outlast exists in a vacuum in my mind, making it impossible for me to relate that name to this horror game from the ex-Ubisoft team at Red Barrels. I suspect this is because every time I hear "Outlast" I think of the Subaru Outback SUV instead, which is an extremely non-threatening, sterile object and the complete antithesis of everything Outlast aims to be.

Second, every moment spent outside of that SUV in the first minutes of Outlast, I yearned to be back inside of it, doors closed, lights on, press badge swaying from the rearview mirror as I drove far, far away from Mount Massive Asylum. I had feverish dreams of sitting in the driver's seat again, checking my video camera for the first time and reading over the hot tip that described nefarious activities at the asylum – and then deciding that this story wasn't worth my time. I dreamed of not getting out of the car. I dreamed of not playing this game anymore. But I was playing it and I couldn't stop.

Outlast is the perfect nightmare.

There is no fighting mechanic in Outlast. This doesn't mean it's a cheery romp through an abandoned castle – it has heaps of violence, gore and disturbing imagery, including piles of decaying, mutilated corpses, dying men skewered on spikes, inmates with the skin of their faces sewed taut over missing noses and cut-off lips, and an average of two dismembered bodies per room. The absence of an attack button doesn't make Outlast less gruesome; it ensures that every shadow and each sound instills absolute terror in the player, knowing it's impossible to stave off whatever is around the corner, down the dark hallway, rattling on the stairs.

Players embody a reporter chasing down a tip about the Murkoff Corporation re-opening Mount Massive Asylum, an institute for the mentally ill that was shut down decades ago. Murkoff has a reputation for disguising terrible, inhumane acts as "charitable" efforts and raking in a fortune off the suffering of others, and the reporter is out to expose Murkoff's latest scheme. He brings a notepad, documents and a video camera (conveniently equipped with night vision).

At the entrance, it's clear that someone is still paying the bills at Mount Massive, despite the building's decrepit state. Electric lights illuminate some rooms, rows of computer screens are lit blue and the phones are off their hooks, beeping. Lifting the camera to record certain events – with or without night vision – prompts the reporter to jot a note in his book, giving the faceless protagonist a voice without ever speaking. There are files, blinking blue, scattered around the institute that provide background into the dangerous experiments Murkoff conducts on the patients of Mount Massive.

Outlast review It's scarier than the name suggests, promise

The documents are a nice touch, but really it's the people themselves that plainly demonstrate how awful the conditions at Mount Massive have become, no footnotes necessary. After entering the asylum and searching through a few rooms, I ran into the first (of so many) terrifying, jump-scare moments involving bodies and blood – and I did indeed jump. And scream. Ear-piercingly loudly. From that moment on while playing, my heartbeat remained at an unhealthy rate.

If only I had some earmuffs – the sound design in Outlast is outrageously effective.

The reporter doesn't speak, but he does breathe. Peeking into a dark room, rounding a corner, sprinting from a murderous entity, crouching in a locker, the journalist's every breath is obsessively pronounced, complete with gulps of air, quickened gasps and exhausted exhalations. It's terrifying. His breaths aren't only in reaction to action on the screen, but also during otherwise neutral motions, such as walking down a hall – it fits, because walking down the halls of Mount Massive is a deeply stressful, mentally scarring experience.

His camera is another tool of aural torture. Pulling it up prompts the most subtle white noise – the sound of a TV tuned to an inactive channel – and it emphasizes the uneasiness of any room. But wait, it gets better: Switching to night vision enhances the static sound, and zooming in to investigate dark, far-away areas makes it even louder, triggering physiological responses ingrained in an audience that grew up with The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and The Ring as the epitome of horror.

Outlast review It's scarier than the name suggests, promise

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Red Barrels does everything possible to make it feel as if it really is me stalking the corridors of a hellish mental institute, and it doesn't stop at the breathing exercises. Looking down I can see my chest, legs and feet, as in reality. Creep up to an open doorway and I bring a hand to the wall, bracing my body to better peer around the corner. Every step I take makes a noise specific to the composure of the terrain, especially when running.

Details. Frightening, heart-stopping, intensely immersing details – they thrive in Outlast's world, which is otherwise composed of beautifully rendered 3D objects. Red Barrels knows horror, but it also knows how to create a gorgeous, robust world with multiple tasks, a revolving story and true tension. The narrative that ties this fearsome world together is straightforward and effective for its clarity: One patient, a religious zealot, wishes to keep the reporter alive in the asylum to fulfill plans of holy grandeur; another is a massive killing machine broken by Murkoff's experiments and responsible for most of the carnage; and there are references throughout the discarded documents to a special project, Walrider, that keep the mystery alive. From here, the reporter's story is simple: Survive.

Mechanically, what really ties the world of Outlast together is the perpetual quest for batteries, which ensure that night vision doesn't fail. Each battery has a limited life span, and the promise of being trapped in a pitch-black room with only those horrifying sounds to guide me is enough to equate batteries with (moderate) mental salvation. Apart from battery hunting, the reporter's main goal is to leave the asylum as quickly as possible, but that journey is hindered by un-turned valves, locked doors and, of course, murderous, sociopathic, mutilated criminals who want to destroy fresh flesh.

The manor is littered with lockers to hide in or overturned beds to crouch behind as the various mass murderers roam the halls, out for blood. I find that hiding is truly my greatest weapon, though at times I long for a baseball bat or a pistol or a crossbow – anything to make me feel empowered, in control. Instead, Outlast makes me feel helpless, hopeless and paralyzed with fear, worse than any night terrors I can recall.

If most games are measured by how many times they can be replayed, true horror games can be measured by how many times its players want to stop playing. Those moments when the stress of running and hiding and worrying about every single little sound become too much, and the paranoia eats away at your sanity until you feel trapped. You want to quit – to escape – but you can't, because you have to get out of the asylum, to see it through to the end. Outlast perfects this self-inflicted madness in every area of its design, and it's absolutely petrifying. I love it.

This review is based on a Steam download of Outlast, provided by Red Barrels. A PlayStation 4 version is also in development.

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