Welcome to the Asylum
Outlast is the kind of game that keeps you up at night. Even when I stepped away, I found myself making the mental journey back to Mount Massive Asylum, haunted by the fleeting terrors and the slowly unfolding mystery of its inhabitants. The game is disturbing to say the least. At times relying too heavily on jump scares, its real success is the looming sense of dread and foreboding that permeates the experience. In Outlast, you are the hunted, defenseless navigator of a nightmare come to life, your only friend a camera whose time is slowly running out. Like your own.
The insane asylum is one of horror’s most iconic settings. There is something deeply unnerving about them, something that speaks to a deep-rooted fear of losing one’s grasp on reality. They are places where patients are locked up without always understanding why and where tearful pleas go unanswered and uncared for. They speak to an inescapable loneliness and complete vulnerability to caretakers who might not care at all. Such is the case with Outlast.
The Setting is the Star
Make no mistake, you may be the plucky reporter, but the real star here is the asylum itself. Developer Red Barrels has done an excellent job of creating a hospital which begs to be explored. From the moment you arrive, its stately, powerful stature begs you to breech its walls. Its interior is in shambles, strewn with blood and viscera, but in many ways feels more like a Victorian manse than a home for the criminally insane. Fine wood trim lines the walls along with plush furniture and the occasional fireplace. Once you fall from its top floor, however, it becomes clear that only the staff have lived in the lap of luxury.
As you progress through the game, uncovering the mystery of why Mount Massive has gone dark, you travel into the pits of despair. The surface of the hospital, clinical yet richly luxurious, is but the surface. Soon you move into a basement, flooded and decrepit. After that things take a turn for the worse. You are moved into a holding cell, a small rubber room with blood smeared on the walls. Outside are dozens of others in a caged block. The patients mill about, self-mutilated and pitiable, frightening to behold if not truly dangerous. From this moment onward, grit and filth replace the finery of the world above. The need to explore is suddenly replaced by the need to escape, and when you witness your pursuer add yet another decapitated body onto his ever-growing pile, it becomes apparent that you’re trapped in the lair of a beast.
In many ways, Outlast is a simple game. You explore and you hide. You creep and sneak by enemies or find ways to escape. This game of cat and mouse works well with the game’s creepy atmosphere. Many little touches bring the experience to new heights. Realistic lighting and shadows, and wonderful little echoes and audio effects make the asylum feel real and haunted. Small touches, such as your character’s penchant for placing his hands on the wall as he peeks around corners enhance the first person perspective. The game systems may be simplified but the game experience stands tall.
Evil Corporations and Defenseless Patients
The story here is familiar but gets the job done. Mount Massive is run by the Murkoff Corporation, not unlike Umbrella Corp. in Resident Evil. Here is a story of human trials gone wrong. Murkoff’s experiments transform their patients – if they’re lucky. Most simply slip deeper into insanity, tearing at their own skin and mangling themselves. These patients, without the context of their crimes, are pitiable. They do not threaten or chase you (though a couple do provide for some great jump scares) but instead hide in the dark, jittering and alone.
Murkoff has succeeded in creating monsters. Some patients stalk the halls, hunting for the living simply to hack and beat at them with whatever tools they carry. The bigger threat is a lumbering, ex-military giant. He is the thread which follows you through the game, the lingering peril, and a terrible creature that feels neither pain or mercy. When you first encounter him, he throws you from a window, but not before you see his face and the patches of skin he has torn from it. Soon after, you meet the game’s other antagonist, a fanatically religious patient convinced of your role in his divine mission.
Great atmosphere, genuinely disturbing, use of the camera.
Patients can feel a bit like filler, scripting stumbles, non-threatening enemies.