Outlast's greatest achievement isn't its poop-your-pants horror, it's staying relevant for a decade

(Image credit: Red Barrels)

Outlast was the first game to blow me away on PS4. The likes of Killzone: Shadow Fall, Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Blacklight Retribution were all great games for showcasing the power of Sony's then cutting-edge hardware, sure. But it was Red Barrels' first-person action-survival horror adventure that sunk its mind-warped teeth into me and didn't let go. Now, almost a decade on since intrepid investigative journalist Miles Upshur first infiltrated the Bedlam-esque Mount Massive Asylum, Outlast is on-course to launch its third series entry: The Outlast Trials.

After a brief hands-on with an early build last year, I wrote about how The Outlast Trials has more gore than a slasher film and the potential to change the horror genre. Due to launch tomorrow, May 18, via Steam's Early Access initiative, I'm looking forward to my next stint with Red Barrels' latest, somehow even more distilled take on wanton violence, jump scares and blood-curdling horror. But as I prepare to down tools in another no-weapons tale of terror, I can't help but applaud Outlast's staying power. After all, this is a concept that borrowed so much from elsewhere in the horror genre 10 years ago, and yet has managed to stay relevant and appealing to this day.

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Outlast 2

(Image credit: Red Barrels)

best survival horror

(Image credit: Red Barrel)

Remember how it was with our Outlast review 

There is no such thing as a new idea, though, right? Even within the bounds of the survival horror genre, just about every game since the early '90s has borrowed something from its predecessor. The first Resident Evil was a grander realization of Alone in the Dark; Silent Hill pretty shamelessly riffed on Resi; Dead Space took RE4's now ubiquitous over-the-shoulder camera to outer space; and The Callisto Protocol was Dead Space 4 in all but name, to name just some of the notable swapping and sharing we've seen over the last few decades. Likewise, with its masterful use of light and dark, and its inclusion of a protagonist unable to wield weapons, Outlast flew pretty close to Frictional Games' 2010 horror hit, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Both are first-person survival horror games, with non-combative protagonists, who must run and hide from an array of horrible baddies. Both games require the use of light to navigate their atmospheric locations – Amnesia using a gas lantern; Outlast a battery-powered video recorder. And both games pull heavily on genre tropes, not least trivializing mental health by way of sanity meters, and a mental health facility housing 'crazed' and 'catatonic' occupants. Still, the latter points aside, both games underlined a new era for survival horror, in both the indie and AAA spheres; in turn generating a buzz that the biggest studios of the day had failed to capture for some time in this space. 

And while Amnesia: The Dark Descent more than deserved its plaudits, it was Outlast that drove the core tenets of this new 'helpless hero' horror format forward. Outlast 2's polarizing critical reception in 2017 only seemed to galvanize the series' ever-expanding cult following, and whereas we felt it missed the mark in our Outlast 2 review, Red Barrels' Philippe Morin reported the series had reached 15 million sales less than a year later – saying that, in 2018, it was worth $64 million; all from a $1.4 million starting budget. 

Fast forward five years, and Outlast now stares down its next iteration at a time when the survival horror scene is booming. The Dead Space remake, as well as the Resident Evil 2, 3 and 4 remakes, have breathed new life into third-person scare 'em ups – however the mainline Resi series' pivot to first-person from RE7 onwards, as well as Dead Island 2, Sons of the Forest, and Dying Light 2 have underscored the enduring appeal of modern first-person terror. Straddling single and multiplayer, The Outlast Trials is set to reintroduce a non-weapon-wielding protagonist, but from what I played last year, it seems like it'll offset this with more blood, gore, jump scares, and unhinged enemies than you can shake a tired survival horror trope at.  

A more distilled version of what's worked for Outlast in the past feels like a smart move and a massive gamble all at once, but if there's one thing the series deserves credit for, it's the fact that it's managed to remain a key part of the conversation throughout. I, for one, will be watching this space – even if that's through the metal slats of an empty locker. 

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Joe Donnelly
Features Editor, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Editor at GamesRadar+. With over seven years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.