Outlast isn’t scary because of what it lets you see, but rather it’s what it doesn’t show you that makes it so terrifying. Making expert use of lighting, shadows, and sound-effects, this survival-horror will have you fearing for the unsettling darkness one minute and running into it for safety the next. Each step you take gradually builds tension--creating a sense of impending doom, even--which explodes when you least expect it and makes for a torturously gratifying experience.
You play as Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist looking to uncover the truth behind a recently re-opened asylum and its questionable activities. Armed with nothing more than his night vision camcorder, Miles is just your average silent protagonist. Outlast is less about his development and more about your own exploration and survival once you’re in the asylum.
Whether it's a thunderclap in the distance or the creaking of a rusty gate, the sound effects give Outlast a spooky ambiance without feeling forced or contrived. Because most of your environments are cloaked in darkness, sound is one of the only ways you’ll be able to tell where an enemy is and what areas you should avoid. Miles will also whimper or shiver when an enemy is nearby, alerting you to be careful and building tension in the process. These simple sounds do such an effective job of drawing you into his nightmare that at times you’ll wonder if his heart is the only one you hear beating so quickly.
Outlast also lets you see the world through his eyes and camera, giving the game a hauntingly voyeuristic quality that heightens the horror you’ll witness. You can choose to keep your camcorder on to record certain moments and add them to your notebook as additional scraps of narrative, but besides simply capturing the terror of the asylum on film, your camcorder also provides you with the only source of light in the dark, and slowly drains away the more you use it. The looming fear of running out of power at the worst possible time will drive you to always be on the lookout for spare batteries and to keep an eye on both your surroundings and battery life.
What’s great (and so sinister) about Outlast is that it not only lets you choose how to approach a situation, but it also gives you the tools with which to scare yourself--whether you realize you’re doing so or not. Not knowing what’s in the darkness can be reassuring at times since it also means a monster can’t see you (or so you hope). But if you happen to turn on night vision, you’ll not only see where an enemy is, but you’re more likely to get caught the longer you stare at it from a distance. Moments like this also remind you of how defenseless you are, so all you can do is run and hide in the shadows if you get spotted and pray your predator doesn’t find you. Hiding under a bed, you could turn on your camera to see if the danger has passed, but nothing is scarier than turning on your night vision and realizing a monster is staring you in the face.
It may take Miles minutes to break into the asylum, but it will take you about seven disturbing hours to get out. Outlast only gives you limited direction on what your objective is, so most of the game is about exploration and discovery--even if what you discover isn’t so friendly. Much of the game’s plot is told through cutscenes that bookmark your journey, but a large chunk of its narrative lies in documents you can find that give it an even more intriguing backstory. Facing your fears and searching for these files reward you with a story that’s made even more unsettling because of how much of it was based on real-life events.
This connection with the real world and even with Miles is tarnished by Outlast’s final hour that dismisses the feelings it stirred up to that point and takes you to a place where you need to do a lot more running than hiding. Its previously established focus on stealth, darkness, and even just the feelings of disgust from the asylum are thrown out the window in favor of an ending that will leave you questioning whether there was a need for such a departure. The feeling of horror is still there, but it’s diluted by the introduction of some elements and environments that take a lot of the fear and fun out of a game that already proved to you it was terrifying.
Its lackluster ending aside, Outlast is one title that will make you think about what makes a game so scary. It’s not so much that it tries to scare you with monsters, blood, or gore that makes the experience so powerful as it is how the game mentally plays with your senses and emotions. Even if you don’t think you’re easily scared, try playing Outlast alone in the dark with headphones on. This intense rollercoaster ride will keep you on the edge of your seat and make you jump out of it a few times too.
This game was reviewed on PC.