If you believe the hype, Outlast is the scariest game to hit the market since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In case you somehow missed it, Amnesia is the game that basically set the new standard for horror games back in 2010. I was extremely impressed with Amnesia when I played it and still consider it one of the best horror games ever made. Outlast takes a lot of lessons from Amnesia, and indeed it even feels a lot like Amnesia (which is perhaps reason enough to play it), but unfortunately my high hopes were dashed by what turned out to be a simplistic, repetitive survival experience. Instead of being the new heralded champion of horror games, Outlast feels more like a merely "average" horror game.
The game begins with you as Miles Upshur driving up to the front gate of the Mount Massive Asylum. You're a journalist who received an anonymous tip warning of illegal activities at the psychiatric hospital; you're there to document evidence and expose the story. The only thing you bring with you is a battery-powered video recorder, capable of recording in complete darkness thanks to night vision. In the beginning, Outlast seems to get the formula right, with this introduction sequence emphasizing a slow, atmospheric build-up before your adventure descends into madness. It's calm, creepy, and foreboding with the lightest sprinkling of jump scares to keep you wary of what you might encounter up ahead.
Immersion is the key in any survival-horror game, and Outlast weaves a very plausible, organic feeling into its gameplay and presentation. The entire game is in first-person, and your physical presence in the environment feels incredibly tangible thanks to the inclusion of a full body model that you see any time you look around or interact with things. It adds that extra little bit to the experience when you open a door and see your hand reach out for the knob, or when you peer around a corner and see your hands gripping the wall, or when you look down and see your feet stepping onto and over the junk that litters the floor. This is all in addition to the breaths, heartbeats, grunts, and other such noises subconsciously reminding you that your character is an actual person -- corporeal and vulnerable.
Peering around a corner
Further immersing you in the game is the plausible feeling of its setting. Whereas many horror games have you dealing with paranormal and other-worldly horrors, the horrors in Outlast are rooted much more in reality. Being set in an asylum means any horrors you face are distinctly human, albeit often grotesque and twisted. The horrors, therefore, flirt with the uncanny valley -- the realm where familiar, ordinary things all seem slightly weird -- which can make the creepiness factor hit that much closer to home. It just adds to the immersion and your feeling of vulnerability when you realize that everything you're seeing could in fact be a real scenario.
When it comes to horror games, I have a much better appreciation for games that can make me feel uneasy with creepy atmospheric stuff, rather than overt jump scares, and Outlast pulls off the "creepy" side rather well in its early stages. At one point I entered a small office storeroom with a dangling fluorescent light fixture, and of course there are bloody corpses at the desk on the other side of the room. When I approached the bodies, the light in the room started spazzing out, casting shadows along the wall. Caught off guard, I turned in place only to realize that I had bumped the light with my head and was in no danger whatsoever. It says a lot for the game's atmosphere, pacing, and tension that a little moment like that was able to spook me.
That goddamn light
Meanwhile, most of the inmates you encounter are harmless, rather preferring to go about their own psychotic business than to murder you. Each of these encounters is unsettling because you never know which ones are going to lash at out you suddenly. You enter a room and inmates are adamantly staring at the static on a television screen; one roams around hitting his head against various spots on the wall; another done up in a straight-jacket slowly follows you. Others are more lucid, talking to you about what they've experienced and warning you of what's going on, while others ramble and rant incoherently. Other saner inmates seemingly want you dead and stalk you throughout the asylum.
Early on you reach a wing of padded cells that looks very much like a prison. In this area, you encounter two inmates on the other side of a set of locked bars, calmly talking to each other about who you are and how they're going to kill you. They vow you give you a running start. As you try to navigate the wings and halls of the asylum, those two guys keep showing up, just out of reach, always watching what you're doing, commenting on your actions, and talking to themselves. Their presence feels much like Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 -- they're not much of a threat at first, but their presence is incredibly foreboding and makes you sincerely worry that something bad is going to happen.
Don't mind me, I was just leaving
Eventually you encounter armed inmates who want to kill you, with certain enemies continually reappearing throughout the game. Given that you have no weapons at your disposal, your only option in these encounters is to run and hide, a mechanic that has worked successfully in a number of other survival-horror games. It works just as well in Outlast, at least at first -- having to hide from enemies instead of defeating them outright makes you feel more vulnerable and creates some tense moments where you're looking through slats in a locker, listening to the enemy prowling in search of you, hoping he doesn't come to check the locker you're in. This works well enough at the start, but before long it begins to take away from the experience.
The whole "run and hide" mechanic just doesn't work very well in this game because the suspension of disbelief is just not there. This is a game in which your enemies are ordinary humans (psychotic, but human nonetheless) -- they talk in coherent sentences and have seemingly full kinesthetic control of their bodies. If you're hiding in a locker, they can effortlessly handle the latch and open the door with complete ease, but if you close a wooden door behind you while they're in pursuit, they have to stop for five seconds to break it down. As I played I thought to myself: "so you're telling me these guys can open a locker door and kick my ass like it's no problem, but they become utterly stumped when faced with an unlocked wooden door?"
Furthermore, I had numerous occasions where an enemy was chasing me down a hallway; I turned into a room and closed the door behind me, then got into one of two lockers. The enemy stopped for a moment to break down the door then began searching the room. He opened the locker next to me, saw that I wasn't there, then left the room without bothering to check the only other hiding place in the room. And my jaw dropped to the floor in disbelief. These guys aren't bumbling monsters; they're lucid, coherent-speaking human beings that just happen to have a violent psychopathy. I don't buy that just because they're inmates in an asylum, they don't have the common sense to know that I couldn't have left the room and must be in the only other possible hiding place.
Homoerotic necrophilia. Silky.
These two aspects of their behavior (getting stuck when faced with a wooden door, and not thoroughly checking a room before giving up) just don't make any contextual sense. Both aspects are absolutely necessary for the sake of the gameplay -- you have to be able to slow an enemy down otherwise you'll never actually be able to lose them, and they can't search every single hiding spot in a room because then you'd never be able to hide -- but it utterly breaks the suspension of disbelief when you realize the inconsistencies in their behavior. The whole act of surviving thus ends up feeling trivial and artificial. And it gets repetitive, too -- after a while you realize it's just same situation over and over again, and you sigh and grumble when that one enemy predictably shows up for the fourth or fifth time.
Perhaps even more egregious is that you have regenerating health. In most cases you can take a few hits before dying, but if you go a few seconds without taking damage (via hiding or running away) you'll be back at full health, meaning you're rarely in any risk of actually dying. Even when you're cornered in a hallway, you can sprint past the enemy, take a hit, and be basically unharmed until you find a way to ditch him. With only two player-states in the game -- alive or dead -- there are only two outcomes to any encounter -- you survive or you die. You don't have to worry about surviving an encounter but being left low on health, so you therefore don't feel vulnerable because you quite literally cannot be harmed, which makes enemies feel more like a temporary nuisance than any actual threat.
You look like you've seen a ghost.
Later on you're faced with enemies that kill you in one hit, thus negating the whole "regenerating health" mechanic, but rather than making the situation more tense, it only serves to deflate all the tension by reducing the gameplay to a tedious matter of trial-and-error as you try to figure out what to do or where to go. That situation ceases to be scary when you're facing it a second, third, or fourth time, and when you know exactly what to expect and are just looking for the solution. These enemies just feel like a tedious obstacle. As much as I hate the regenerating health, at least surviving a hit gives you a few seconds of near-death tension; with enemies that one-shot you, there's no feeling of being close to death, and being killed ends up feeling utterly anti-climactic.
Besides collecting evidence and hiding from enemies, there's not much to actually do in Outlast. For the most part, you just follow an inexplicably linear path through the asylum, waiting for the next "thing" to occur. There are no puzzles to solve and there's no inventory management. The only limited resource you have to worry about is the battery supply that powers your camera's nightvision, but these are abundantly available and you can spend the entire game sitting on a max supply of batteries. There's very little feeling of problem-solving to be had in this game, so for all intents and purposes, you may as well just be on a haunted ride at an amusement park.
The game's overwhelming linearity becomes increasingly wearisome when it becomes apparent that all you're ever actually doing is encountering locked doors and then searching for a key via the only other available path. Outlast really likes to tease you with a way out, of finally finding a way to the next area, only for something to happen suddenly to block your path, requiring an arbitrary "lock and key puzzle" to get around it, and that gets to be incredibly soul-crushing after the fourth or fifth time it's pulled this trick on you. It's especially disappointing that the most sophisticated the game ever gets in this regard is when you have to press three buttons spread out across multiple different rooms, which is itself not a very engaging task; otherwise, you're literally just looking for one key to one locked door.
Prepare to see a lot of this
Part of the reason Amnesia was so successful was that it featured numerous adventure-style puzzles that required you to collect inventory items and use them in the environment. Amnesia presented you with a blocked path and had more creative solutions than just "find the key" or "press the button to restart the generator." It required problem-solving and gave you productive things to do in the environment besides just mindlessly going forward. There's nothing like this in Outlast, and that I feel is a woeful omission because much of the gameplay experience in Outlast feels so passive and inconsequential.
That's not to say that Outlast is all bad, though. Some of its most crucial elements are ultimately flawed and detract from the experience, but there's still enough to enjoy in Outlast. The atmosphere and sense of immersion it creates is really good (when it's not undermining itself with inane enemy AI or repetitive stealth sections), and it has a pretty good grasp on creating creepy, unsettling scares and spooks without relying on excessive jump scares. Certain areas are distinctly memorable (the prison wings, going outside) and offer a fairly original experience you likely won't find in other games. But it could have benefited greatly from more sophisticated objectives, slightly more thought-provoking puzzles, less forced linearity, and better stealth mechanics.