You know that heavy, serious movie in your Netflix queue that you always mean to watch, but never turn on? You’re just never in the right mood to take on whatever subject matter it features, so instead you binge four episodes of Star Trek back-to-back that end up being twice as long as the serious movie?
Outlast is the videogame version of that serious movie for me.
I originally bought it on Xbox One in 2014 shortly after it came out. I played an hour of it, and put it down. I liked what little I played, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. Despite my love for horror games, I have to be in the right mood for them.
I bought Outlast again on a PS4 sale for about $4 the following year, and only just recently dug into it. A perfect mix of being home alone at night and an oncoming thunderstorm made for a horror game evening I couldn’t pass up.
I should love Outlast. It’s right up my alley. I mean, I love first-person horror games, but after settling in and spending about two hours with it, I was surprised to find that I don’t think Outlast is for me. Let me switch the TV back over to Star Trek before I start explaining…
In Outlast players are Miles Upshur (nominee for all-time worst protagonist name), an investigative journalist who receives a tip exposing shady operations at an insane asylum.
Players explore in first-person and use an outdated camcorder to zoom in for better views of the environment. The camcorder doubles as night vision for Upshur because many areas of the grotesque asylum are dark or pitch-black, and a lack of combat is one of Outlast’s major hooks. Enemies roam the dim hallways, but players must run from them and try to hide if detected.
Using Upshur’s camera for night vision is clever because it allowed me to wield darkness as my ally, as if in a stealth game such as Splinter Cell. I have zooming night vision and the enemies around me don’t. That means a dark corner can make for a perfectly acceptable hiding spot while I examine movement patterns. The big caveat is that night vision drains the camera’s battery. That’s OK, and it makes sense for gameplay — the developers don’t want me creeping around the entire asylum with night vision constantly on. That would defeat most of the game’s tension.
However, the night vision drains the camera’s battery far too quickly. And although 10 batteries can be carried at a time, they’re hard to come by. The most I’ve procured so far is five at once, and they don’t last long, especially with how dim most areas are.
Because the camera batteries drain quickly, I found myself playing Outlast much faster than I would’ve preferred. I moved more aggressively and quickly because if my batteries ran out, I’d be totally screwed.
Whenever you produce a horror game based around watching enemy movements, hiding and sneaking past them, limiting players’ vision and providing no means of combat causes those elements to compound and become more of an annoyance than thrilling gameplay. If an enemy sees me, for example, they start chasing me. In these instances, I run. I run as fast as I can and try to hide under a bed, in a locker or in a dark corner where they can’t see me. If I don’t run, I’m dead. That’s all there is to it.
Because there’s absolutely no means of combat, Outlast turns what could be an intense greyscale of horror encounters into simple binary black-and-white events. You’re either being chased or not. There is no middle ground. This turns chase sequences into something that should be intense, fast and frightening into predictable annoyance. The dark maze-like environments don’t help during chases, either. I found myself running into dead ends often where I could only sit and hope for a quick death.
As a matter of fact, most times I’m chased I’d just roll my eyes and let the enemy kill me, so I could start over in the area. I found that easier than running, hiding and wasting more battery life to keep tabs on enemies. Rolling my eyes is not something I should be doing in a horror title.
In contrast, a horror favorite of mine, SOMA, had gameplay similar to this because protagonist Simon Jarrett also couldn’t defend himself. However, SOMA worked because enemies rarely chased me. Usually they were presented more as roaming roadblocks in an area and had to be carefully maneuvered around, and they were rarely agile. It was more like sneaking around zombies. Also, Simon’s flashlight didn’t run on batteries that die every sixty seconds, so I could take my time and nervously plan how I wanted to progress rather than rushing through it.
Now, about the lack of combat. If Outlast had combat — even bad combat — I think it would be greatly improved. One of my all-time favorites, Condemned: Criminal Origins, had clumsy first-person melee combat, but it worked well because wielding a pipe against crazed vagrants felt intense, frenetic and difficult, yet always fair.
I realize adding a combat system isn’t something a developer can do overnight. However, combat turns a binary die/don’t die encounter into a frantic fight for my life. Combat, when implemented correctly, causes a different type of reflexive adrenaline-based fear to pump through me. Removing any chance I have of defending myself while adding vicious enemies doesn’t make me scared. It just annoys me.
Outlast could implement combat while keeping chase sequences intact by allowing players to fight average enemies, but only run from boss-type enemies. I’d consider that a more believable and engaging scenario.
Unfortunately, I have to chalk Outlast up as another horror game that just doesn’t strike the right balance of gameplay features for me. Perhaps if there were more to the story than reading documents in the environment I’d feel more compelled to finish it, but its frequent binary chases and a forced-fast playstyle don’t deliver what I consider to be good horror.
Some horror games rely on too much combat while others strip it all away. My love for the non-combat SOMA is an outlier here, but SOMA has a great story, environment and characters to keep me engaged. Outlast has none of those. Although I’m down on Outlast, I’m still looking forward to its sequel. Perhaps after shipping Outlast and its DLC, developer Red Barrels will focus more on other gameplay elements, such as storytelling and character, to supplement its horror where combat can not.