Saturday, March 7, 2015

Impressions #27: Outlast

Out of curiosity, I decided to try out this whole “scary game” thing again. With Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3 out of the way, “horror” games are apparently something I do now. For this reason, and sheer curiosity, I decided to try out Outlast. Originally released on PC in 2013, moving to consoles almost a year later, Outlast is an indie-developed survival horror game. Developed by Red Barrels, the game chronicles the adventure of journalist Miles Upshur. Armed with only a notepad and a camcorder, he investigates a tip about an insane asylum doing unethical experiments. This week, I discuss how it both succeeds and fails its intended audience.

As the game began, I admit that it scared me in a number of ways. The initial scenes all to their best to set an atmosphere of creepiness. The tension runs high and, while I was aware that eventually I was going to get scared, I did not know in exactly what way. For a fairly long stretch, the game built tension without attempting to cache it out. It is subtle in the way that it began to unsettle me in those opening scenes. When the scares finally began to happen, that tension amplified them beyond what would be normally expected.
Unfortunately, the horror began to fade quickly the further I progressed. The game tried to give the player a brief reprieve every chapter, in order to help restore tension between encounters. Sadly, none of them are as long as that first moment. Furthermore, they grow shorter and shorter with each successive chapter. Without that tension, it just never gets as scary those initial scenes. Events are no less disturbing, and remain gruesome throughout, but the illusion of danger fades along with the suspense. Compounded by the predictability of the encounters, horror is the first feeling to get invited, but leaves before the party is over.

Fortunately, the game offers more than just that. Even when the horror fades, there is a noticeable thrill in the act of playing the game. This is because the protagonist cannot confront enemies. He has no combat ability, so in a straight up fight against the insane asylum patients will result in a swift and painful death. In order to stay alive, he has to either hide, stay out of sight, or run circles around them to get to his objectives and get out.
This means that there are generally two strategies when going through one of these encounters. The first one is a bit more slow and methodical, along the lines of a traditional stealth game. Players slowly move about in the shadows, watching inmate movements and trying to stay out of sight. Hiding under beds or in old, rusty lockers can help facilitate this idea. Since the protagonist's camcorder has a nightvision mode built in, the player has a slight advantage in that he can see better than his pursuers. In the ideal world, the player will be able to find whatever item they need to precede, usually a key or something, and get out before any is the wiser.
But, that rarely ever happens. As a result, most players will inevitably shift to the other possible strategy. That is, they will run as fast as they possibly can. Since there is no stamina bar, no penalty will in incurred for just sprinting aside from all the noise that is generated. Even more fortunately, Miles Upshur runs faster than most of the enemies in the game. This makes it entirely possible to just rush through a given segment by sprinting through the level, gathering everything needed before the inmates even get a chance to blink. Once players realize that most enemies will take 4 hits to kill Miles, 2 for stronger ones, this tactic becomes more viable. After all, it is perfectly acceptable to take a few hits while sprinting. Even if things get bad, it is easy to break line of sight and hide in a locker to recover for a bit. This is part of why the game gets less scary, but just narrowly escaping a powerful foe by outwitting him is exactly why it becomes more of a thriller.

There are also a number of collectibles scattered throughout the game. By recording events with the camcorder, players can unlock notes detailing the protagonist's opinions on the events of the plot. Documents located in various places also provide detail regarding the purpose of the asylum. Lastly, since using nightvision requires charge (but not the act of simply using the camera normally), the player can collect and store up to 10 batteries to reload into the camera and restore charge. The notes and documents provide some mildly interesting reading, even if the story is fairly forgettable in and of itself. On the other hand, the batteries can be fairly scarce, particularly in the early game, so picking them up will be almost required.

Speaking of the story, it is very bland. You, the reader, probably groaned at the premise that I mentioned at the start of this article. Honestly, it does not get much better than that. If you have watched a movie, you can predict the twists and turned that you will encounter in the story. None of it is bad. However, nothing stands out from other, more well-known pieces of horror-themed fiction. Secret government experiments, horrible mutations, evil ghosts/monsters, and other devices have all been used before. This is also true of the the trope of the intrepid reporter risking his life for a major scoop. Though players will get through the game, it will not be at the forefront of their minds once they finish.

That can almost be said for the game itself. It is fun to play, and does its job. However, it does not do enough to stand out among its contemporaries in the horror genre. After beating it once, it is highly unlikely that it will be remembered for long. As a smaller, more independent game, this can forgiven. I would even recommend a playthrough for people who are desperate for a horror fix. With that in mind, most people will not be losing much if they skip out on it. Though good, it is not great and the players who are likely to enjoy are just as likely to have played better.

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