Survive (if you can) in Outlast [PAX East 2013 Preview]

I may have pooped myself a little bit in the Outlast demo booth. Terror does funny things to human bowels.

Attack2

I called the guys outside the Outlast demo a mean name after I stepped out of the dark booth I’d played it inside. I laughed after that, the kind of laugh someone might have after waking up from the most terrible nightmare they’d ever had. I was happy to be alive; happy to have walked out of the dark place I’d just been inside. I say this because Outlast took elements from almost every good horror game I know and created an experience that was unrelentingly scary.

Created by Red Barrels Games, a company composed of veterans from EA and Ubisoft, you can see the top-tier talent in the look, sound, and gameplay. I was blown away at how good this game looked for an indie game. This game really did look like something one of the big game houses had put out, and because of that the asylum was gorgeously decrepit and full of detail. I actually stopped outside the asylum and took it all in for a few minutes.

It’s probably for the best that I looked around while I was outside, as it wasn’t too long before the lights went out on me. Light sources aren’t all that common in the game after the first few minutes, so a lot of the time you’ll be relying on a hand camera to light your way. Turning it on sets the whole game in a night vision overlay, something that makes it all look very grainy and a little bit indistinct. That sounds bad, but what it does is make the player just a little bit unsure of what certain types of movement mean. When a body came swinging down at me I couldn’t see finer details on it, so I didn’t know if it was a living enemy or not and I freaked out. I couldn’t quite trust my eyes any more when that filter was on, and that made me even more scared.

The audio is top-notch, too. When that body came down my in-game character, journalist Miles Upshur, screamed so loud that I screamed in real life. I wasn’t expecting the character to react so powerfully to anything in the game, as I’m used to my horror protagonists being either silent or subdued in their reactions. This was something entirely new, and so was his ragged breathing during a chase sequence that would happen later. Just hearing the sounds of his breathing had me worried that he was running out of air, that he was just about to come to a halt from exhaustion. I also knew it meant he was just on the edge of complete panic, and something about hearing him breathing hard got me doing it too; frightening me further. It really dragged me into the character’s shoes and left me shaking.

Asylum

Other sounds are played well, with a lot of ambient noise and silence done in smart ways. There is an almost silent tune that played during most of the demo, just enough to raise my tension levels. At other times it would go quiet, making me wonder if something was about to happen or not. Other places would have weird bumps or sounds in the dark, always making me wonder what was lurking just a few halls away. I knew something was going to attack me, and after a while I was praying that the demo would just get it over with.

Be careful what you wish for.

There are no monsters in the game, I was told, just people. Having some folks on board who’d worked on the Condemned series, I knew these guys could play human enemies in a way that made them frightening, but I wasn’t prepared for the gravelly voice that growled at me from the darkness just ahead. I can’t remember the exact phrase, but it was something along the lines of “I can smell you, pig.” I might have been able to remember it better if I hadn’t caught site of a huge, hulking man carrying a length of chain a few steps in front of me. He was stalking toward my location, so I turned and bolted. I’d been making a mental map of the place in my head as I’d worked my way through it, but that went out the window the minute I saw the guy. I was gone.

There is no combat in Outlast. If you get caught, you’re dead, typically in spectacular fashion. I have never seen an enemy rip my entire lower body off from first person view before, and I’d not like to have to again. Anyway, your only way to escape is to hide, and I found a lot of lockers and beds to crawl under. There’s no neat little indicator of safety that most games would stick in there, though. Once you’re hidden, you just have to listen to hear if your attacker’s breathing and voice sound like they’re farther away or not. Silence is awful when you’re hiding, though, as you don’t really know where the attacker is at, leaving the player paralyzed. I didn’t want to crawl out from under the bed for a few minutes as I had no idea where the attacker had skulked off to. I was afraid he was just outside the door, patiently waiting to grab me.

I had to go, though, as the batteries on my camera were running out. In case the developers somehow hadn’t done enough to make things frightening, you have to collect batteries in the game to keep your camera running. I thought I would have a ton of them to keep me going given how many I was picking up, but the camera takes four batteries to restore itself to full power. It chews through that power fast, too, so you’re really not going to want to be using the camera for long. With that huge guy chasing me through pitch black corridors, though, I desperately wanted to keep it on. I couldn’t bear the possibility of shutting it off and plunging myself into darkness, even when I was hiding, but I had to. Doing so added another awful layer to the game, forcing me to make my own experience that much more frightening during moments when I really didn’t want to; making me complicit in my own terror. It was incredible.

Attack

Eventually, you have to get out of your hiding spot and run. By the time I’d managed to get myself to do it, I had about half a bar of power left on my camera. I plunged headfirst into the dark, unable to hear anything out there. That scared me far worse than sound would have, so I just darted around in a panic. The developers gave me a lean option, one that would let you poke your head out into a hallway and get a safe peek at what was going on, but I didn’t have the time or strong nerves to use it. All I could do was run in terror, taking turns at random. I’d entered an empty room when the batteries in my camera finally ran out, and it was then that I heard the sounds of my attacker’s breathing coming from down the hall.

Part of me just wanted to sit down and wait for death, but I was actually too scared of how that death would occur to give up. I darted all over the chamber as the sound grew louder, poking my head out into the hall and seeing my attacker working his way toward me. I think he said something when he saw me too, but all I could process was the noise of it. I ran back into the room as if my prospects had somehow changed, and luckily I noticed a vent that I hadn’t picked up on before. I swear I could feel his heavy footsteps right behind me, as if I was within arm’s length and the creature was just toying with me. Somehow, I got into that vent and crawled away while listening to the inmate’s enraged roars getting quieter and quieter. My heart rate settled a little bit.

I’d been told going into the demo that not all of these guys would be dangerous. Not every inmate you came across would attack you, as all of them had their own motives. You could run into someone that wouldn’t attack you or even pay attention to you, but you’d never be entirely sure. That last chase had given me a taste of what was to come, but even that attack wasn’t something I could rely on to know. I would never be able to be sure of my surroundings or attackers, always left mentally off-balance while I tried my best to survive the confines of the asylum.

That was when I saw the bright red exit sign, a dim glimmer of hope taking over. I’d survived the attack and my ten minute demo would be over when I touched that doorknob, and I knew it. I think the guys at Red Barrels Games figured I would know it too, as that was when the creature grabbed me by the throat and tore me apart in one final scare that left me laughing and shaking. I was dead, but at least it was over. I wouldn’t have to be afraid any more.

Outlast is looking like it will be THE horror game; a terrifying blend of every good idea in horror to date along with a few new tricks of its own. I can’t even describe how excited I am that I’ll be able to play the full release this year.

Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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