Outlast boasts many compelling atmospheres, a certain moodiness overtaking all, resulting in a constant sense of dread; the clever, beautiful interplay of light and dark is especially central to this atmospheric nature. Transpiring solely in one location – Mount Massive Asylum – larger environmental diversity is lacking somewhat, even as ample differentiation is present when navigating the asylum proper. By its very nature, the structure is characterized by overwhelming claustrophobia, the halls and corridors tight and restrictive – Mount Massive fast becomes a character in its own right, grounding the narrative, evoking a sense of place. Manifold emotions are evoked when regarding this building, its façade – seen only in the game’s opening – being of an especially majestic sort, that beauty masking the horrors and evils which rest within. The labor which was no doubt exerted in the building’s construction suggests hopefulness and optimism, that the patients dwelling therein still retain the possibility of improvement. As the narrative progresses, though, that hopefulness is fast displaced by bleakness and pessimism. Rather than patients improving, the patients instead deteriorate, their fragilities exploited, oftentimes becoming test subjects for the central antagonist, the Murkoff Corporation. In venturing into this asylum, into the realm of corruption, it is as though the protagonist, Miles Upshur, is descending into the bowels of hell, like some mythical Dante. Terror, pure terror awaits him as he moves ever onward, gradually escalating in intensity and dread.
The game’s narrative is somewhat of a slow burn, boldly adopting an investigative tone. At the center of this detective story is the mentioned protagonist, Miles Upshur, a journalist by profession. Often presented as being a persistent, brave sort, resolute by nature and fully engrossed in his work, he dives into the heart of Mount Massive, unaware what precisely awaits him, beyond the certainty of a compelling, riveting story, which he may regard as being his responsibility to disseminate to a wider reading audience. Analyzing matters cynically, he is himself acting in an exploitative role, potentially shining this light out of a personal desire for profit, which would seemingly point to unlikability, though even this is rarely achieved beyond implicit suggestions, Miles rather devoid of any commanding personality, never even speaking, contributing nothing consequential to the narrative. His only compelling moments arise when he puts pen to paper, writing to himself in search of reassurance. Still, whether or no he is acting altruistically or in search of personal gain, his precise motivations are deftly and deliberately made unclear. The player, then, is forced to muse on matters, the game engaging them in a more cerebral manner, a massive achievement. Constant are such musings, as more and more of the asylum’s lore and darkness are revealed, as more information about Murkoff is advanced.
Whatever be the narrative strengths, the gameplay is completely lacking in depth, being of a highly linear, uninvolved sort. True, linearity is here an asset, resulting in an overall brisk pacing, though this lack of open-ended design can at times be frustrating. Matters are very straightforward – no elaborate inventory system is present, while weapons are totally lacking, perks and progression systems also absent. Still, the bold eschewing of these popular gameplay mechanics allows the game to craft its own distinct identity, the developers showing themselves as being confident and self-assured, having a clear vision and seizing upon it. Much of this gameplay, meanwhile, is centered around basic exploration, a navigating through Mount Massive Asylum. It is in these moments of quieter exploration where the gameplay truly excels, as the beauty – and horror – of Mount Massive is more fully on display. Again, the asylum is a character, a compelling one, far exceeding Miles’s depth; learning about it, its construction and backstory, is a suitably rewarding affair, much of its history communicated through clever environmental storytelling, as mountains of blood and viscera are a not uncommon occurrence, pointing towards a certain violence, penetrating all aspects of the structure, while some inmates congregate in the leisure areas, eagerly observing a television emitting only static. Scattered about the environment are various documents, which flesh out the world most considerably. Often filled with medical jargon, some of it is difficult to understand, though the more grounded, tragic documents are by far the most compelling, specific patients discussed, their progress and regression, regression abounding by far. Every one of these documents was received with excitement, even as they are traditionally very brief in length. Searching for documents, observing the asylum, participating in basic puzzle solving – many are the strengths.
Contrasting this greatness are manifold gameplay frustrations, the game showing a sharp imbalance of enjoyability; whenever the quiet is displaced by the loud, Outlast falls apart, even as it strives to evoke considerable tension. Much of these efforts center around NPC opposition, hostiles spawning it at regular, predetermined intervals. As mere reporter, untrained in combat or anything of the like, Miles is a vulnerable creature, unable to push back against these oppressors, who are very numerous, though some retain their docility, Miles’s expectations gratified. Miles’s own vulnerabilities are not an outright bad thing – the stealthy cautiousness they encourage does evoke tension, clever audio design amplifying distress, while the menacing visual nature of these foes is also unsettling, some lanky and sallow, others massive, hulking constructions. When this helplessness is conveyed successfully, many are gameplay strengths, though here the game is let down by the basicness of these mechanics, stealth overall being an uninvolved affair. Many tropes abound – crouching lowers visibility, while that slower movement speed also cuts back on the amount of sound produced. Hiding in darkness, naturally, is better than staying in the light. That is the extent of these mechanics’ complexities, showing competency but never achievement, competency shining through in the expected inclusion of various safe zones, such as lockers or bed frames, where Miles can retreat to while pursued, oftentimes breaking the enemy’s awareness, though even these sanctuaries can be compromised, owing to the enemies determination and clever A.I. patterns. Showing one instance of pure gameplay innovation, Miles’s only weapon is his camera, central to prolonged existence; while used, the screen is tinged an unappealing green, permitting Miles to cut through the darkness, while his opposition is blind and relatively helpless, victims to the asylum’s blinding bleakness.
Heights of frustration are achieved in the game’s many chase sequences, very numerous in the narrative, thus destroying their potential impactfulness. Miles’s sole physical strength is his agility, his deftness of movement, able to vault over obstacles with ease, while basic platforming elements are present in exploration. The enemies, though, can often match Miles’s speed, equally skilled in movement, resulting in a sense of balance – if Miles was too fast, all tension would be deflated. But no so. These sequences, then, are built on a strong foundation – hearing Miles pant wildly in exhaustion, while his pursuer lets out perpetual grunts, always at their prey’s heels; it can be remarkable, thrilling in a way lacking in basic exploration. But problems arise when considering the strict linearity present here, coupled alongside the opposition’s exaggerated hastiness. In all of these scenarios, only one path permits total escape. Not knowing that route from the first, understandably many wrong avenues will be pursued. Given the tightness of these situations, that one misstep can lead to swift death – the chase sequences are very punishing, even the slightest hesitation resulting in Miles’s downfall. A sharp sense of trial and error then emerges – play the sequence; die; reattempt the sequence, making a bit more progress; die again; and the cycle goes ever onwards until the path forward is memorized. These chase sequences, whatever are their failings, do break up the occasional monotony accompanying quieter exploration, but an imbalance again emerges when considering these two gameplay pillars. The presence of A.I. opposition evokes terror by its suggestions of imminent destruction, a certain tangibility of death. While exploring, terror is also evoked, but it is vague, more mentally distressing and less tangible; a clever fusion of emotion is achieved.
The joys of exploration are heightened further when considering further those mobility options afforded the player. In efforts at achieving immersion, the game never breaks from the first-person perspective, which makes more exhilarating and enjoyable the platforming and movement elements, Miles showing considerable deftness. From the first, this platforming is emphasized; just as soon as Miles disembarks from his car is he is scaling objects – upon leaving his vehicle to begin his investigation in earnest, he understandably finds the asylum doors locked, and must accordingly climb nearby scaffolding for entrance. Total freedom of movement is lacking here and beyond, all platforming sequences heavily scripted and strict, but that strictness does not dampen the joys inherently attached to these systems, which suggest a sense of empowerment as existing within Miles, which is transferred onwards to the player; alongside his camera, this is all he possesses to fight against his opposition, to survive the madness running rampant in the asylum proper. Climbing into ventilation systems to evade enemy pursuit and reobtain an undetected status; climbing exterior structures for progression and redirection, the surmounting of a physical obstacle – these are all highly satisfying affairs, amplified by excellent animation quality, Miles moving about realistically, a certain impactfulness accompanying his climbing and leaping, a sense of speed evoked as he breaks into a sprint. These movement systems, then, are similarly crucial to the gameplay, and are resounding successes.
Whether climbing, fleeing, or simply exploring tranquilly, the narrative remains engrossing throughout, abounding in maturity and darkness, never shying away from excessive violence, resulting in constant distress. Something inherently eerie is attached to the asylum as environment, serving as setting for many various works of fiction, perhaps because of its propensity for evoking pathos, expertly captured here. Those with mental illness need sympathy and care, to coalesce and reenter society, to make continued contributions – these are people, with real, beating hearts. Here, though, they are all preyed upon, made subjects to various mind control experiments, regard for their beings completely discarded in the warped march for progress, they being subject also to manipulations of sleep patterns, exposed to hypnotherapy. It is, above all, the Murkoff Corporation which ignites this exploitation, which ensures its maintenance, even as its universally despicable nature is no doubt felt by those same people who engage in the experiments; seeing the derangements afflicting these subjects, derangements of their creation, would no doubt be a troubling affair. A sense of tragedy is then attached to these figures. A man wielding a pair of oversized figures exists as antagonist for a spell, ultimately snipping off a pair of Miles’s fingers. Here, he is evil. But when regarding what precisely drove him to this point, what spurred him to act in violent anger, he is worthy of sympathy, as is a hulking figure who also serves as antagonist. What made these men so? What did they experience? The game again inspires ponderance within the player.
While Outlast succeeds in its evocation of perpetual dread, from a design standpoint it is completely devoid of traditional survival horror elements. The camera, as has been said, is central to Miles’s continued existence; without it, darkness would overtake all, the flame of life snuffed out. Conveying the vitalness of this device, in one instance it is actually stripped of the player, resulting in a highly intense scenario, a desperation for its reacquisition, Miles of a totally vulnerable sort, deprived of one of his two sources of strength, placed on a level similar to his opponents. The failings, though, are immense, survival horror elements fashioned in lazily. The camera runs on batteries; theoretically, if all batteries have been expended, Miles would again be vulnerable. But the abundance with which these items are distributed almost trivializes this concern – not once in the entire play section were all batteries gone, even as their drain rate can be rather rapid, especially while using the night-vision function. The managing of resources this would supposedly encourage never becomes a viable concern, the game being rather forgiving in resource distribution, even while playing on the hard difficulty. Scarcer resources would elevate the gameplay, adding in a greater sense of depth which is otherwise totally lacking. Some efforts at convention are made, as with basic puzzle-solving, but survival horror is mainly unachieved.
As an experience, Outlast is on the briefer side, the playtime lasting no more than six or seven hours. This briskness is appropriate to the genre, as horror games in general can be of a frequently distressing sort, and that is especially applicable here, terror and dread abounding, bleakness overtaking all, violence presented often and unflinchingly – the game is sometimes exhausting to play, and the evocation of exhaustion suggests many strengths, a sharp emotional engagement. The presentation is agitating in a unique manner, permitting the game to fashion a unique identity, even as its disparate parts do not point to particular uniqueness. The narrative ambitiously seeks to convey the darkness resting within all men, the swaying effects of anger and curiosity; the Murkoff Corporation is a rather compelling villain, even with its vagueness, showing the vast majority of the asylum staff as being culpable, for never intervening, even as the barbarism of the experiments was made readily apparent. True, at the ending of the narrative a more focused antagonist is present, namely the leader of Murkoff, a particularly sinister being, though his emergence was not especially impactful, even as environmentally the conclusion was a stark break from everything which came before, as tunnels of ice are navigated, instead of claustrophobic corridors of darkness. The grounded, human elements are displaced by the supernatural – the conclusion overall is abysmal. Still, the game seems a literal odyssey, seeing navigation through Mount Massive, a gradual unraveling of its many secrets. The narrative is impactful emotionally and intellectually, though it is let down by the basicness of its gameplay systems, its occasionally frustrating components, its lack of real gameplay innovations, save through the symbolic piercing through the darkness achieved by clever employ of the camera; instead, Outlast is primarily carried by nature of its complex environments and their overwhelming darkness, a darkness reflected in many of the asylum’s tragically inflicted inhabitants.