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Outlast – a decent game that ended up feeling underwhelming (October Terrorthon)

After Carrion and KONA, Outlast was the first game I played as part of my all-horror month that was unequivocally horror, which along with the high praise it has received since its release meant I was really excited for my playthrough. And while the game was able to deliver on a couple of fronts, the overly formulaic nature of its gameplay loop left me thinking this was, ultimately, a wasted opportunity in the genre.

I’m certainly not discarding Outlast’s achievements as an experience, the main ones being, to my eyes, its visual and audio atmosphere. The game is a great example of how to use both effectively: there is an uncompromising commitment to repulsive and disturbing imagery, which is actually refreshing to go through in 2021 given today’s artistic expression constraints. For anyone who has seen Grave Encounters, the parallels are obvious, both in the night vision style and in the actual setting. But Outlast takes it further in how graphic and gory it can get, and here, the Whistleblower DLC gets particularly ‘aggressive’. Additionally, whether it’s texture quality or lighting, this game just looks amazing, especially considering its indie nature and year of release. In the survival horror genre, these aspects are particularly important due to how directly they affect your level of personal investment, and the devs did a phenomenal job here. The sound effects are equally impressive and very fitting, except for those moments when they opt for an absurdly over-the-top music explosion in order to artificially intensify its many jump scares (I’ll get to those in a moment). Another strong aspect is the fact that you have no means of fighting back (having instead to rely on stealth, hiding and running), as this greatly contributes to a sense of tension – if not necessarily horror – throughout your entire playthrough. Even though this is far from the highlight in the genre – the obvious examples of games that did it better before or since are Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Alien: Isolation -, it is still a decently implemented mechanic that works well enough in Outlast at least for your first run, despite the AI being overall on the weak side.

The game’s drawbacks, however, even if there aren’t that many of them, are significant enough to bring the game down in quality. The biggest issue is how formulaic the gameplay loop feels from start to finish. Structure wise, there’s very little you’ll do or see that you won’t do or see in the first half hour or so, essentially: go there, things go wrong (fair enough, lots of games do this), go somewhere else, avoid a scripted enemy encounter, press/turn/collect two or three of the same thing in order to activate a third, escape a scripted enemy encounter, rinse and repeat, all the while facing a ridiculous amount of jump scares. Which to me is another one of the game’s main issues: even though I find jump scares can be quite effective when used logically and sparsely, Outlast simply relies on them way too much for the technique to achieve the intended effect. After a certain point, you become so desensitised to it that it ends up becoming nothing more than a nuisance. The story, as well as quite a few game segments and enemy encounters, falls short of feeling coherent or fleshed out. There are some aspects in it that don’t seem to make sense even with a fair dose of suspension of disbelief – eg why would you spend such a big portion of the game looking for Father Martin and blindly doing what he says when he’s clearly a lunatic that can easily be tricking you? Why is the Walrider, an otherwise incredibly powerful and lightning-fast creature, so incompetent whenever it tries to kill you? Why do enemies take so long opening doors that you don’t lock, but merely close? To me, aspects such as these hinder the immersion that the game is trying to deliver. Finally, as far as the narrative goes, even though the science part of it may justifiably feel far fetched to some, I actually think it’s the (being overly cautious and adding spoilers to this next part but all of this is pretty obvious from the beginning of the game) cult aspect of it that could do with a bit more development. I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere so I may be alone on this opinion, but the conclusion of the game’s ‘religious’ tale felt a bit anti-climatic, and somewhat disconnected from the other half of the story the game is attempting to tell.

All things considered, Outlast is an interesting experience, boasting a couple of tricks up its sleeve that rightly became influential over the years in games that follow a similar formula. That said, its significant shortcomings make a dent on your enjoyment of the game as a whole. A 3 out of 5 mirrors my overall impression after playing it. There’s certainly no better time to try this game than October, and if you’re into jump scares you might be in for a treat. For everyone else, even though I still think it might be worth trying Outlast for yourself, you might come out feeling somewhat let down, especially if this isn’t amongst your first survival horror rodeos.

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