The PS4's latest scare harks back to Clock Tower, Silent Hill & Dark Corners of the Earth - and the console is richer for it, says Matt Martin.
Nothing says a budget game release quite like a screen full of text the moment you press Start, but with Outlast's basic concept, a stripped down introduction suits this creep-fest just fine. One of Outlast's strongest attractions is that it just gets on with the dirty business at hand - it's refreshing to get straight into the exploration and scares of the game. Before you know it, you're up to your elbows in gore and guts.
The early minutes are filled with flashing lightning, shapes in the gloom, wolves howling and branches tapping against glass. You'll hear your own ragged breath as you stumble past flickering lights, glimpse a figure briefly in a bedroom window and push past blood slick walls. It's like a visualisation of Fighting Fantasy classic House of Hell for the speed at which it throws around the horror cliches.
But it doesn't take long to ramp up the blood from a dubious stain on the ceiling to severed heads racked up like optics behind the bar. There's nothing subtle about a game that fills a toilet bowl with internal organs. Sure, there's a sniff of Cthulhu in the atmosphere, but after ten minutes this is visually and conceptually American Horror Story.
The concept behind Outlast is that as a journalist you're not armed with anything more than a video camera with night vision, allowing you to see in the dark and zoom into your environment before heading off into the gloom. That's all you get, you have no weapons or anything else to defend yourself. It's a brave USP and it works well. It may get a little repetitive towards the end of the game, but it's still fresh compared to the endless upgrade from pistol to machine gun to rocket launcher that you'll find in any first-person shooter.
In Outlast, you don't fight, you hide. Creeping around a mansion you must avoid contact with the killers and psychotics by hiding in lockers, under beds, behind desks and crawling through air vents. Exploration is important as you go - it's sensible to know where the nearest place of sanctuary is because if you get spotted you'll be chased down and bludgeoned to death unless you can quickly find cover. And don't think you can hide if someone is giving chase and breathing down your neck. Early on I slipped under a mattress thinking I would be ignored only to be pulled out by a grinning loon and butchered right there on the floor. It's shocking and brutal.
There's a nice balance to be found between tactical hiding and sprinting past the bad guys to another safe spot. Although the killers that inhabit Mount Massive Asylum soon give up if they can't find you, they walk a tight path that you'll need to negotiate with flashes of bravery because they're never far away. One wrong turn, a couple of hacks from a machete and you're done.
"The level design plays with your confusion. You will panic, fumble and make things worse for yourself, inevitably cornered and beaten to death."
The biggest thrills are in the early hours of the game. The first time you're hunted down you will panic, fumble and make things worse for yourself, inevitably cornered and beaten to death. The level design plays with your confusion - you'll catch sight of a creep in the distance thinking he hasn't seen you only to back up onto someone else's blade. In places it's a real horrifying experience that conveys the sense you're nothing more than prey, desperately looking for an escape. Level design isn't over-complicated but if you panic you'll feel a terrific sense of disorientation that adds to the thrill.
Calling it simple is in no way to take away from the stripped-back strengths of the game. The blurred view through a night vision lens ensures you switch between that and normal sight regularly, and little touches such as being able to slowly peek through a door or slam it open give choice to mundane actions. Developer Red Barrels has done a good job of keeping the design restrained and uncomplicated but still offering options and detail so the experience is never dull.
As well as the threat of extreme violence the other barrier to progress are the simple puzzles to unlock a blocked path. These are standard video game fair - turn some valves, boot up the lights, grab a key card - but thankfully they're never difficult and you'll stumble across the solutions soon enough. Environments seem bigger than they are just because you can usually only see a short distance in the gloom, so a small control room can seem just as threatening as a three story open courtyard.
There's a storyline here, about secret experiments and mentions of the occult, but the mystery of what's around the next corner is much more fun than reading the notes and medical reports lying around. The looming threat of discovery and immediate violence is what keeps Outlast exciting and the muscles tense, and begs the question why more games don't take away the weapons and drop you into situations where there's a real feeling of menace. While there's been a welcome growth in new horror experiences over the past couple of years, Outlast is haunted by the ghosts of single-player games like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Clock Tower, Silent Hill and The Suffering.
This solo journey through a ghost train of jumps and gristle is exactly the kind of game we lost on consoles when the big publishers squeezed out anything that wasn't guaranteed triple-A. Sony's PlayStation Plus service pushes Outlast towards a whole new audience and like other indie hits that have found a second release on consoles after the PC, it's a quality game that's well worth it's modest sub-£20 asking price. It's a mostly linear ride through jumps, gore and brutality - and there may be some budget cracks that appear from time to time - but it's exactly what the PS4 needs to help it differentiate itself from the competition and add some welcome variety in a world of overly familiar franchises.