It’s when you’re disoriented and a little lost in the dark and the battery on your camera starts chirping that “Outlast” is at its most effective. It’s the part where “Outlast” attempts to tell its complicated and largely forgettable story about an evil corporation run amok and German spirits that the first effort from indie developer Red Barrels starts to falter. In fact, after a strong and largely unsettling first hour, “Outlast,” the first-person horror game Red Barrels slips from fresh and frightening early on to tired and familiar by the time the final body drops.
Armed only with a trusty camcorder and a note warning you of abuses at the Mount Massive Asylum, you play as investigative journalist Miles Upshur, dedicated to finding out what the secretive Murkoff Corporation has been up to at the isolated mountain facility. I won’t spoil the secrets of the script from writer J.T. Petty (“Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory,” and the must-see “The Burrowers”), but they’re largely what you expect, revolving around human experimentation and dirty dealings in the military-industrial complex in the most broad way possible, with a finale that largely apes Monolith’s “F.E.A.R.”
So the story’s not great, but for a great deal of its short campaign (somewhere around four hours, if you’re wondering), “Outlast” will have you on the edge of your seat. It all comes down to the early work Red Barrels’ level designers put into creating a sense of dread in the Mount Massive facility and sound designing the hell out this thing, while keeping the mechanics as simple as possible. The monstrous lunatics infected by… something… in the facility are too strong for Miles to fight, meaning that you’ll spend your time either peeking around corners, listening for footsteps in the dark, or running like hell when you’re spotted.
It’s this last bit that’s both very effective and, later, very trying as “Outlast” increasingly relies on you to sprint with some light platform hopping. The increased frequency of enemy encounters, and how action-heavy they become with the score hitting loud, grand notes, detracts from the more chilling, intimate horrors of the game. I completely understand the impulse: you have to keep increasing the stakes and the tension, and in small ways (like restricting your field of vision later in the game), “Outlast” does this perfectly. But just throwing more enemy encounters at you, and having you steer the ungainly Miles around at high speed in the dark just doesn’t do it. Similarly, an over reliance on backtracking and quests to “turn two knobs to activate switch” make stretches of your stay in Mount Massive feel same-y.
But man, what an opening. In spite of its flaws, in the fairly lonely field of horror games, “Outlast” does just enough to be worth seeking out.
Score: 7 out of 10
“Outlast” is available now for the PC.
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