Outlast, the first-person survival horror game by Red Barrels, is dark. Not just in terms of its content, which features a gore-splattered insane asylum packed with murderous lunatics and their victims, but in terms of its lighting – or lack thereof.
Many of the corridors, rooms, basements, sewers and even outdoor areas you’ll navigate are pitch black. The only way to see is by using the night vision setting of the video camera you’ve brought with you, which runs on a series of slowly draining batteries.
With no weapons to fight off the lunatics, you can hide – inside lockers or under beds – and watch as your pursuers either stalk slowly past to look for you elsewhere, or suddenly spot you, drag you from your hiding place, and tear you to pieces. Or you can run: vault over obstacles, leap across broken staircases, pull yourself into vents, squeeze between obstructions, and yank doors open and then barricade them behind you, all which feels fluid and natural, like a nightmare version of Mirror’s Edge. When you’re not running or hiding, you’ll be scouring the building for spare batteries for your camera, for keys to unlock doors, or for the nearest exit.
The audio only improves the experience. The asylum is full of the screeches of imprisoned patients and victims. Monsters snarl and mumble as they shamble around. The soundtrack is nearly perfect, as well. Sure, it comes in to highlight a set piece or an important story hook liked you’d expect, but you’ll also find yourself wandering a ward with no music at all–nothing but the sound of your breathing, the floor creaking, and the shrieking of the inmates in the distance. The music comes in to dramatic effect–highlighting a particularly important storyline beat or driving you on during one of Outlast many chase sequences.
Red Barrels really made the setting work for them. The ramshackle, run-down asylum looks spectacularly creepy, especially when it’s depicted in the washed-out light of the IR camera. The confined hallways and ward rooms add a lot to keep you guessing where the next monster will pop out from, while providing enough variety in level and geography that you don’t get too bored.
the camera’s ever-dwindling energy supply is a good thing. As a consequence, Upshur spends much of the game darting from sewers to theaters to laboratories in utter blackness, and the fast-draining batteries initially help to maintain the kinds of chills developer Red Barrels desires. Too bad, then, that batteries are so common a few hours in that you can maintain a full pack of 10 with little effort.
A mental hospital might be a predictable—even cliche—setting for this type of story, but it also affords Outlast the chance to mix folks who just want to be left in peace with the psychotic types. The upshot of the setup is that you never know which you’re going to encounter, and therein lies much of Outlast’s potential for terror. Early on, for instance, you’re forced to amble straight past a trio of scarred patients who pay you little mind; later on, a loitering patient with a club might let you pass unharmed but decide to clobber you once you pass by again.