Chaos. There’s no other word for it. Some huge dude’s stomping around, just waiting for an excuse to fly into a rage if you move so much as an inch, and the teammate who just walked up to me turns out not to be a teammate at all but is instead – inexplicably – their maniacal evil twin who plunges a knife into my guts. I try to run – even though I already know that running never, ever works out for me here – grabbing the film reel as I do so, only there’s a nun mannequin doing something so incredibly un-nunly in the middle of the table that I stop to gawp. She’s not… look, I know the Outlast games aren’t known for their subtlety, but she’s not doing what I think she is, is she? But then the evil twin of my teammate knifes me again and I stumble to the floor.
I spend a lot of time in The Outlast Trials stumbling about, lost and afraid, slipping about in the crimson spatter that coats every square inch of this place, screaming and running and screaming some more as abominations yanked from a Ronald McDonald fever dream scuttle in my wake, screeching for my blood. (Almost) Every one of them has their own particular foible – the huge dude can’t duck into the waist-high passageways; the night vision dude is blind when he’s dragged into the light – but do you think I’m remembering that as I crash down the corridor, detonating every mine and smacking into every sound alarm, the greedy gasps of my pursuer hot and heavy in my ears? I can’t think rationally here – I can barely think at all. It’s why the dudes in the white coats behind frosted glass always seem so disappointed in me when I emerge, pale and shaky, at the end of each trial. They don’t seem to care that for someone like me – someone who tries so hard to be stealthy but has been steadily giving themselves away since Snake first met Meryl – emerging at all is the victory.
There’s a story here, but it’s pretty light touch. Murkoff’s back – although it doesn’t really matter if you’re new to the franchise and that name means nothing to you – and this time, a whole bevvy of cold science bros are giddy at the prospect of testing a range of mind control techniques on a bunch of hapless, hopeless souls in the grip of the Cold War. You’ll be put through a series of excruciating “trials” designed to test the limits of your endurance, each more twisted and wicked than the last. A confusing maze of a police station. An obscene facsimile of an orphanage. The shadowy alleys of an amusement park where the only fun you’ll find is within your funeral coffin.
There are more locations coming, I’m sure, but as it’s out in early access, this is all you’ll get to explore for now. You’d like to think that that’s a good thing – I can get lost in a single well-lit room with a breadcrumb trail and a GPS – but the cheeky rascals at Red Barrels like to mix things up, so doors and windows and hiding spots – more on those in a sec – will move each time you return. You’ll never feel entirely safe because you’ll never be entirely safe; and the further into the game you go, the more you’ll realise that the only guarantee here is that your night vision goggles battery will run out.
Like its predecessors, The Outlast Trials throws you into the shadows with nowt but those goggles and what’s left of your sanity, and once again, you can’t fight back. Yes, it’s obscene. Yes, it’s bloody challenging – and challengingly bloody. But as well as the sinister things creeping about in the dark, you’ll face other dangers, too, such as the glass on the floor and the endless sound traps that’ll give away your location. There are mines and booby traps and that aggravating dude who pumps you full of a goofy gas that brings on deathly hallucinations. Yes, there are healing items to salvage – and later, when you unlock the “rig”, you can buy the ability to heal yourself – but there’s never quite enough resources to go around, and never enough time to properly weigh up whether it’s worth sacrificing the lockpick to grab a revive syringe… especially as the item boxes are booby-trapped to spray you with gas if you dither too long.
And that’s the problem with The Outlast Trials for me. I am, indeed, a ditherer, which means I’m forever being spotted and hunted and bloodied. It’s also why my end-of-trial grading is always humiliatingly rubbish when compared with my teammates, although it was with some surprise that we realised that regardless of whether you complete the mission objectives or cower in a bin, your final score seems to come down to the number of times you took damage and/or triggered a trap rather than how collegial a teammate you were. (I’ll leave you to decide who it was that was cowering in the bin.)
Despite being in early access, it looks, runs, and sounds great – well, if you dig blood, dismemberment, plastic boobs, and realistic willy-shaking, I guess – with one notable exception being the Orphanage’s frequency puzzle, which was a ballache to do with mouse and keyboard, and downright infuriating with a gamepad. Otherwise, even though the puzzles can be a touch repetitive, the shifting environments and patrolling enemies keep you on your toes, particularly as you not only have to complete the mission objective to escape but make it to the exit alive, too… and I don’t think I ever reached those gates feeling 100 percent confident I’d live long enough to make it through the turnstiles.
I guess it’ll come as no surprise, then, that to survive in The Outlast Trials, stealth is key. With limited batteries and medicine and an even tighter inventory, the best way to navigate the space is to do it slowly, creeping from hiding spot to hiding spot, which can include the dark spaces under desks, lockers, crawl spaces, or rubbish bins. Enemies can be thwarted by a well-timed slammed door and a quick push of the lock, although as I frequently shut myself outside the door alongside my enemy, I soon gave up on that. But even hiding can come at the cost of your life; as well as navigating past the broken glass, mines, and cute duckies clutching bunches of dynamite, enemies lurk in your safe spaces, too. This means that unless you’re specifically listening out for their low chuckles or mumbles, they can blindside you with an attack, even if you’re being super stealthy.
As well as your upgradeable rig – there are currently four available; stun, blind, heal, and x-ray, which all pretty much do what they say on the tin – you can also use your victory tickets to buy black market prescriptions, too, which unlock, say, a new inventory slot, or the (dreadful) slide, which only seemed to make things worse when you’re being chased. Eventually, you can unlock amps, too, which offer even more perks, such as the ability to instantly recover your stamina whilst in hiding, or don protective slippers that mean you can step on broken glass without making any noise.
Your XP, on the other hand? Pointless, I’m afraid. Unless you have a burning desire to pull on some Higton-inspired jorts or pimp out the bare bricks of your cell, there’s nothing else to use it for.
Later, when you hoist the difficulty, it almost doesn’t matter how stealthy you are, though, and things become chaotic all over again. Thought you’d ducked into that locker before the enemy turned the corner? Apparently not. Figured you’d slammed the door and slipped under the desk before you were spotted? Sorry, my friend. Throw in an agonisingly slow-to-regen stamina system, and it feels like the game’s mechanics have been designed to ensure that you can’t escape pursuers, which is a pain in the proverbial in co-op, but utterly infuriating should you be attempting a trial alone.
Developer Red Barrels has promised “more trials, challenges, enemies, perks, and customisation options” alongside bug fixes and balance tweaks as The Outlast Trials progresses through early access, but it’d take a pretty fundamental change to improve on those issues above.
And while I screamed a lot, The Outlast Trials isn’t scary – at least, not in the way its predecessors were. Whereas it apes some aspects of its original premise courtesy of those oh-shit-he-saw-me cat-and-mouse chase sequences, the cloying atmosphere has gone. Yes, it makes me scream, but only because, once again, some dude hiding in a locker has taken me by surprise, or because my stamina’s run out – AGAIN – and I can hear the puppetmaster snickering right behind me.
But whilst I suspect that will disappoint some who spent a lot of time creeping around the dark halls of Mount Massive Asylum with sweaty palms and a tangy, metallic taste in the back of their throats, that doesn’t mean you won’t have a bloody good time, though. I certainly did.
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