The Outlast Trials preview: Troublesome tropes abound in horror prequel
The Outlast series has never shied away from being outrageous, and The Outlast Trials is no different. Taking the tried and tested single-player horror rollercoaster recipe to a co-optional format is a risky concept on paper, but the team at Red Barrels seems to have pulled it off. Despite now having the company of friends while fleeing down damp and dingy corridors, The Outlast Trials remains one of the most harrowing gaming experiences I’ve had the displeasure of trying in years.
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Cranking up the heat on horror
If you’ve ever had a passing interest in the lore of the world behind Outlast, then you’ll likely love everything that The Outlast Trials has to throw at you. It depicts the preceding events of the Murkoff Corporation stealing vulnerable people from the streets and utilising them in grotesque experiments, inspired by MKUltra. You play as one of these poor souls, stolen away and thrown into a series of ungodly circuits, all lined with their own unique objectives.
These objectives can be anything from pushing a cart down a track, turning a series of valves, or finding the right combination of keys for a specific door. These must all be completed while evading the multitude of enemy types that The Outlast Trials throws at you, all of which are particularly varied and require a different approach to evade.
Your typical grunts aren’t too tricky to avoid, but variants like Nighthunters are permanently equipped with night vision goggles. This means they can see you crystal clear in the dark, but become incapacitated in the light. Combine that with Pouncers that hide in the spots you’d usually call refuge, and the many more enemy types only contribute to the feeling of unsafe paranoia that’s impossible to escape in this game.
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I’m a test subject, get me out of here
If there’s one thing that The Outlast Trials has absolutely nailed, it’s the atmosphere. Equipped with the latest ray-tracing rendering technologies, the horrifically dark and grimy environments make you feel physically ill while traversing them. Between the Abandoned Police Station, Theme Park and Orphanage, players exist in a heightened version of reality. Looking up, you can see that it’s all situated in a massive hangar, with scientists patrolling the gantries above, taking notes all the while.
However, surely the most unsettling aspect of The Outlast Trials is its gratuitous use of body horror. Not two minutes into the first cutscene, and you’re already witnessing human bodies being mutilated to the nth degree. All test subjects are fitted with a night vision headset, which is screwed into their skulls permanently. You’d better believe that you have to sit through that fitting in full, all from a first-person perspective.
Even wandering the corridors of the Trials, there’s no escape from the grim violence that pursues you. Enemies will drill through your hands in a heartbeat, and dismembered corpses are commonly set dressing in these parts. There are also some missions that require you to dig your hands into the cavities of dead bodies, just for the hell of it.
Hold my hand
While the first two Outlast games were terrifying in their own right, they were also incredibly linear and often repetitive. This has been rectified in The Outlast Trials by randomising many of the objectives you must complete.
Even if you fail one of the trials, restarting it will scramble the locations of objectives. This means there’s no way to cheese your way through the challenges, forcing you to face your fears head-on. In addition, it does the game a world of good for replayability, especially if you want to mix up between playing solo or with a squad.
Speaking of friends, by adding a multiplayer component to the Outlast formula, there was a worry that it could drastically reduce the fear factor. However, while it’s certainly much more of a laugh with friends, the adrenaline you feel when running from a pursuer is far from reduced. In fact, playing alongside friends actually makes plenty of objectives more difficult, as communication and coordination become critical to success.
Outside of the trials, there’s a hub area known as the Sleep Room. This serves as a pseudo multiplayer lobby, allowing players to customise both their character and cell decoration, as well as upgrade their abilities and perks.
Classes in this game are known as Rigs, and provide the player with unique abilities that may help them during missions. Seeing through walls, stunning enemies or giving out heals to teammates are all options here. There are also prescriptions, which let players upgrade their characters more incrementally. Trust me, having the ability to slide and regen health more quickly makes a world of difference in a life-or-death situation.
The Outlast Trials is unapologetic in its depiction of mental health, with most of its particularly menacing characters depicted as mental asylum patients. This portrayal becomes particularly problematic when upgrades are called “Prescriptions” and the levelling system is titled “Therapy Level”. While most of what this game has to offer strains the boundary of what’s offensive, trivialisations like these certainly start to cross the line.
At a time when mental illness still bears a sizeable (and unwarranted) stigma, The Outlast Trials mostly serves to further demonise and reinforce negative stereotypes, which is disappointing.
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Set to launch in early access, The Outlast Trials is intended as a ‘proof of concept’ for this new multiplayer horror formula. In an interview with the development team, it was clear they certainly aren’t short of ideas to implement into this game. As such, it’s clear that the intention is to support the title with live service elements as new trials, locations, and Rigs are added over time.
From our brief time with it, the proof is certainly there for The Outlast Trials. If you’re a fan of games like Dead by Daylight or Friday the 13th, this is what you need to play if you’re looking for something more hardcore. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about how horrifyingly grisly Red Barrels’ latest creation truly is.
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