The Outlast Trials is excessively nasty and obscene—appropriate, considering it’s developer Red Barrels’ first follow up in six years to its, in the best way, abhorrent Outlast survival horror series. Since its Early Access release on May 18, the blood-drenched multiplayer has been sliding up the Steam charts, making me nostalgic for a return to last decade’s crude horror. But the game—at least in its Early Access form—is often more frustrating than stomach-twisting, full-steam scary.
It’s too bad, since a refined commitment to maximalism is what made me so obsessed with the original Outlast a decade ago. That game balanced overwhelming, animalistic fear (being overpowered, being trapped in the unfamiliar dark, cannibalism) by pulling it thin and long, like spun sugar, until you felt like you were going to scream from only the suspense. Protagonist Miles Upshur could never fight back. He’d simply pant, hide, and observe, trembling, as monstrous people searched for him in the pitch black, bone shears in hand.
Like the original game, The Outlast Trials revels in making you feel weak. In first-person, and with no ability to fight back, your loosely customizable character stumbles through several gruesome “tests” the shadowy Murkoff Corporation has duped them into playing human guinea pig for. “Let the miracles of science give you purpose,” the cheerful pink flier said. “The world owes you everything.”
Welcome to the real world
Yeah, right. The world actually sticks you into a haunted house and waits for you to die. I experience it in my approximately two hours of playtime, which begin with a tutorial “trial” that tasks me with destroying boxes of my public and private records into a hissing meat grinder. I navigate the tutorial house alone, though later trials allow me to add up to four players to accomplish tasks, like kidnap a snitch mid-police torture, or find antipsychotics before my violent hallucination sucks up my entire health bar. In multiplayer, losing your grip on reality might also cause you to see a teammate’s doppelganger, who is, unfortunately, armed with a knife. Abound with tasks and imposters, Trials is disgusting Among Us, I realize soberly.
In the first few minutes I spend in the tutorial house, I hesitate to turn corners and open doors, wary of what I might find. This is an Outlast game, you know? What if a debauched Mormon in rubber waders comes to split my ass with a meat hook?
And then the moment I’d been dreading happens: my Murkoff-issued night vision goggles run out of battery after I failed to find another, and I prepare to sink into twilight terror.
But it turns out the goggles still operate somewhat well without power, and after pushing myself to keep exploring, I realize that around corners are only more corners. Other than when a lo-fi Hellraiser-looking character bashes my head in after I accidentally step in crunchy glass (“What the hell,” he mutters before he finds me), I’m not scared. Nothing that bad happens.
I start getting amused with the game’s many campy attempts to terrify me. The house is filled with stiff animatronics holding knives, and a lady with a skin mask and a duck puppet buzzes a massive drill bit into my hand. After she feeds another shrieking Murkoff test subject to the meat grinder, I step in red smears of gristle on the floor. Cute.
Trials tutorial complete
Real trials are similarly over-the-top but lacking in tension. After I finish the tutorial, a staticy TV tells me I’ve been reborn. I head into the Sleep Room, a glorified pig pen with personalized cells (for 100 of the game’s currency, which you earn every time you attempt a trial, even if you don’t complete it, you can adorn your walls with a The Thin Blue Line poster). I walk over to the pharmacy, where other online players are gathering, but learn that I don’t have the necessary Therapy Level to interact with it. Go figure.
From the Sleep Room, you can select themed trials to undergo either alone or in a group. Since trials only unlock after you’ve completed the one before it, my only option is “Kill the Snitch,” where my goal is to “silence [a prisoner’s] lies” before he supposedly blabs to the cops about Murkoff’s barbarism. Unfortunately, cops are freaky too. While the trial loads, it shows me a phantasmal cutscene where a police officer pleasures himself with a taser sparkling with blue prongs of electricity. I laugh. It looks like something that might play on the concert screen during a Diplo set.
Once I’m in the trial, I find myself immediately triggering blinking red mines that release hallucinatory gas and electricity traps, before running right into the sex-positive cop. Whoops, none of that was there during the tutorial.
But because there’s so much to avoid, I don’t have enough time to get actually scared. When I shout, it’s in frustration, especially when the cop runs after me with his taser (“I hope you washed that first,” I want to tell him) and corners me despite my crouching in the dark, the place where bad guys aren’t supposed to see you. My stamina gives out easily, so I can’t run away, either. Instead, I die too many times and get booted out of the trial, earning 100 bucks and an “F” rating.
“F,” “F,” “F,” reads a hallway lined with accusatory TVs. “You failed, because you’re a failure,” a floating voice informs me.
So I try again with multiplayer, hoping we could maybe divide and conquer. But one of my teammates immediately drops out upon entering the room, and when a lurking Hellraiser spawn unceremoniously impales me (despite my spirited attempts to hide from him), I’m embarrassed when the game tells my only remaining teammate I’m bleeding out.
I’m offered the chance to see the game from their first-person perspective. I make the switch, and I watch as they approach me with a reviving syringe. But then, they hesitate, and they choose to leave the game instead. Oh, OK. I’ll go fuck myself now.
Any sort of social commentary Trials might be attempting (in life, we struggle endlessly, only to earn enough money to slap a The Thin Blue Line poster on our cells) seems smothered by overwrought level design and lackluster multiplayer. The game doesn’t immediately encourage you to be a good partner. It’s too cynical and concerned with asking, “aren’t you so scared? Isn’t this gross?”
Sure, yeah. It is. But its enemies are unfairly relentless, and the game is often visually overwhelming (especially since it has no accessibility settings to switch off migraine-inducing flashing lights and aberrations). But though it feels far from the knife-turn horror of the first game, The Outlast Trials is at least entertaining in its absurdity. Out of all the statements a horror game can make, that’s certainly not the worst.