One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest…

Returning to the fray with a new entry in their landmark horror series: Outlast, Canadian Indie Dev: Red Barrels has taken their harrowing single-player formula and thrown multiplayer into the mix, resulting in a cocktail of white-knuckle terror that can be experienced with friends. Whist horror multiplayer has been dominated by the 4v1 asymmetric layout with games like Dead by Daylight for some time now, The Outlast Trials offers a fresh perspective on a somewhat stagnant genre by offering co-operative ‘trials’ with an emphasis on exploration, all the while being hunted down by the ex-pops of Project Lathe run by none other than the insidious Murkoff Corporation. Following a year of early access on PC, the game released worldwide for both current and last gen consoles on March 5th 2024, and as usual I’ll be covering the time I’ve spent with the PlayStation 5 version of the title; detailing the good, deconstructing the bad, whilst ultimately discussing whether the game is worth your time and effort at the £30.99 price tag (UK PSN Store).

When Outlast released in 2013, no one could have predicted how the game would impact the horror genre, sparking a new renaissance for psychological horror. Originally envisioned by the likes of the excellent: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast would go on to propel the signature ‘Cat-and-Mouse’ style of gameplay to a far broader audience, inspiring numerous developers to follow suit in replicating the pulse-pounding gameplay mechanics and atmospheric, environmental storytelling that makes the medium so effective. 2017’s Outlast II followed off the hype of the first game, largely using the same tried and tested formula, albeit with a somewhat tropey main story (think certain cues from The Omen (1976) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977); check out my review for the game here) and more emphasis on jump scares and gore, over the psychological atmosphere that was present in the foreboding halls of Mount Massive Asylum. The Outlast Trials shakes up the formula even more with the addition of co-operative multiplayer up to four people, opting for smaller stages that offer escalating levels of tension and atmosphere, whilst also encouraging teamwork and careful examination of one’s environments.

The Outlast Trials takes place in 1959, during America’s standoff with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War (acting as a prequel to the first two games) and places you in the shoes of an unknown homeless person who comes by an advertisement of the Murkoff Corporation promising to “let the miracles of science give you purpose.”. Having nothing to lose, our unknown protagonist decides to take Murkoff up on their supposed altruism and see what they’re offering, only to be thrown head first into a Nosocomephobe’s worst nightmare. After being wheeled into an operating theatre with a burlap sack on our head, we are introduced to the enigmatic Dr. Easterman who promises we will be reborn, amidst a backdrop that looks like a cross between an American hospital waiting room and a scene from Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). After being pumped full of drugs and having had a pair of night vision goggles bolted to our head like something out of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818), our Reagent (our player’s new title on the ward) is thrown head first into our first ‘Trial’ which see’s us destroying our public records and documents of our past life, all the while being chased down with reckless abandon by a paranoid schizophrenic ex-pop (experimental population) known as Mother Gooseberry, who shares a split personality with her demented sock puppet (with a drill for a tongue) called Dr. Futterman; setting up the game’s core gameplay loop.

Game Hype - The Outlast Trials

I will teach you about dental hygiene: The harrowing experimentation inflicted on Phyllis Futterman has turned her into a Prime Asset of the Murkoff Corporation, allowing her to hold dominion over the themed, nightmarish hellscapes that populate the many trials.

Mother Gooseberry represents one of many ex-pops that will stalk you through the many trials and MK challenges that you’ll drive into across The Outlast Trials, with the Sleep Room acting as a central hub to customise your character, gear and room, whilst also acting as a pre-game lobby to join up with various players and groups across PC, Xbox and PlayStation (the game being cross-play means you won’t be waiting long to get into trials). There are five trials spread across three programs of ‘therapy’ complete with shorter MK Challenges that have variational objectives set within the same environments. Whilst the game is billed as a co-operative title, it can be played completely solo, which is arguably the premiere decision if you’re looking to ramp up the scare factor. Trials usually consist of multiple environment-based objectives that the player will have to navigate with a strong emphasis on exploration in order to progress; however, at any point one of the many ex-pops can arrive within the stage and begin to mercilessly hunt you down, making careful use of distractions, stealth and avoiding noise traps (think walking over broken glass) paramount to avoid being detected and eviscerated. There are numerous consumables dotted about the environment in order to make the Reagent’s life that tiny bit easier, all offering different uses such as medical kits and anti-psychosis medication. One of the Reagent’s primary tools are a pair of night vision goggles that have been permanently grafted to their head, allowing you to navigate within the various dark environments the game has to offer, albeit at the cost of a very limited battery life. Managing your sanity is also paramount, as there are various traps and enemies that can spray you with psychosis gas that will make you begin to lose your grip on reality and hallucinate, making your experience that much harder and terrifying as you have to escape from an otherworldly entity known as the Skinnerman.

In terms of the scare factor, Red Barrels have brought their signature atmosphere that the franchise is known for, hosting some downright terrifying environment design with stellar lighting that makes each match just as atmospheric as the last. The ex-pop stalkers themselves react to the environment and the noise you make within, with the tension ramping up when you eventually get spotted, forcing you to flee for safety, but with the lack of a map it usually makes this a somewhat fruitless endeavor. Doubling down on the gore that the series is known for, The Outlast Trials can feel a bit torture-pornish at times, with scenes of bodily mutilation and sexual violence being prevelant throughout the game, adding to its already sadistic nature, especially when it comes to ex-pop Leland Coyle, who’s rather fond of using his shock baton in unexpected ways with his victims. Despite the lack of a real narrative, The Outlast Trials does a lot with very little; environment design and a stellar sound-stage offer an atmosphere that rivals some of horror’s greats, the introduction of multiplayer ramps this up even more, as seeing your assailants chasing down and slaughtering your buddies offers very little respite to close off the tension; however, this also presents opportunity for more sociopathic players out there, being able to use your teammates as a very solid distraction for the ex-pops as you navigate and complete objectives, if you can stomach using them as bait.

Game Hype - The Outlast Trials

Elite Hunting Club: The Outlast Trials definitely takes inspiration from the likes of SAW and Hostel, offering yet another Red Barrels experience that is laden with gore and sinew from start to finish.

Having benefitted from being in early access for just over a year prior to release, The Outlast Trials has launched in a pretty polished state, which is rare for video games in this day and age. In terms of Performance on the PlayStation 5, the game has been built from the ground up in Unreal Engine 4, running smooth as butter with a Dynamic 4K resolution (1800p scaled up to 4K) with a pretty solid 60fps frame rate, with only the occasional screen tear taking away from the experience; both performance and resolution has been reported to be somewhat better on the Xbox Series X version of the title. All in all, Red Barrels have once again tried to shake the Outlast formula up for the better, and whilst the game can be somewhat of a run-away simulator at times, the atmosphere, sound design and overall presentation are what sets The Outlast Trials apart from its peers, offering an experience that both feels refreshingly unique in a genre littered with carbon copies of the same dusty, asymmetric horror formula (staring at you Dead by Daylight).

A PlayStation 5 review code was provided by Red Barrels.