Outlast (2013) PC review

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Outlast is a game I am of mixed mind about. On one hand, it can be absolutely terrifying but on the other hand, the actual game part of this supposedly survival horror game is lacking.

Let us start with what I liked most about Outlast.  It has an impeccable presentation, with the grungy and dirty Mount Massive asylum with strewn viscera rendered in sickening detail sprinkled throughout. The texture work is superb with excellent attention to detail that persists throughout every section of the game. The overall visual quality is excellent and the night vision mode when using the camera, combined with the ever present noise filter give the game an appropriately dirty look that truly does look like a found footage urban exploration film. The game is also quite dark in the Doom 3 sense, so use of the night vision mode is frequently necessary.The only gripe I have with the way the game looks is that in the camera mode without night vision, there is quite a bit of what appears to be really serious chromatic abberation which just makes me think the developers are adopting a bad trend in modern video game graphics or the journalist protagonist deliberately bought a terrible camera for some bizarre reason.The performance at maximum settings is also flawless.

The sound work here is also quite strong, but the score lacks variety in mood, chiming in mostly during chase sections with the bombast of a slasher film. There are a few exceptions of quite tense and creepy ambient tracks during exploration, but these have less presence in the game.

The other aspect of the game I liked is that it manages to successfully build a creepy and disturbing atmosphere that is not totally reliant on jump scares or being too relentless with symbolism. And while there are some shocking moments, they aren’t presented in a way that straddles the line between proper horror and over the top death metal album cover art edginess that players of Outlast 2 might see. The denizens of mount massive are well voiced and have designs that are disturbing stapled faces that make them appear like crosses between Frankenstein and Leatherface. The whole feel of the game is as a whole, quite unsettling.

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Now for the stuff I did not like too much. The actual mechanics of the game are rather slim. Whilst there are times where there is genuine panic, rudimentary stealth or some very light platforming, the whole thing is basic. That said, it is a step above a walking simulator, but not quite as in depth as proper  recent survival horror titles, such as Alien: Isolation or Resident Evil 7which as far as I’m concerned are currently the gold standard of first person horror games. How Outlast works is that you are totally defenseless and armed only with a consumer grade handheld camera, which is used pretty much only for seeing in the dark.  So when you encounter an enemy, you are only able to piss your pants and either make a beeline to point B or hide in a locker or under a bed. This lack of combat, combined with the inability to do anything other than run and hide (no weapons, no ability to make distractions, etc.) and rather tight spaces with linear design mean that every enemy encounter will play out in almost exactly the same way. The rudimentary stealth also works best on the rare occasion when there is a bit more space in a given area. At least you have a decent movement speed and can sprint almost indefinitely if you want. You also have to manage your battery resources for the camera, but on normal difficulty, batteries are plentiful enough and battery life is enough. It is not really a resource management mechanic of any significance and feels superfluous as a whole. But because the game sticks so strictly to defenceless horror game protagonist ethos, there is no way for the game to progress. Because the mechanics are so simplistic and have very little variety, there’s not much else to say.

With the story, to be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But from what I gathered it was something about uncovering supernatural scientific experiments gone wrong. It’s all pretty basic stuff and the plot takes a backseat to the core experience since most of the plot comes from notes and documents that you can read throughout.

2013’s Outlast then is a decent horror game whose strengths lie primarily in its incredible presentation and unsettling atmosphere, with some admittedly quite tense moments throughout like navigating the pitch black courtyard at night and having to shimmy tiny platforms along the walls in the dark. However, the basic mechanics are lacking the quality and depth of survival horror. Even in spite of my gripes with the game, it is still something worth experiencing, especially if you can get it for cheap. The lack of depth really prevents it from greatness as it sits a step above walking simulator but not quite survival horror.

6.7/10

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Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

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There is a line in this new entry to the Alien franchise and sequel to 2012’s Prometheus relating to the new kind of alien, the Neomorph and other nasty creations, that is something to the effect of them being a kind of hybrid. This statement seems to also be a descrition  of this film as a whole. It feels like a mixture of Alien, Aliens and Prometheus (although closer to the latter two) that mostly works.

The story begins with a short prologue and then we are introduced to the crew of the Covenant, who are responsible for this colony ship going to a planet named Origae-6. However, after a brief delay having to repair the ship, they receive a rogue transmission, pinpoint it and then go to its point of origin as a detour as it appears like it will be a habitable planet. Of course, in true series fashion, everything goes to shit when crew members become infected with the parasite that gives birth to these aliens.

In regards to the characters of the film, David and Walther (Michael Fassbender) are perhaps the most developed and well performed, whereas the rest of the crew which includes the surprising appearance of Danny McBride as a guy known as Tennesee, are rather underdeveloped.  We do know that most of the character pairs are married, but this seems like a rather lazy way at establishing character relationships. Our crew captain is established as a religious type, but the film makes little use of this. Daniels (Katherine Waterson) is our Ripley type of character and the voice of reason in the film, but isn’t quite as charismatic as Sigourney Weaver’s role as Ripley. During one of the sequences in the first act, one of the characters locks another in a medbay room with a convulsing patient and the motivation behind doing so is unclear and is only explicable in the sense of people being very irrational in such terrifying situations, but she could have easily let her out of the room before the alien came out. This is just one example. If there was a little more time devoted to developing the characters and their relationships, the film would have elevated itself to a higher dramatic and tragic register in particular sequences.

That said, there are quite a few sequences, especially those towards the end of the first act that are full of suspense and terror, as well as body horror, such the aforementioned medbay sequence, which is masterfully presented and has it’s own simple, but original moments. Other sections, particularly towards the end of the second act get quite bombastic for what is grounded in horror, but is nevertheless exciting. A sequence in the final act feels like a mesh of the climax of both Alien and Aliens. Additionally, the aliens are often more in full view rather than skulking in the shadows, which is why the film feels stylistically closer to Aliens as opposed to Alien. The pacing of the film is generally quite good, with the expeditionary creeping dread of the first act and the slower, slightly more ponderous second act. The third act, however, felt a wee bit hurried and some parts of it would have benefited from being slightly longer. There is also some closure for the cliffhanger of Prometheus too.

The film looks great too,continuing the general Giger design as well as an area of the film that looks like a science fiction version of an ancient city that looks like a cross between Rome and Persepolis as its aesthetic base. However, the film was shot digitally and doesn’t have the same gritty look as the original and the colour palette is largely the same as Prometheus. The lighting is effective and nice looking, but the look of the interior of the Covenant seems a bit anachronistic since the technology appears to be more advanced than the original Alien film despite taking place before it. I don’t know why this is the case, but I hope it isn’t a retcon that segues into a remake of the original.

The CGI is also often far too obvious and the quality of it is mixed, but never dips to awful territory.  It must be difficult trying to maintain the terror of a monster that has been in the popular consciousness since the original film almost 40 years ago, but Ridley Scott is lucky that much of the legwork is done by it’s inherently unsettling and grotesque design combined with being an intelligent creature that must be outwitted, rather than requiring mere brute force.

In spite of my problems with the film, I still found it very entertaining and there wasn’t a point where I felt bored or uninterested. While it may stumble in regards to character development and a few other things, it does manage to balance the styles of various films in the franchise in a way that is while not masterful, is surprisingly deft. In that sense it is derivative, but there is also enough originality that it doesn’t feel like just a remix or going through the motions. It is not as great as the original and probably the second best thing to come out of the franchise recently (the best being Alien: Isolation. Go play it if you haven’t already). It is a strong sequel to Prometheus and hopefully is a sign of good things to come for the final instalment of this Alien prequel trilogy.

7.5/10