The Outlast Trials is a must-play experience for any horror fan
Red Barrels has returned with The Outlast Trials. With the title entering early access and a new multiplayer focus, has the horror developer managed to capture the legendary franchise’s essence in such an experimental new take?
There’ll be a lot of natural anxiety around The Outlast Trials. The pitch of an early-access multiplayer-focused Outlast feels like a bit of a betrayal of what the series has become known for. When the franchise first debuted, it was part of a new wave of horror that was sweeping through the early 2010s. The genre has been floundering the previous decade, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent kicked things off, proving there was a voracious appetite for spooky first-person experiences.
While other titles came before, Red Barrels’ Outlast really felt like it was a big release for that movement, which was then continued by Alien: Isolation, PT, and other titles from 2010-2014. Outlast was on the map, and although we haven’t seen the franchise in six years, it still has a lot of cachet in the genre.
That’s why I think it’s natural to be disappointed that after such a long wait, the franchise is returning in such a new and experimental form. That’s especially so when it comes to its multiplayer focus, which has a history of being jammed into franchises where it doesn’t belong.
Worry not. The Outlast Trials absolutely rules. Red Barrels has evolved the Outlast concept here in a smart way, creating something that is brutal and horrific while translating it into a surprisingly intense multiplayer experience. If Outlast Trials isn’t on your radar, it absolutely needs to be now.
Now, describing what Outlast Trials is is tricky. When I was first shown the concept in a press conference, I had to send a lot of messages to other journalists to try and wrap my head around what the game actually played like. It wasn’t until I got hands-on with the title that I really understood what I was contending with.
The Outlast Trials can be played solo or with up to four players. You’re tasked with exploring meaty (metaphorically and literally) horrific levels, where you must complete objectives to achieve your final objective. Within those levels are all sorts of nasty predators looking to mess you up in various, gruesome ways. There are ‘big bads’ in each level like Mother Gooseberry, and an overzealous, perverted cop.
There are also recurring characters throughout the missions, such as a gas mask guy who will pump you with a fear gas that induces psychosis, where you then have a Slenderman-esque figure only you can see chasing you around. There’s a lady who likes to take hiding spots and jump out at you tackling you to the floor. There is also a massive, very naked man who can hit you very hard if you get too close.
It’s sort of like Dead by Daylight, but the objectives are far substantial and all the enemies are AI controlled. This allows for some genuinely terrifying moments as you frantically try to complete objectives before an AI director ratchets up the tension even further.
For those worried that the game would water down its content too to try and appease more players – worry not. I’d wager that The Outlast Trials has some of the most unsettling imagery, enemies, and tone of the entire franchise. There’s nothing held back here, with some truly gnarly visuals that do not let up. So much so, it’s probably wise for me not to even write down how horrendous the visual concepts can get.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about The Outlast Trials is how well it translates to a multiplayer experience. This still feels like Outlast in every way, except now your friends are there. This, of course, leads to a lot of hilarity, but importantly it’s not tone-shattering. While lots of funny things happen, you’ll often find yourself nervous laughing like when watching a particularly scary movie with a friend.
In fact, I’d argue playing with friends enhances the chaos. With more players, you are all working together, but also scrambling for resources over each other as you ration what you need away. You may be at half health, but you’re going to be better off giving the small medicine you found to your mate who is covered top to bottom in their own viscera.
Red Barrels have also come up with incredibly inventive ways to utilize the scares in a multiplayer setting. The best is definitely this aforementioned gas mask character. In one of my playthroughs with a friend, he grabbed me, hurling me into psychosis and I attempted to run from a spooky tentacle man trying to get me. Cue me running around, making a lot of noise, and bumping into other enemies, all claiming to see a guy that my partner in the Trials couldn’t see. It was a great moment and is a great expression of Red Barrels’ understanding of how to utilize the multiplayer format for more scares.
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Another fun trick is that the game will periodically throw in a ‘fake’ player, whose username has been shuffled around with a couple symbols and rearranged letters. If you let your guard down and don’t realize that it’s an imposter next to you – well, you’ll probably find yourself with a couple of extra holes in your torso.
Maintaining that all-important tension in a horror game with other players running around is really difficult, but Red Barrels has achieved it better than any I can recall.
While the moment-to-moment of The Outlast Trials is horrifying, there is a broader world to progress through. The wider narrative of Outlast 2 is that you have been taken in by a rather messed up corporation that performs horrendous trials on society’s most vulnerable. While the three areas included in Early Access are themed around a Police Station, a Fun Fair, and an Orphanage, they are all hollow fakes, with mannequins, and set dressing, all set in bigger warehouses.
Even as you progress through missions, you will see scientists watching you as you struggle through the horror. It adds this horrible, helpless feeling of being watched, and that these really are tests for you to overcome at the whims of powerful shadow figures. It’s an excellent Saw-vibe and it permeates the whole game.
This leads into the progression. The ‘lobby’ of the game is a prison-like holding area, where you can interact with vendors and other players. Eventually, you get enough currency and experience to get rigs, which are powerful special abilities that can allow you to stun enemies, or see them through walls. You can also get other passive abilities that help with your health and evasiveness.
Most importantly, you also have your own room you can customize. While it’s silly, and the accouterment you get is purely cosmetic, I was pleased with the cereal shelf I bought for my little cell, and proudly showed it off to my friend when they swang by my room.
In the center of this area is a forbidden door. It leads to an unforeseen ending, where you are promised your freedom. While I’ve not seen what’s behind the promised doors, count me skeptical that we’ll be allowed to waltz out of this experience unscathed.
The Outlast Trials has been nothing but a wonderful, horrifying surprise since I started playing it. I was initially skeptical of transplanting this franchise into a multiplayer-focused experience, but Red Barrels has proven they understand this franchise and what makes it so compelling. This is not some cynical chase towards live service or multiplayer, but a developer evolving its formula in new and exciting directions.
While this early access build of the game only boasts three levels, they each take around an hour to complete. Once you’re done, these spaces evolve as you must complete more and more objectives as you replay them. It means there’s plenty to get into here if you want to go deep, with Red Barrel getting as much as they can from these spaces for repeated play, not unlike modern Hitman.
Outlast Trials doesn’t feel like much that is out there. While it has shades of Dead by Daylight and Phasmaphobia, this feels like an important step forward for multiplayer horror games. This is a team at the top of its game, daring to do something new with its formula. Red Barrels is releasing one of the great surprises of the year so far, quelling any doubt that they’ve lost a step in their six-year absence.