The Outlast series is one of the most enduring in contemporary horror. Coming out at a time when Resident Evil was still suffering its post-boulder punch hangover, and a year before PT reinvigorated hype for the Silent Hill franchise, Red Barrels' new IP was the big new player on the block.
Fast forward a decade, and the landscape looks very different. Survival horror is back in vogue: Resi is firing on all cylinders, Dead Space has made a triumphant return, and we're a few short months away from a remade Silent Hill 2. Therefore, it was time to bring Outlast back into the conversation.
In the brief time I've spent with The Outlast Trials, alongside a hands-off preview from Red Barrels, it's clear to see that this is a unique spin on multiplayer horror.
Doing it together
The main selling point of The Outlast Trials is its fully cooperative gameplay. You and up to three others can partake in the eponymous trials, which are in-universe tests by MK Ultra scientists. Trying to determine how to turn players into covert sleeper agents, you'll claw through increasingly gruelling tests in fake social contexts, like cafeterias and classrooms.
These take the form of slightly open hub areas, littered with enemies and their own mini-boss dominating each one. In terms of the narrative, your job is to survive as many of these trials as you can, slowly making your way towards freedom from the programme through a mysterious auto-locking door within the facility's communal areas. The full narrative isn't out there yet in early access, with more trials being added down the line.
What makes The Outlast Trials unique is its intense focus on cooperative play, while not compromising the scares. It's easy for multiplayer horror games to lose their nerve-shredding tension in a din of maniacal laughter and communal joviality: think of how loud a party chat can get when you're being chased by a killer in Dead By Daylight.
The Outlast Trials is staunchly against that, aiming to preserve the intense scares that made the series a hit in the first place. There's a greater variety of enemies than ever before, which forces you to adapt your strategy. Scariest of all are the pouncers, which hide in cubby holes or under desks before leaping out to jumpscare you when you least expect it. Given you'll often have to split from your teammates to solve separate puzzles in these larger worlds, there won't be anybody to save you from the terror.
A bright future
The only question mark around the future of The Outlast Trials is how it adapts to the on-trend live service mechanic. Launching on PC only in an early access stage, there isn't a full beginning-and-end narrative here just yet, with more content expected to arrive prior to its eventual full release.
At the time of writing, there are three 'programs': clusters of trials that each form their own mini-playlist. Many more are due to be added in the game's future, with the devs seeing the project with a 'TV series philosophy', where this early access period is effectively the pilot.
It remains to be seen how successfully future updates will add new programs, characters, and areas to explore, to determine whether this can retain the focus of the early Outlast games. Survival horror is a genre that thrives upon concision and focus, and adapting that to a narrative-driven but nonetheless early access model is going to be the game's biggest challenge.
For now, it's exciting to see Red Barrels preserve its biggest franchise in a novel way, which aims to retain the horrifying atmosphere that runs in Outlast's DNA. The next few months and years will be a litmus test for this format, but maybe I'll be there, playing with the light on, along that journey.
For more articles like this, take a look at our Features and The Outlast Trials page.