Donning the now-infamous video recorder to enter terrorising location after horrific locale, the Outlast series has built itself one hell of a reputation. That is, an intensely overwhelming fear in the face of foes you can’t fight back against and the threat of depleted batteries leaving you blind. It was also primarily based on a single-player, carefully crafted design.
Where else to go but co-op focused and mission-based, then? Somewhere in the past decade, the path has led us to The Outlast Trails.
Developed by Red Barrels and entering Early Access before a full release, can this new vision for the first-person horror franchise disprove the wider notion that horror just ain’t horror with friends? Steel yourself, grab your night-vision goggles, and let’s descend into The Outlast Trials and see if we emerge to tell the tale.
An Electric Rebirth
In-keeping with previous entries in the series, The Outlast Trials does a fantastic job at setting up the context for this descent into violent masochism. We take the role of a random person who has enlisted into a program, one which promises we “deserve to be here” to have us be “reborn” through the trials of… crazed danger and obedience.
Everything that you encounter takes place in a facility that can best be described as One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest had horrendous relations with Saw and out popped this monstrosity. From the hub world being an asylum complete with your own individual cell, to the viewing posts and glass observation rooms – you’ll regularly see on display throughout your trials, the game perfectly captures an eerie, uncomfortable aura.
Scientists are constantly watching your every move. Your actions during trials are graded on performance and you must earn your way to freedom by completing one harrowing task after another. Aside from an interesting opening salvo, the rest of the story is pieced together via lore documents you can find in trials. It can feel a bit piecemeal as a result, but picking apart the wider lore and story will be something I can foresee a lot of people having fun with.
It makes sense that in a more cooperative style game, there’s going to be much less personal focus on you and your character. I certainly missed the more personal touch of the previous Outlast entries’ stories, as you’re just another haphazardly created NPC in amongst a sea of other likeminded survivors. Even so, The Outlast Trials shows there’s some interesting story lurking somewhere in the bloodstained shadows.
Trialing My Sanity
In order to erase your past and experience your “rebirth”, you’ll need to embark on and survive The Outlast Trials’ multiple programs. After customising your character, you’ll be able to select from up to 3 programs – each with unique missions and objectives to complete. Once you’ve survived each initial level, you’ll unlock sub-levels and versions with difficulty modifiers to try your hand at.
The majority of programs fall into typical tropes of the horror genre almost immediately. Whether you’re in the Police Station, Orphanage or Circus, you’ll be tip-toeing around, avoiding enemy detection, using distractions and running away or hiding. The latter of which is where 80% of your playtime will actually be, especially as a solo player.
Objectives boil down to collecting keys to unlock doors, pushing X thing (a snitch for execution, a doll ride to destruction, etc), finding the right object for whatever, that kind of thing. The lack of originality in tasks was actually quite demotivating almost immediately, as The Outlast Trials had the opportunity to go for more unique setups with its co-op focus, but alas, no such luck.
The gameplay itself works fine and the level design is very good. Areas will loop back on themselves, shortcuts can be found and certain sections on each level will standout like the garage of the station or the rides area of the circus. Each location is littered with obstacles, threats in the shape of hidden enemies, trapped doors and every ninja’s most hideous nightmare: broken glass.
Like taking a faultily crafted grater to the skin, The Outlast Trials would be great if it had multiple scraping holes to graze you with, but this grater only has one very large sharp circle. The game has one trick up its sleeve for every program, instead of having multiple or unique ones to test your fortitude.
Stalking The Halls
The Outlast Trials’ formula for gameplay requires you to manage your inventory space, of which you have 3 starting slots. You’ll be needing to scavenge batteries to replenish your night-vision, medicine for health, adrenaline for a stamina boost and other various items. Balancing what to carry with you vs what you give up becomes a tense balancing act, like standing on a rickety beam above an octagon filled with juiced up, crazed beasts waiting to part your bones from their muscles.
Your stamina is limited, preventing you from just outrunning any of the patrolling lunatics, a flaw in many other horror themed games. Moreover, you’ll need to be hypervigilant to enemies hiding in lockers and mines that have been mischievously (and questionably) left around the place.
At certain intervals throughout a level, a wild Scarecrow-wannabe will arrive out of an elevator and proceed to chase and inject you with a toxin that causes psychosis. This is bad. Obviously. For a short period, you’ll be pursued by a Slenderman-like wannabe who’ll just damage you by standing next to you, because… reasons? You can’t hide from him either – you’ll either have to sprint wildly around till he goes away or find an antidote to cure your temporary psychosis.
I hated the Scarecrow type. I understand the intent behind having a persistent threat randomly turn up during missions to add a sense of unpredictability, but he just becomes an annoying nuisance. Running with a group, he’s probably a more manageable threat, but when playing on my own he just confined me to sitting in a cupboard till he left… how fun. Speaking of going it alone, let’s get into the biggest topic that’ll either cause you catastrophic nightmares or a shock straight to the dopamine system.
It’s Two Painful Alone
I ventured into each of The Outlast Trials programs solo to see if the game could live up to the age-old adage “you can play it solo…”. You certainly can, if you’re into taking a scalpel to your own sanity. It’s almost immediately clear that this title is built for coop alone, in almost every facet of its design.
With other players in a communicative squad, you can synergise RIG abilities, synchronise who distracts the patrolling maniacs while others complete objectives and keep each other alive through the ordeals. On your own, none of that applies. You’re forced to run and hide constantly, sometimes almost completely unable to progress objectives due to how enemies are placed.
I’ll give you two examples. At the end of both program 1 and 2, you’ll need to complete a task which requires you to interact with an object for a period of time, which alerts the main big bad of the level who’ll be patrolling that exact area incessantly. With a coop buddy, one of you can be the bait to draw them away, allowing the other to handily get on with the job.
As a solo player, you have to mind-numbingly and aggravatingly run the enemy away (while not losing their line of sight so they return…), try to sprint your way back, do 5% of progress before they return, rinse repeat. It’s nauseatingly frustrating and quite clearly, hasn’t been appropriately balanced around the socially-adverse of us. I get it, this is a cooperative based horror game, and what’s been designed would be fantastic as a coop experience, but it’s so punishing on your own you’ll be demotivated long before the first program ends.
I ended up brute forcing it and using multiple of my available lives to get through the programs main levels, but it was an absolute chore. It drains all sense of tension and horror from the experience, as you’re just having to abuse AI patterns over an inordinate amount of time to succeed. Having said all that, playing it with the benefit of other people completely transforms the game, all for the better.
Modify Your Misery
Getting my annoyance gripes out of the way there, thanks for bearing with me. Once you’re past the solo experience being rather miserly, you can enjoy everything The Outlast Trials has to offer. Between your harrowing journeys into the bowels of the violent and depraved, you can relaxingly take in the views of your barred and confined home base – the facility.
There are two vendors who’ll dish out personal upgrades and RIG upgrades. The former offers more passive improvements like being able to slide or bust through doors while sprinting. The latter acts as your “power”, for example having a temporary stun grenade or the ability to see enemies through walls for a short time. RIG powers have a lengthy cooldown for use and are upgradable with meaningful improvements.
The upgrade system therefore provides fantastic opportunities for players to tinker with their playstyles on how to face the threats that lie ahead. Particularly for the more arduous “exam” trials where every difficulty modifier is activated (e.g less hiding spots, more enemies etc) and for the final “Project X” program, synergising and working together as an effective incarcerated unit becomes essential.
Red Barrels have promised that more of everything is due to come in future – more trials, more upgrades, more RIG powers and the like. With the foundation of what’s already here, that bodes well indeed. I can already foresee the speedruns of ridiculously coordinated squads busting through these nightmare realms like a perfectly executed episode of Prison Break.
A Rorschach Deal
As you skulk around the facilities’ various created hellholes, you’ll come face-to-face with some pretty gnarly goings-on. The setup for each trial feels sadistically creative and the atmosphere Red Barrels have captured is stomach-churningly good. The two main “bosses”, so to speak, are a disheveled and heinous handlebar-moustache touting Police Officer complete with electric baton, and a creepy-as-hell lady sporting a puppet with a drill for a mouth.
Even basic foes clamber and frantically wail around, angrily muttering and spouting rage-fuelled nonsense. The Prison areas sport a towering figure not unlike the hulking brute of Outlast 1 and he’s… well, just as intimidating here.
The environments are bursting with blood, limbs, desecrated flesh and bucketloads of sinew. Intestines hanging from the ceiling, slamming your arm into the stomach of a corpse, mutilated flesh decorating almost every orifice, it’s all on glowing display. I wouldn’t say The Outlast Trials is necessarily scary, owing to how it’s all organically built around the gameplay instead of carefully curated tension building and scares, but the look and feel of the gore is so intense it’ll definitely have you cringing.
Lighting is on point, graphical fidelity is surprisingly well-realised given the multiplayer nature of the game and the presentation quality is superb for the kind of game this is. Even when I was livid at having to sit in a bin (literally) for 5 minutes at a time, at least I could enjoy the depraved disgustingness of the vision. Oh, and the tension of running out of night-vision in a pitch-black space will still instil a bit of panic within you.
Submit For Freedom, Together
The Outlast Trials will have plenty to keep interested players hooked should you want to delve into its coop madness. After every trial you’ll be graded and provided with XP and rewards (though being alone I couldn’t get higher than a D… the real horror isn’t the violence, it’s the exam grade flashbacks from school). With the two currency rewards you acquire you can then customise your cell to your heart’s content and purchase the previously mentioned upgrades.
This punishment-dolling facility currently houses 3 main trials, 2 sub-trials per program, and a challenging exam to complete and master. Then, the final set will earn you your tokens to gain your “freedom”. Each main trial took me 40-50 minutes to complete when playing solo, though this is exponentially faster when playing with fellow inmates.
A lot of content is already on offer, is what I’m saying. The Outlast Trials already feels like a fairly complete package, with a fulfilling chunk of content, excellent production values and well-crafted design… provided you party up to get the most out of the experience. The horror atmosphere is fantastic and the gameplay well-tuned, just don’t embark on this quest for sanity alone, it simply isn’t built for it.
Playing alone is akin to being in a padded room, straightjacket equipped and nothing but a wall to smash your head against until you break your own will. Find some buddies or hit up that matchmaking though, and you’ll be plotting more survival escapes than Bear Grylls in a Zimbardo prison experiment.
The Outlast Trials is shaping up to be a fantastic co-op horror experience, albeit one that isn’t overly scary. An intriguing setup, well-crafted loadout systems and an emphasis on cooperation make it a grotesquely violent and appealing game, even in this early stage. The solo experience is however, as miserly as the inhabitants of this disturbed asylum, so plot your escape with others, or suffer the consequences.
The Outlast Trials is available May 18th on PC via Early Access (review platform).
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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