Red Barrels has made quite a name for themselves with their famous flagship game Outlast, which came out almost a decade ago. The name Outlast is bound to come to mind when asked about influential and iconic horror experiences, thanks to its immaculately tense atmosphere and terrifying gameplay. Now the development team is back with their most ambitious project yet: The Outlast Trials, which serves as the fourth installment in the overall series but a prequel to the first game. This is the first time the game features seamless cooperative play of up to four players, but know that the experience can be enjoyed just as much solo as well. Despite only releasing in Early Access on Steam, The Outlast Trials serves up a horrifyingly delicious experience with plenty of demented trials to brave through with only more to come down the road. In many ways, this reminds me of a crossover between Hostel and Squid Game, where American chainsaw horror and the use of torture is combined in the form of a game or trial.
For those unfamiliar, the Outlast franchise is a series of first person survival horror games that really capitalized on the theme of helplessness due to the inability to defend yourself during gameplay. This means that there are no weapons to utilize, but only a video camera that acts as night vision goggles to use in the dark. Using the camera repeatedly drains the battery which must then be replaced by scavenging for replacements around your environment. The original games nailed the tense atmosphere and immersed you into the secrets and lore behind Murkoff. This highly anticipated prequel takes place in 1959 during the Cold War era, and you take on the role of a civilian abducted by the Murkoff Corporation to partake in a series of physical and mental experiments. Imprisoned in a secret underground facility, you and dozens of other test subjects must work together to brave the torments put together by the company.
Red Barrels continues to provide excellent sound and level design, both of which contribute pricelessly to the scary atmosphere needed in a survival horror experience. The Outlast Trials continues to build upon the concept of helplessness, with the exception of more tools being at your disposal to pass the trials. Various objects found in the environment can now be utilized, such as bricks to stun enemies, bottles to distract them, medkits to heal back up, and antidotes to cure insanity. That being said, there is some inventory management required here, as you can only carry three things total at once. Each player on a team can now choose between one of four different classes to play as, and these consist of The Snarler, The Bruiser, The Mender, and The Watcher. Every class inherits a unique rig that defines each role, such as The Mender providing an area of effect heal for all team members and The Bruiser being able to throw a stun grenade at enemies. Massive skill trees outline each class, which provides plenty of incentive to experiment and flesh out different roles.
You start off by being indoctrinated into the facilities through a black and white television screen, after witnessing a gruesome scene of some scientists ripping the night vision goggles off of a deceased test subject and then drilling them onto you. Get ready for tons of gore because blood will be shed. The game then throws you into a straightforward tutorial level, where you get familiar with all the basic mechanics, including walking, running, hiding, peeking, using the goggles to look in the dark, crouching etc. It’s not long until you are introduced to one of the main antagonists, Mother Gooseberry, a demented children’s show host who sometimes speaks through her ventriloquist duck puppet. Boy oh boy does she make a grand entrance by throwing another subject straight into a grinder after babbling about being a disappointed mother. Creepy vibes all around!
Once you complete the tutorial trial, you return to a hub area where you can visit different vendors for various upgrades and even partake in silly arm wrestling competitions with other inmates. To distinguish yourself among many other test subjects, you can customize the personal look of your character with different face shapes, hairstyles, goggles, and voices. Various cosmetics are also unlocked as you progress through the game, including different shirts, pants, and outfits. You even get a personal prison-cell-like room to customize with posters and trophies when you’re not busy fighting for your life in the gruesome experiments. As you level up your character, you gain access to more shops that provide further aid for you in the field.
So far in Early Access there are three complete trials, each featuring a distinct location, ranging from a derelict police station to an abandoned theme park. Every trial includes a set of sub-missions to complete, with a wide range of objectives. I won’t spoil some of the later ones but the first level in the police station revolves around finding and electrocuting a snitch. After finishing the aforementioned three levels, you unlock Program X, which is a final test that allows you to earn your way to freedom if you pass. Every trial contains a main objective and side objective for you to accomplish, and it is up to you how you approach the situation. Stealth remains the optimal solution considering you cannot fight your enemies head on, but there are plenty of different strategies to come up with for any given scenario. Do you gun right for the other room to actively distract the enemy while your team goes for the objective, or do you take things slow and quiet so as to not alert anyone?
There’s some slack to be cut here considering this is an Early Access title, but I do want to mention some bugs that I encountered during my playthrough. During an early section of the game, I was hiding under a bed to wait for the enemy to finish its patrol, but somehow the AI broke and kept walking in circles right in front of the bed. It clearly didn’t see me because it would have dragged me out from under the bed, but it also never left the vicinity so that I could sneakily carry on with my objective. This happened on multiple occasions in different levels as well, including one where I was hiding in a locker during the police station trial. I had to opt for intentionally getting out from under the bed and locker, which obviously alerted the enemy, and forced me to run away as fast as I could to lose it. This wasn’t a game breaking issue, but there definitely needs to be some more work put into the pathing of the AI. Surprisingly, the game performs quite well, with decent load times and solid frame rates, even though I ran this on an ancient GTX1070.
The introduction of cooperative play here makes for an interesting change of pace for those who enjoyed the singleplayer-only predecessors. How scenarios turn out will vary drastically depending on how many people you are going in with, how your team composition is set up, and how effective at communicating your partners are. It is quite pivotal to be on voice-comms with your fellow inmates to plan out next moves and call out enemy positions, but a helpful in-game ping system makes things a bit simpler. In fact, some doors require multiple players to bash down at once or you need another team member to boost you up a wall to get through a window. You can, of course, still complete these levels solo, but just with way less flexibility when it comes to taking advantage of your surroundings. Playing solo definitely makes the experience more difficult, as you have no teammates to revive you, and some levels even took me upwards of an hour to complete by myself.
The Outlast Trials is an unexpected turn for the Outlast series that provides a unique cooperative horror experience that can be enjoyed solo as well if you want the extra challenge. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about yet another multiplayer horror game, especially given the series’ singleplayer roots, but there’s something spookily addicting and eerily fun here. This game continues to carry the hallmark signatures that made the previous titles so terrifying, and now the added bonus is that you can experience the unnerving darkness with your buddies too. Keep in mind it’s still in Early Access, so there’s plenty of new content, quality of life updates, and improvements on the way. Do you have what it takes to earn your freedom? The Outlast Trials is out now in Early Access on PC through Steam.