First Look: The Outlast Trials

So I got to play The Outlast Trials’ closed beta last night. It was good fun for the most part, and the multiplayer structure of the available mission worked surprisingly well. The art direction is on point, and the story has definitely found a nice setting to go from within the pre-established lore.

But the game still has a few issues.

First off, when players drop out of a game, you’re left to play the rest of the mission solo. This happened to me the first time I attempted the police station level, and I got far enough to reach the last mission objective to electrocute the snitch. But unfortunately, once you begin doing so, you gain the main enemies’ attention, and even once he loses sight of you, rather than wander around looking for you, he camps the room you need to be in to do slow interaction that electrocutes the snitch.

I tried kiting him around the area, I tried throwing a bottle into an adjoining room, but you aren’t given enough time to start electrocuting the snitch before he catches up to you. I think that with multiple people, someone is meant to have the enemy chase them, while the others work on electrocuting the snitch. Great multiplayer design- kind of unplayable in singleplayer. I’ve also heard that when you start a trial in singleplayer, you get a few lives. That would have been really helpful, but I didn’t get any extra lives. I think that comes down to the fact that I started the trial in multiplayer, before my teammates dropped out. To be at a massive disadvantage by no fault of my own, spend an hour making my way slowly through the level, and fail at the last hurdle because it’s not really designed well for single player- that’s really bloody frustrating.

I’m especially worried, because the marketing states that this game is intended to be played in both single player or in multiplayer. If my experience is any indication, some parts of this game will probably be incredibly unbalanced against solo players. I also had trouble connecting to servers, but I’m putting that down to it being a beta to test that exact kind of thing, and that servers will be far better upon launch.

Aside from this, I’m also concerned that the developers have made a very morally-icky design decision. The enemy in the beta level, is a heavily queer coded police officer named “Coyle”. You are literally introduced to him via him pulling up his pants via his crotch, and electrocuting his own crotch with his police baton. He’s also in full police uniform, and it very much has the vibe of something straight out of Tom Of Finland.

A piece of official artwork depicting Coyle in greyscale. Source: Courtesy Of Red Barrels, https://redbarrelsgames.com/games/outlast-trials-wallpaper/

This isn’t the first time a villain has been queer coded in this series. Eddie Gluskin from Whistleblower was somewhat queer coded, and Val from Outlast 2 was explicitly a trans-woman, although both of these examples were far more explicit and intricately linked with their games’ stories than what Trials is with Coyle. It doesn’t help that I have mixed feelings about this for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s hard to put good LGBT representation into a franchise where 90% of your characters are delusional killers, with the rest primarily being protagonists and victims with minimal dialogue. So it begs the question, is problematic representation better than no representation? The answer to this will depend on the person you ask.
  2. Coyle’s design is very, very memorable. If you had a silhouette of him, alongside silhouettes of other Outlast characters, yeah, I would recognise him. His baton, uniform, stubble, and overall posture all lean towards a very identifiable visual design.
  3. The Outlast franchise has often dealt with themes of sexual violence, to the point where it’s now part of it’s core identity. This character kind of fits into that identity- although thankfully it is not as gratuitous as Eddie Gluskin’s sections in Whistleblower, nor is it as demonizing as what Val’s role was in Outlast 2. But that doesn’t mean that Coyle is excused entirely from being a problematically portrayed character.

As a gay man, this trend of making queer coded villains, especially ones that are either explicitly, or are alluded to being sexual predators, is incredibly concerning for obvious reasons. The prideful part of me wants to shout and protest for this character to get removed, but the developer in me also knows it’s likely too late to remove or change this character without delaying the game. Meanwhile the part of me that respects design and artistry also sees the brilliant visual design in the character, despite its problematic undertones.

I’m still unpacking these feelings on this character, and I would not be surprised if this becomes a very divisive topic in both the Outlast community and its subset of LGBT fans, such as myself. The upside is that the other main villain introduced in the beta, Mother Gooseberry, is instantly memorable. She feels like  she will probably be the Chris Walker of Trials.

Continuing with the positives, the gameplay is fantastic. It feels like they’ve taken the best parts of Outlast 1, and learned how to make the openness of two work with survival horror. I hated how open Outlast 2 was, and how little there was directing you where you needed to go. Trials feels more like an open level, but with enough lights, large corridors, signage, and UI to tell you pretty well where you need to go and what to do next. I did get lost a couple times, but I noticed that when I got too far away from an objective the game would put up an objective marker to nudge me back in the right direction. I am kind of sad however that the night-vision goggles no longer have a zoom feature, or the audio mechanic from 2. It makes a little amount of sense given the in-universe explanation as to why you have night vision goggles, but I still missed their inclusions. I did like the concept of Rigs though- these are abilities you can equip before starting a trial, and once used, you need to scavenge a particular item from the environment before you can use it again. I didn’t play enough to use them that much, and based on the lobby menus you’ll be able to upgrade them over time, so I’ll be interested to see how they play in the final release. 

There is also a new Sanity mechanic. Throughout the trials you’ll be exposed to different gasses or drugs that decrease your sanity- if it reaches zero, a new supernatural enemy spawns nearby and begins to give chase. Whilst it is near you, it will gradually reduce your health. Sanity can be regained by finding medication throughout the level. I thought the mechanic worked well, but it didn’t really add much to the game as I didn’t reach zero very often, but it is nice to have another thing to keep an eye on. It also provides pause to the player to encourage them to strategise and manage their inventory- because there is an inventory system in this game. No longer can you only pick up batteries, now you pick up power packs for your night vision, adrenaline for when you need to run for a little longer in a chase, health and sanity pickups, and the items that refill your rigs. You can also pick up bottles or bricks to throw as a distraction. Unfortunately, you can only hold three items at a time, so you have to be really careful in what you choose to swap out and leave behind- but it provides for some compelling gameplay. Plus, whatever you don’t pick up, your teammates might want for themselves, so it’s not all wasted if you yourself don’t take it.

I started the beta cautiously optimistic- as much as I love Dead By Daylight, I was worried that turning Outlast into a multiplayer experience would ruin the atmosphere and gameplay. Thankfully, when the multiplayer works, it’s a fantastic experience.

I just have to find out which of my friends I can convince to play this with me.

Featured Image: Red Barrel’s The Outlast Trials Webpage. 

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