The Outlast Trials Early Access Review – Delightfully terrifying for one’s cortisone levels

Posted on May 18, 2023

Typically an experience better tailor-made for single-players, horror is a hard thing to master when translating to cooperative online play. If things go well, you’ve got Dead by Daylight on your hands, where long-lasting fandom and community ensue, celebrating not only the very great game you have but the genre itself. Then there are those not so fortunate, like whatever the hell a majority of the multiplayer-only Resident Evil titles are. Fitting somewhere in the middle, with great promise, is the recent Early Access launch of The Outlast Trials. 

The Outlast Trials is the third franchise entry, seeing the IP’s return for the first time since 2017’s Outlast 2. Translating the otherwise single-player franchise affairs to a multiplayer title has worked out quite well in the Early Access treatment on offer thus far. Players control a player character of their own design and tweaking. Banished to a psychiatric hospital for sins you have committed, it is up to you to pass through a series of trials and earn your freedom.

These trials look like themed movie sets where horrifically violent assailants are let loose upon you. Soon becoming like rats in a maze, players must work together (or solo) to hide, complete tasks, survive and escape the nightmares within. It’s in these tasks that tension rises. Whether it’s powering up a generator, pushing a water boat ride through a horrific blood-drenched theme park, or electrocuting a snitch in jail, each of these tasks often creates a lot of noise. What this often results in is challenging battles for control for the player against their AI-controlled pursuers. Do you risk pushing the payload on the tracks that little inch further to the goal? Or do you play decoy, making noise elsewhere and drawing attention there while your teammate does the heavy lifting?

Developer Red Barrel’s decision to make The Outlast Trials a fully cooperative horror experience rather than the typical asymmetrical or PvPvE way of play has paid off well for them and I can see it fostering a community. Players get the best of both worlds. Sharing roles such as the distractor while another progresses through a task is a tried and true strategy in Dead by Daylight. Play and consume enough hours in The Outlast Trials and you’ll become familiar with the game and map layouts, including A.I. behaviour. Gone is the unpredictability of another player on the end. Hello, the rewarding process of wringing out all the juices and manipulating a game you know intimately.

Red Barrel again does what they do best – posit players in a terrifying landscape filled with the most terrifying and domineering guys that will hunt you down. So far there are three trials on offer, with a setting of a prison, a carnival theme park and an orphanage. A gigantic, bouldering naked man, a prison warden and a stocky woman carrying a puppet equipped with a drill are just some of the assailants. When you first encounter any of these figures, they’re downright terrifying and had me squealing perhaps a little too loudly. So much of this threat is bolstered by the clever level design where rooms and hallways will twist and tangle around each other, only to later be hit by dead ends or come face to face with another enemy.

The Outlast Trials’ lighting in particular is incredible, really living and breathing life into a scene. Lit paths can be your saving grace in the stretches where you’ve been squinting through the dark with your night-vision goggles nearing the end of their charge. Perhaps they lead to a point of interest where your next objective may lie or, horrifically, maybe it just leads to a corner where there’s a pile of inhumanely dismembered bodies. Outlast is a tricky horror series that has never erred on the side of subtle with its horrific environmental storytelling. The same can be said for this title, and that will lose some. However, when there’s so much gruelling detail and grim reality in your face and everywhere you turn, it’d be a far cry to call it ineffective.

These morbid curiosities continue the more you study each level. Scientists will be tucked away behind bulletproof glass in corners or in the rafters above you, silently observing and making notes on your performance. Old television screens will be emitting images of Rorschach tests, interspersed with propaganda text reading messages such as ‘Your rebirth will begin.’  Each level is also filled with traps be it mines or doors rigged with stakes to impale the player. My favourite level of the bunch happened to be the carnival level, where you had to cruelly partake in carnival games of throwing an object at a target, only instead your throwable object for these games was human hearts. Every step of the way, The Outlast Trials is teasing you and mocking you with its imagery, daring to be blunt and in your face with everything you see. When it works it sings, creating real moments of dread.

“The Outlast Trials’ lighting in particular is incredible, really living and breathing life into a scene.”

Surviving the horrors in each trial is tough, but other than your typical plays there are devices and the environment at your disposal to aid your journey. Like the entries prior, using hiding spots such as lockers or barrels will help you break the line of sight from pursuers. Syringes and healing vials will both pick up downed teammates and heal them. Bottles and bricks can both stun or distract a foe, antidotes will lower your psychosis level (something that can build up the more times you’re exposed to a toxic gas an enemy or an environmental hazard) can emit. Handy are your gained abilities which can allow players to perform feats such as breaking down doors more efficiently or kicking an enemy off a teammate. Most crucial is your ultimate item in your Rig. I chose to be the surveyor in my runs, opting into the X-ray rig that let me see enemies and items of interest through walls while my partner was the healer, dolling out a group heal ability.

Handy are your gained abilities which can allow players to perform feats such as breaking down doors more efficiently or kicking an enemy off a teammate. Most crucial is your ultimate item in your Rig. I chose to be the surveyor in my runs, opting into the X-ray rig that let me see enemies and items of interest through walls while my partner was the healer, dolling out a group heal ability. These are the most exciting way to mix up your play and can be the difference between failing or conquering a mission.

All these spinning plates in experiencing a level make for a good survival game. The aforementioned community potential will also be honed in on in the hub of the sanitorium that you’re situated in between levels. Here, you can customise your own sleeping chambers with wallpaper, carpeting, and decor, all earned from the currency you earn from matches (thus far, there does not appear to be any microtransactions). When you’ve got a lobby going you’re all in the same hub instance, creating novelty in exploring each other’s rooms and engaging in an arm wrestle at the main quarter’s tables. Otherwise, this is where you’ll see your gradual progression more tangibly. That nurse you can’t talk to you now can because you’ve reached therapy level x, unlocking the permanent perks in the form of prescribed medicine… and so on. The biggest tease is the clear exit for the whole facility, which you can’t seem to do until you gather enough of a certain token. Of course, I don’t yet know how to do even that.

A majority of The Outlast Trials is fun and worth exploring thus far already, but there are moments where the ceiling for the experience is visible. The three settings on offer can mean that you’re already running out of content to do about ten or so hours into the game. There are alternate objectives that can extend your playtime and see you visiting different sectors of the map in a new context, but that only goes so far. Most enticing of the bunch is the high-challenge content where it’s the same missions you’ve done prior, only adding more enemy spawns, traps, and the like to overcome. This will net you bigger currency and experience rewards, hopefully edging you closer to your freedom.

However, like the easier levels, the A.I. of your pursuers can be a bit of a mixed bag. While a good start, they need fine-tuning to be smarter and be suited to the map and occasion. Most egregious is when, thanks to musical and sound cues, you’re confident you lost your assailant, only to find them right around the corner as if they’ve been expecting you. If an enemy sees you enter a hiding spot, they’ll stand there right out the front of it, yelling at you and not moving until you come out, but never yanking you out yourself. This is cause for some annoyance as you and a teammate will often deliberate between using this as a cheap distraction while the other does objectives, or just running out and taking the hit to your health.

Thankfully, all of these issues are ones that often arise and are fixed within the Early Access period of a game. Having a cooperative experience like The Outlast Trials in this context is good as it will further foster feedback and attention from a community that Red Barrels hopefully adopts and tweaks. If they’re sensible, which they seem to be, these issues will be at the top of their priority.

If you’re after your next fix for a multiplayer horror experience with buddies, The Outlast Trials is quite the recommendation. There’ll be plenty of clippable, water-cooler chat-style moments one can experience in-game, creating memorable horror moments. A little bit freaky, messy and absolutely horrifying, The Outlast Trials is worth your time. It’s available May 18 on PC as an Early Access experience.