The Outlast Trials is the latest game in the acclaimed first-person survival horror series and is currently in Early Access on Steam as of May 18, 2023. Although it’s the third game to release in the series, The Outlast Trials is technically not Outlast 3. With the structure of Outlast 2 making it difficult to expand the game with DLC, developer Red Barrels instead opted to craft a spin-off title while work resumes on the fully-fledged third game in the series. The Outlast Trials takes place as a prequel to the first two games in the series, exposing a series of deranged experiments during the Cold War and featuring an episodic nature that breaks the game down into missions.
Unlike the other two main games in the series, Trials is noteworthy for including the option to play with a friend. The Outlast series are mostly single-player experiences, so the addition of cooperative multiplayer is a new wrinkle to the gameplay meant to attract new fans. After the success of other multiplayer first-person survival horror games like Phasmaphobia, it’s easy to see why Red Barrels opted to allow players to complete Outlast Trials with a friend. That said, players can still complete the game solo and enjoy the game for all of its white-knuckled tension and suspense.
Distinct Character Classes and Skill Trees
As anyone that’s played the Outlast games can attest, the series is known for making the player feel helpless. Between a veritable lack of firepower as well as sanity effects that can impact what you see on screen, Outlast is a very different kind of survival horror game than most are used to. The Outlast Trials continues this same gameplay trend but also injects the ability for players to join up in cooperative multiplayer. While the game doesn’t provide players with weapons, it does allow them to unlock and utilize Rigs.
Rigs are essentially the game’s version of class-specific upgrades and abilities. They can have a huge impact on how players go about completing each level’s challenges. And, like the best synergies among classes in other co-op games, when players are coordinating and using the right rigs it transforms the experience. Being able to see through walls with X-ray like vision on its own would be a huge help in Outlast. But, when combined with a friend who can momentarily stun enemies or use other deceptive maneuvers, these abilities are game-changing.
A Deadly Game of Hide-and-Seek
Even though players can (and should) complete The Outlast Trials cooperatively with friends, the core gameplay is still intact. The game is all about turning the player (who is usually the “hunter”) into the “hunted.” By subverting what most would expect of a survival horror game and making you helpless, the Outlast series has long been notorious for how scary it is. Instead of being able to come out guns blazing against enemies, players have to use stealth and their wits to escape death.
Even though there are currently only three levels available in Early Access, each of them presents as a unique playground for the core gameplay loop of Outlast. If you were to imagine theme parks based off of the Saw film franchise you wouldn’t be far off. Each of these locations has its own unique foes and challenges, creating tense encounters for players to try and survive. A key component of surviving is sticking to the shadows, making as little noise as possible, and becoming familiar enough with the map to dart in and out of danger.
Co-Op Gameplay Increases Survivability (and Hilarity)
While it’s possible to play The Outlast Trials in single-player mode, I wouldn’t recommend it. Not only can it prove to be substantially more difficult, it’s also just not as fun as playing with friends. The additional entertainment that comes from co-op play is a mix of both rewarding coordination and the potential for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Additionally, the game subverts players’ expectations by including enemy types that can only be visible to players with depleted sanity meters. In these scenarios, communication and coordination become essential to protect teammates from monsters they can’t see.
Finding the perfect synergy of Rigs and abilities among players makes for some great gameplay where what might have once been terrifying becomes a triumphant series of wins against Trials‘ many deranged psychopaths. Additionally, playing the “cat and mouse” game that is so core to the series seems a little fairer when you’re not the only target of some grotesque villain. And, when death comes for you or your friends (which it will), playing in co-op transforms what could be stressful moments into hilarious ones instead.
The Best-Looking Game in the Series So Far
Thanks to the benefit of advanced technology, the latest game in the Outlast series is also the best-looking of them all. Both Outlast and Outlast 2 were great-looking games that have maybe aged a bit since their respective release. Even in Early Access, The Outlast Trials looks and sounds amazing. For a first-person game that requires players to rely heavily on their senses, this graphical and audio fidelity definitely helps the experience shine.
A particular highlight of the experience is the game’s use of lighting, which is most noticeable during the night vision sections. The Outlast series has long been synonymous with the eerie visual of someone looking at horrific creatures in the dark with night vision goggles. Trials‘ lighting and textures make this iconic series visual look better than ever before while also ratcheting up the game’s tension. Additionally, the reality-distorting sanity effects look great and can be truly unnerving during tense encounters.
An Episodic Nature Perfect for Bite-Sized Sessions with Friends
While single-player experiences are often built around the potential for hours of sustained play, multiplayer games are the opposite. Most co-op or PvP multiplayer experiences are designed with bite-sized sessions in mind, making it so that players can hop on for a few quick matches in limited time windows or quickly bounce back from a loss. The co-op in The Outlast Trials might have been a bit unbalanced if the game took the same approach as its predecessors and was based around a campaign. Instead, the game’s episodic nature benefits the best way to play the game, facilitating plenty of inventive to keep going back with friends for “just one more match.”
With the game currently in Early Access, there’s not a massive amount of content available. Still, what is there works as a solid proof-of-concept and promises that the full release will certainly be one of the best co-op horror game experiences available.