The Outlast Trials review: Unalive Service

The latest from Red Barrels' horror franchise is a multiplayer meat grinder, in more ways than one.


Outlast Trials, the newest horror experience from developer Red Barrels, asks a question I’m not sure anyone had on their bingo card: What if the Stanford Prison Experiment was also Resident Evil? We live in an era full of live service gaming, with emergent multiplayer shenanigans and stream-friendly content ruling the day. Outlast joining the trend feels like a logical extreme, a deliberate perversion of the happy go lucky, hangout spaces like Fortnite that have made this genre so dang popular. The whole thing feels icky on a level that’s hard to articulate, which is the kind of subversion you want from horror. So full marks on that one, folks!

From bad to so, so much worse

A screenshot showing how stealth can work in The Outlast Trials
Source: Red Barrels

The Outlast Trials opens with immaculate vibes, which in this case means “masterfully crafted” rather than “blissfully appealing”, because I wanted to hurl before the gameplay even started. Your avatar is set up as a desperate, long-past saving, dreg of society, desperate enough to call a mysterious phone number on a flier promising salvation. The promise of a fresh, fulfilling second lease on life is soured pretty quickly as you watch a fellow victim executed through the fibers of a burlap sack for the crime of asking questions. Then you are led through a torture dungeon masquerading as a medical facility before getting strapped to a table yourself.

It’s almost a relief the worst thing that happens here is getting night vision goggles drilled into your skull.

From this point the game reveals itself as, essentially, a series of grisly escape rooms. Your initial challenge must be completed solo, as you’re tasked with destroying your own personal records and government files after agreeing to unperson yourself. This is your fresh start! Managing to survive this haunted house gone wrong spits you out in a facility run by the corporation running this horror show, opening up the multiplayer, live servicey totality of The Outlast Trials. Everyone here is in the same boat, desperately trying to survive each trial for the vague promise of re-entering society better than before. It’s unspeakable terror but hey, you get your own room and can earn stuffies and posters!

Squad up to get brutally murdered

A screenshot showing players working together in co-op gameplay for The Outlast Trials
Source: Red Barrels

If you’re played Outlast before, this is pretty much just a multiplayer version of that. Each scenario has you sneaking around a creepy location full of horrible enemies, and all you can really do is avoid them. Through sneaking and working together with other players, you earn cash and experience you can trade for new cosmetics and powers-slash-abilities that make subsequent runs more manageable. The loop repeats itself and the challenges get harder, until you earn enough Ws to see the ending. Rinse and repeat until you’ve had your fill or new content comes out.

There’s a lot to like here, especially for horror fans with iron stomachs. If you can handle the stress and challenge of survival horror in this dissected, roguelike-like format, there’s endless fun available. Outlast is perhaps best known for its sound design, and that’s huge here. After all, you need to be able to know your surroundings. And when your surroundings are much, much worse than fellow gamers’ footsteps there’s a whole new layer of pants-soiling to consider. This game toys with you in lots of novel ways, with false scares built into the score and ambient noises meant to challenge your perceptive abilities. And the way the challenge racks up as you reach the ends of each objective is thrilling as well; the moments you have to choose between making a run for it or missing the opening you aren’t even sure is a real opening are excruciating. In a fun way.

But because of the slow pace and difficulty, you aren’t looking at the win/lose/rejoin loop of Outlast Trials’ peers. Especially if you don’t have a dedicated group or are trying to play by yourself. Alternatively, if you play with folks who are experienced (or you get there yourself), a lot of the vibes and nuance are lost as you solve the objectives on a systemic level. It’s weird to implement a grind like this in a genre like this without the competitive aspect à la Dead by Daylight. You have to play this game a lot to progress, and if you fail (and you’ll fail) you’re staring at significant time loss. And that’s scarier than the murdery sockpuppet lady.

A new level of "masocore" gaming

One of the boss-like enemies in The Outlast Trials
Source: Red Barrels

Buy-in is an important part of enjoying any kind of activity, whether it’s how the rules of a game make you feel, the premise of a story, or how you emotionally react to a kind of food conceptually. But for The Outlast Trials, the buy-in feels tremendously crucial. You have to be okay with the idea of repeating these sets of meaty, stressful pieces of game over and over and over again. You have to be okay with the outcome if you fail, and you have to be okay with the inherent instability of playing with random others online (or the uphill aspect of going it alone). You gotta weigh all that against the genre experience and what the format can add or detract. There’s no mass appeal here, which is ironic considering live service games kind of bank on that.

As a player, a lot of what’s on the table with The Outlast Trials ain’t for me. The prospect of time investment for a survival horror-style game combined with the Fortnite-style game loop makes my brain hurt. But I understand why it works for the folks who are down, and looking at those sickos having a great time in the Early Access version is a vicarious sort of fun you can have from the critic’s position. I don’t enjoy it, but I “get” it, and being able to see the enjoyment elsewhere helps wrap my head around the game holistically and fill in the blanks. I open this window into my brain for y’all to help explain why a game I won’t be picking back up again still gets a good score!

The Outlast Trials is available on March 5, 2024 for The PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X|S, and PC. A code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Contributing Editor

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favorites include Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mystery Dungeon. He's far too rattled with ADHD to care about world-building lore but will get lost for days in essays about themes and characters. Holds a journalism degree, which makes conversations about Oxford Commas awkward to say the least. Not a trophy hunter but platinumed Sifu out of sheer spite and got 100 percent in Rondo of Blood because it rules. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas being curmudgeonly about Square Enix discourse and occasionally saying positive things about Konami.

Review for
The Outlast Trials
  • Intense horror vibes; gross and scary in a compelling genre way
  • Disturbing premise drives the gameplay effectively
  • Daunting grind required to see it through
  • Experience varies drastically based on who you are or aren't playing with versus your own skills
  • Decorating your room feels silly for such a big chunk of the reward system
From The Chatty
Hello, Meet Lola