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The Outlast Trials makes me sick to my stomach, but that's just because it's one of the best co-op horror games

 A woman holding a creepy puppet.
A woman holding a creepy puppet.

It's been 10 months since The Outlast Trials entered early access, during which Red Barrels has thrown everything it has at players brave enough to enter the dreaded Murkoff Corporation test facility. While I may not be the ideal candidate for rehabilitation, it's been an unforgettable experience.

With the promise of a better life, or at least some money to keep you afloat, the Murkoff test facility presents itself as a safe haven for society's outliers who want to better themselves and become productive and valued team players. All you need to do in return is survive gruelling programs laced with violent criminals, complete all the Program X trials to get 10 release tokens, and run the gauntlet in the final mission. Trust me, it's harder than it sounds.

Character scavenging as an enemy runs towards them
Character scavenging as an enemy runs towards them

The Outlast Trials' greatest horror is the prospect of relying on your teammates to help you survive. No amount of hiding away or self-healing can make up for a solid support network of teammates who have your back during each program—I know, I've tried. This can make your life hellish if you wrangle together a ragtag group of randoms in the lobby beforehand, or, like me, have a friendship group with the combined survival instincts of a dodo.

It may be a pain in the neck, but this seemingly impossible task is just part of the fun in The Outlast Trials. Attempting to complete the trials in the orphanage with just three teammates was probably one of the worst, most stressful hours of my life. It largely consisted of everyone running around like headless chickens, screaming down their mics while trying to solve puzzles and stay alive as one of the antagonists, Mother Gooseberry, chased us around with her puppet, which could drill a sizeable hole in our heads.

After being used as bait more than once, managing to revive one fallen teammate, and having both my legs broken by a behemoth with a sledgehammer, I ended the program, dragging myself to the evac location as my teammates screamed at me to hurry up. The whole ordeal took at least a couple of years off my life, but the rush of adrenaline and excitement of successfully pulling off a win despite everything was a fantastic feeling and one that encouraged me to forge ahead to the next program—after a cup of tea and a bit of rest.

Trial and a lot of error

Some getting electrocuted by an enemy
Some getting electrocuted by an enemy

Exploring the Toy Factory was undoubtedly one of the most jarring ordeals I've had in The Outlast Trials so far

When The Outlast Trials first entered early access, it launched with three locations: the Police Station, Fun Park, and Orphanage. These fall under programs that are lists of MK Challenges and Trials, such as transferring a subject from his cell to the electric chair while fending off murderous giants or solving small puzzles like connecting fuses or refuelling generators. It also introduced Program X, a changing seasonal stack of trials and MK challenges that, if completed, grants you freedom.

It wasn't much, but that didn't matter. It was hard enough trying to get to the end of a program, let alone escaping the test facility. Trial Variators, which stand in place of a traditional difficulty setting, appear as small icons randomly assigned to each program. They keep programs fresh by varying the number of traps, enemies, and blocked doors you encounter, among other features.

Attempting programs with friends also means that you can count on chaotic games, which always end with one surprising and slightly horrifying moment. My small group quickly fit into stereotypes as one forged ahead, leaving the rest behind in an attempt to quickly complete all the trials, while another was left to pick up the pieces and survive by themselves as I darted from cupboard to barrel, hiding and screaming my way through the program, with little to no clue as to what was going on. Thanks to the randomness that Variators and your team bring to The Outlast Trials, you'll have a great time replaying programs.

A colourful bedroom
A colourful bedroom

However, if you're looking for a rest between runs, then there are a few ways to relax. At one point, I entered into what I thought was a quick chess match—something to pass the time as my other teammates shopped around in the pharmacy. Soon, however, the chess table I was sitting at was surrounded by other players in the lobby watching on as I played a chess genius. I don't play chess, but I did manage to last a while, thanks to the helpful, and sometimes hurtful, comments from my teammates.

I also pride myself on the rather stylish cell which I call home. Furnished with the finest blue flowery wallpaper and bright purple carpet, along with random trinkets and posters I've picked up during trials, it's certainly a sight to behold. While none of this is particularly groundbreaking or impacts The Outlast Trials greatly, it's still a great way to unwind between all the murder and mayhem.

The launch version also presents players with a new, chilling experience. Exploring the Toy Factory was undoubtedly one of the most jarring ordeals I've had in The Outlast Trials so far. After crushing one subject in a trash compactor, my team and I set out to kill the deviant, escorting him through a factory full of furious killers and creepy mannequins. We completed some small puzzles and gradually ripped him apart as he was suspended in mid-air on a conveyor belt. The night ended with us taking turns flambéing the poor guy in a furnace. It was terrifying, gruesome, and twistedly fun to complete with friends. However, it's definitely not something I would recommend doing right before clocking off for the night.

An enemy jumping out of a locker
An enemy jumping out of a locker

I don't have the same unbridled enthusiasm for The Outlast Trials as I did 10 months ago, though. There's nothing I love more than co-op horror games; getting to scream and laugh at friends is all I want to do. So when I heard that Red Barrels was transforming the claustrophobic and gruesome world of Outlast into a group trauma session, I was overjoyed. I still am, but the novelty has waned over the last several months now I know what to expect.

Only one new map, the aforementioned Toy Factory, has been added in 1.0, and those of us who played during early access will have to start from scratch, so this isn't something you can jump into right away.

I have never done anything other than scream in The Outlast Trials.

I may have wanted slightly more at launch, but there are still new MK Challenges, revamped program structures, and a new conclusion to enjoy for the time being. It's also important to bear in mind that this isn't the finished product. Game director Alex Charbonneau, has previously mentioned that The Outlast Trials is more of a live service game than what Red Barrels has created in the past. “This is the beginning of something new, creating an environment which is a living and breathing world," Charbonneau said during a preview event.

I've spent my fair share of time shut away in Phasmophobia's van, carrying stop signs through Lethal Company's abandoned moons, and refuelling generators in Dead by Daylight, but while all of these co-op horror games are fantastic in their own right, none of them utilise teamwork and terror to the same extent that The Outlast Trials does. It's rare that a horror game that involves multiple players can be so consistently scary; usually, there's some overlap with comedy. I've had plenty of scares in Lethal Company, but it's equally one of the funniest games I've played. Watching my friend try to escape the clutches of the Forest Guardian with a broken jet pack is hard to do with a straight face. But I have never done anything other than scream in The Outlast Trials.

I loved exploring The Outlast Trials so far—the horrific gore, terrifying chase scenes, and clever puzzles all deliver one of the best co-op horror experiences around. So, for the time being, I'll take this horror game for what it is: a strange mashup of Grand Designs, The Queen's Gambit, and the horrific reality of what happens when a greedy and twisted corporation subverts the law and can use human test subjects.