In Visual Out, You're the Ghost in a Collapsing Machine

By Jack Yarwood on at

You know MadameBerry’s Visual Out is going to be different right from the start. The game doesn’t give you a high-tech laser cannon or a powerful charge attack. Instead, you are handed a small electrical tool to change the flow of electricity and alter your surroundings, before being pushed out into the world with few instructions on how everything works or what you need to do.

Visual Out is a more cerebral and less straightforward take on the metroidvania genre than games like Rain World, Xeodrifter, or Hollow Knight — its central rhythm a slow, deliberate style of exploration, the graphics and audio eerie and alien. The latticeworks of its wall textures at once suggest circuity and grime, fading off into the unknown, while bioluminescent tendrils from strangely geometric organic matter spread along the walls.

But this is not set on a distant planet. In the game, now available on Steam and itch.io, you control a rogue program within a dying computer. Defying the instructions of a malevolent operating system, you must explore the machine’s distorted depths: uncovering the secrets of its demise, 'hacking' enemies, and manipulating the environment. Along the way you gain new abilities, including a dash ability that lets you travel through walls, a jammer to reprogram certain enemies, and a shield.

The first impressions of Visual Out are all about the 'glitchy' aesthetic, the idea of being within a machine that is dying. Everything from the soundtrack to the graphics is distorted and feels as if it is breaking apart, with the effect only increasing in intensity as you take more damage. It's an unsettling stylistic choice that has a deep effect on the game's atmosphere, constantly forcing the player to confront the instability of their surroundings and heighten moments of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is a key tenet in Visual Out, and one of the reasons it's such an unusual genre piece. You are given barely any instructions or guidance from the beginning. Instead you pretty much have to figure out everything for yourself, which results in a lot of trial-and-error that, although unfriendly to new players, certainly sells the danger of the environment and encourages a much more cautious, judged approach to the world's puzzle elements.

Your head does need a bit of re-wiring because Visual Out doesn’t just look alien, it feels alien. The control scheme is unique, with you having to physically attach yourself to nearby enemies and then slowly shift them around the level to where changing the electrical flow will work out. There's no spamming fire here and even when you do come across a gun, much later, it doesn't work like your typical game firearm. Instead you've got extremely limited energy, have to pick the perfect moment to fire, and things are complicated even further by the aim involving a small arc.

You are never even told what interacting with enemies will achieve either, and there are no obvious weak points to any of the bosses. This means you constantly have to experiment with the available tools on different enemies, which can be irksome in crowded rooms. But again this drives home how overbearing the environment is and how powerless you are. No badass bounty hunter or valiant knights here: only a piece of code at the mercy of its surroundings; a green, anthropomorphised string of data on the verge of deletion.

You have to get creative to destroy most enemies blocking your way, and use them with and against each other. For instance, you can lasso globular objects and move them over smaller enemies to turn them into items, or hook onto others and use the jammer function to change their programming.

On one occasion, I came across two enemies that make blocks, in a narrow vertical chute. I tried for ages to get past them, thinking that the correct solution was to rush past before they blocked the way. What I actually needed to do, however, was to reprogram them to remove the blocks to clear my route. I died several times trying to figure this out with the screen becoming more distorted with every bit of damage I took, before starting me again back at the save room.

This ability is never explained explicitly to you, but it is vital for unlocking new routes.

That may be too much for some, and I won't deny I've had big moments of frustration with Visual Out. But my overall feelings are much more positive. The game leans into its obtuseness to create an environment where the player never feels like they’re in control, always emulating the real experience of fighting off a computer virus and the cold panic it instils in a user.

If you are looking for something with a real sense of threat and unease, Visual Out has that and more. It is full of intrigue and the unstable environments, puzzling layout, and peculiar enemy designs add up to one of the eerier metroidvanias I’ve played. The way the aesthetic inhabits some odd hinterland between there and not-there, flickering and dissolving and re-forming, creates a singular world. Visual Out is not the most intuitive of games, but what it lacks in clarity it more than makes up for in atmosphere and ideas.