Outlast 2 is a game I had been impatiently waiting for since the first teaser trailer. I think what I was most excited about was the fact that Red Barrels Studios had decided to move on from the Miles Upshur/Waylon Park story. This meant players would be stepping into an entirely new setting, and one with no trope-riddled mental asylum in sight – which was a big relief to me, as I’m sure it was for many other fans too. However, in saying that, it should be noted that this game is still very much a first-person psychological horror and constructed in the same vein as its predecessor.
This time around you’ll play as the loveable journalist Blake Langermann, who, travelling alongside his wife Lynn via helicopter to a remote area of Arizona, has set out to report on the murder of a young, pregnant woman known only as Jane Doe. On the way there, however, the helicopter crashes (to no great surprise, given the genre), and Blake regains consciousness only to find the pilot has been skinned alive and impaled on a tree branch and his wife is missing. It is from here you must set out to search for Lynn and unravel mysteries surrounding a rather disturbing cult.
Visually, Outlast 2 looks very pretty. Red Barrels have upped the colour palette, shifting away from mostly greys and browns (as well as black and green for night vision) to a more visually appealing look. The rural setting adds some nice greenery which contrasts well with the various cold, harsh man-made structures. The game is also very clean looking too. Everything looks much crisper than its predecessor and has a general sense of appeal about it. Even the more bloody scenes look fantastic, in their own disgusting, perverted way. I did once or twice play parts of the game without using my camcorder at all as it looks much better than through a grainy camera view.
Speaking of cameras, Red Barrels sure does like journalists. Of course, this is all for the sake of gameplay continuity, though I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a character was thrust into a horrific situation like this but without a night vision enabled camcorder on them. In Outlast 2, you not only have to worry about your camera’s batteries when using your night vision (like before), you also now have the option to listen with your camera’s microphone to hear through walls for audio cues, which also chews up your battery – and a lot of it! Fortunately, however, this new mechanic has since been patched to not consume battery power as spending too much time hunting for batteries was a common complaint from those who played at launch.
What I really like about Blake as a character is that he’s smarter than your average horror game protagonist. Throughout the game, he constantly says to himself, “I’ve got to get out of here.” He’s not interested in sticking around for the story, he genuinely wants to leave this place as soon as possible. The only reason he hasn’t left by the second hour is that Lynn is missing and has become caught up in a messed up scenario with the resident cult who believe that she’s allegedly carrying the Anti-Christ and must be killed.
Unless for some reason Blake didn’t really care for his wife, I’d assume he’d want to save her before getting out of there, so it makes sense this time that’d he’d be willing to stick around. It’s also good that this time your character actually speaks and interacts with others. There is one point where you’ll actually encounter a sane person to ask for help in finding your wife and on how to escape. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the first game, and this character even goes as far as to heal your wounds, which is nice of them. You’re going to need it, too, as you wander through a town full of brainwashed cultists acting brutally in the service of their leader Papa Knoth, the all-knowing father. From what you read and hear, Knoth seems to be a big deal, and by uncovering information using your ol’ trust camcorder and snippets of paper, you’ll learn more about him the “powerful associates” he uses to “keep people in line.”
One such “associate” is Marta, who is the first person you’ll meet after the crash. Or rather when I say meet, I mean you’ll hear her briefly before she proceeds to try and impale you with the end of her pickaxe. If I was asked to describe her in one word I’d probably get slapped by my parents for using such foul language, but she does set the bar of the game really high, and after that the fun just keeps on coming.
For anyone who has played the first game, you’ll immediately get that familiar feeling of unease as you crawl your way through houses and patches of tall grass, and as you creep your way around potential threats. The tense atmosphere is always kept to a high, especially when coupled with dark areas that even your night vision couldn’t pierce. So much I was constantly on the watch for anything suspicious, or that moved. While there is a lack of music, or rather the music doesn’t really add much to the game, if you get spotted, you know it’s time to run and hide as fast as possible because the familiar sound of beating drums will make it clear as day that someone is out to get you.
When travelling through the game, whether it’s while being chased by an angry mob or sneaking through water, the controls hold up fairly well. Smooth transitions between running and jumping over tables, or “parkouring”, feel intuitive and reactive enough that there aren’t many points in the game where you’ll die from not pressing a button in time or not jumping quickly enough. The game is somewhat lenient in that area, as 9 times out of 10, if you see something that looks like you can climb it or it might be a smart way to go, you’ll be right. If you’re being chased, however, the game doesn’t allow a lot of room for error, which can be seen as both a positive and a negative, depending on the type of player you are. It does keep you on your toes, though, as you’ll almost always be under constant threat.
An signficant new component in Outlast 2 are sections which I’d best describe as lucid hallucinations, in which Blake will flashback to childhood memories of times where he was with his best friend, Jessica, who is said to have allegedly died by suicide. These sections only come around in short bursts, but the transitions are handled very well, and it does make it feel as if the protagonist is going crazy. Basically, in these parts of the game, you’re trying to uncover what really happened to Jessica, who was also best friends with your now wife. I thought these parts were both fleshed out and incredibly well executed, not to mention this is where you’ll find some of the creepiest/scariest moments in the game. Taking place in their childhood elementary school, you’ll have to explore as a single enemy pursues you, which further adds to the creep factor as it’s a “chase and kill-on-sight” kind of monster. Moments such as seeing the walls suddenly bleed and turning around to confront a monster that looks like someone whose skin has been turned inside out is probably the most stress inducing and frightening things to ever happen to me in the game.
In saying that, though, having amazing graphics and good heart-pumping chase sequences is all well and good, but there’s a lot more to a good horror game than that – or rather, there should be. Sadly, there are a few detractors in Outlast 2 which cause things fall apart by the end of the game – the storytelling, especially. The lore and backstory for this game is truly fascinating, but there are also a lot of plot points which don’t come through clearly enough. As I mentioned, a lot of the story comes through scraps of paper, i.e. written letters and journals, as well as recordings of certain events much like the first game. However, a lot of these are hidden in places that are hard to reach or may be out of sight unless you go off the beaten path. While I can appreciate this to an extent when adding additional context to the world, there are fundamental parts of the story which will be missed entirely if you don’t go a certain way at one point (for which there are no clear cues to do so). Also half of the time when you record with your camera, Blake will start yammering on about Jessica and will not really explain what’s happening or even comment on it.
What was perhaps most frustrating is that Outlast 2 often focuses so heavily the secondary story about Jessica that it forgets there’s another story that’s supposed to be taking place in the hellish present. Don’t get me wrong, I was certainly interested in Jessica’s story, but I still wanted an explanation for was happening in the here and now. Why are these cultist people so devout to a crazy priest who is so intent on slaughtering babies until he’s killed the Anti-Christ. What was making them crazy in the first place? And why did he want to keep these poor people in the dark about the outside world? Why, Red Barrels? Please, give us more story! Players will be happy to know that Jessica’s story at least concludes satisfyingly, but you will, however, still be left with more questions than answers for everything else. It kind of made me wish the game took place in the school, as those scenarios were a lot of fun, whereas the “real world” mostly seemed to be an intermission for what turned out to be the actual story.
It also bothered me that there are very few visual queues to let you know where you have to go. Again, I get the intent behind this design choice, and it works well when you have time to stop and look around, but if you add an enemy into the mix that will seemingly teleport from one place to next without any logical way of being able to get there, it can become frustrating trying to work out where you should go. In addition, while the level design as a whole is pretty good, objects such as rocks or edges of barrels that seem avoidable will often block your path, further adding to the frustration. There is a fair share of repetition to deal with too, and as you get to the end of your emotionally draining journey, it’s all set up for an emotional high, and the game just ends. Just like that. No explanation. Just roll credits, thank you for playing Outlast, The End. To say I walked away feeling short-changed is an understatement.
I really wanted to like Outlast 2 a lot more than I did and to give it a big thumbs up of approval because it does have a lot of great ideas. However, even if I look past the game’s biggest flaws, the slow pacing, and the unsatisfying ending, there just isn’t enough information given this time to allow me to fall in love with the Outlast universe again. As a huge fan, I’m still glad the game was made, and I can see the value in horror fans giving it a shot as there are still worthwhile scares to be had, but approach this instalment with tempered expectations because it never fully comes together.