Outlast 2 is terrifying, but it’s far from a perfect horror romp.
In many ways, Outlast 2 is a more refined experience than what developer Red Barrels’ crafted in the 2013 original. Areas are larger and harder to traverse, there is greater gameplay variation and visuals are stop-and-stare worthy. Despite strides in level design and appearance, Outlast 2 can’t manage to get out of the shadow of its predecessor and trips over its narrative hubris. The result is a game that manages to land a lot of punches but doesn’t quite live up to the hype it had rolling into release last month. Still, there’s plenty of genuinely horrifying sequences that make it a must-play for those with the stomach to push through Outlast 2’s unrelenting tension.
Outlast 2’s setup is simple: As a cameraman named Blake, you’re following your wife, Lynn, as she investigates rumors of a fanatical religious cult in the Arizona wilderness. As you shoot B-roll in a helicopter with her, it crashes, and you’re separated. After hearing screams through the canyon, you set out to find your wife. Grotesque and mutilated corpses litter your path as you search for answers, and it becomes apparent that something seriously vile is happening in the Jonestown-like cult. There’s plenty of environmental world building in Outlast 2, but the bulk of game’s lore is found in precariously placed notes.
Outlast 2 takes on some topics that will make some feel uncomfortable. Central to the narrative is Christianity and how it’s abused to manipulate and hurt others. There’s also enough gratuitous violence and implied sexual assault that it can be a hard game to stomach. Red Barrels uses these disturbing and challenging topics to push the narrative further; meaning these things happen for a reason and aren’t just meant to make the player squirm. Some might be put off by these sequences, and if you’re one who is particularly sensitive to scenes of gore or sexual violence, you’d be wise to stay away from the game.
The underlying story of Outlast 2 is quite a bit deeper than the first game, but the surface level narrative makes little sense without carefully reading hidden notes. In fact, there are a couple of documents that are so central to the story that if I had missed them, the end of the game would have made no sense. In the original game, this wouldn’t be an issue as the hide-and-seek gameplay often led to stumbling into batteries and collectibles. Because the sequel relies so heavily on tense chase sequences instead of stealth, it’s easy to breeze past crucial documents that add context to the plot. The assumption that players will catch these essential pieces of information while hurdling through sections of the game detracts from the overall cohesiveness of the story and comes off as a lazy attempt at character and plot development.
All of this leads to the one thing I missed the most in Outlast 2: Time to catch my breath. Early in the game, Catholic school flashbacks created atmospheric horror where players aren’t in danger and instead are pushed along by generally creepy vibes. As the game progressed, contemporary scenes and flashbacks alike became more intense, and it felt like I had virtually no time to lower my heart rate and catch a break. This decision kept the plot moving and maintained tension throughout, but constantly feeling like there’s a knife at your back doesn’t offer great gameplay variation.
Complicating the narrative are warring factions that see both Blake and his wife as intruders. While they mainly exist at odds with each other, there’s not much development with either group. Ultimately, the result is that neither is nearly as menacing as characters like the doctor from the first installment. Because player time is split between groups, it’s hard to understand each of their motives and screentime for both is brief. To my memory, there are only two scenes in the entire game where a central antagonist is shown. Instead of feeling their menace, you read about it in the aforementioned hidden notes. It works for the most part, but that doesn’t prevent the story from feeling flat at times.
While the modern-era sections of the game could use a little more development to flesh out characters and the setting, the flashback sequences from Blake’s time at a private Catholic school offer some of the best Outlast gameplay ever designed. Winding halls and general ambiance in tandem with fantastic backstory add a little bit of cohesion to the overarching plot. In these sections, there’s a lot of implied sexual violence, but nothing is ever shown or said explicitly. Sure, there’s a lot of disgusting murder in Outlast 2, but some of the game’s most disturbing sequences happen when you least expect them.
While the small villages and remote Arizona wilderness are often beautiful, flashback sequences are Outlast 2’s most stunning. At times, the creeping halls of the Catholic school look downright photorealistic. What really makes era changes work is the seamless, no-loading transitions that bridge the two time periods. Blake will start shimmying through a rotting shed wall and come out in the shiny but grim looking Catholic school. Each time it happens, it’s like Red Barrels has delivered pure video game magic.
Although it has some tough-as-nails sequences and thrilling chases, Outlast 2 feels like there’s rarely enough time to take in the ambiance and the world Red Barrels created. The Arizona wilderness was the host of some truly vile characters, and the way they pushed the player to remember repressed childhood memories was a fantastic catalyst for the protagonist’s mental state.
By the time end of Outlast 2, it’s hard not to feel physically and emotionally drained. Sure, if you miss a few notes, it could be hard to make some narrative ends meet, but you’ll still feel tremendous relief as the sun rises and the credits roll. Outlast 2 might not be the triumphant sequel we’ve waited almost four years for, but it delivers enough intense sequences and story bits to make it worth the time of anyone brave enough to tackle it. Outlast 2 will scare the shit out of you, but don’t expect the sequel to redefine the genre the same way the original did in 2013.
Outlast 2 was reviewed on a PS4 press copy courtesy of Evolve PR and Red Barrels.
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