Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Outlast 2 is deeply unpleasant but if you know anything about the series you’ll know this is its USP. Whereas the first made great advantage of a decrepit asylum, Red Barrels has refreshed the locale for the sequel. Whether or not the game itself is any different, though, is another matter indeed…
You play as Blake Langermann, a camera operator alongside his wife Lynn, a reporter more comfortable in front of the lens. While investigating a missing girl their helicopter crashes, stranding them in exceedingly creepy and dangerous territory, stuck between two groups of sick fanatics. One’s religious, the other patently not, yet both are drawn to Lynn for an intriguing and disturbing reason. Peppering this survival story are flashbacks to a mid-nineties school, these scenes holding the key to understanding some of Blake’s motivations.
Outlast was never about breaking cliches and there are plenty of well-worn tropes wheeled out by Red Barrels here. The approach to religion is one that liberally borrows from True Detective, Se7en, Rosemary’s Baby and many other dingy, decrepit views of Christianity. This is by no means a bad thing and it’s brutally explicit in the depiction of twisted faith, but it’s let down by writing that aims for edgy but which falls far from that mark. More on that later.
Before that, however, you’ll experience more of the tried-and-tested hide-and-seek progression familiar to Outlast fans. The forced intimacy of an asylum is replaced by a linear path with what appear to be more open, spacious environments. Run-down shacks, imposing churches and the underground passages that connect them are initially refreshing. Every corner hides some new horror and the American Gothic is slapped on thickly across the board. It’s well developed with moody lighting and a real sense of uncleanliness, as if nothing has escaped the horrors enacted by cult leader Papa Knoth.
Amongst these buildings wander deranged members of both cults (these are warring factions, diametrically opposed in their beliefs), armed with machetes and a host of hillbilly stereotypes. As usual, all you can do is run and hide - whether that’s under beds, in wardrobes or oil drums scattered around the area. It conveys a real lack of empowerment, armed as you are with nothing more than your camera. Some doors can be locked, giving you a few seconds respite as any pursuers bash it down but, for the most part, you’re harmless.
Outlast’s most recognisable visual identity has to be the grainy, green-hued miasma that is your camera’s night vision mode. Once again, this drains batteries faster than an N64 rumble pak, requiring you to pick them up as you progress. A new microphone mode has also been added, allowing you to hear through walls to pinpoint enemy positions. Of course, this drains batteries too! Liberal use of either will usually have you fighting with nearly pitch black areas and a frustrating lack of direction. Your camera also records key scenes, then stores them in its memory for you to revisit with the added bonus of fairly on-the-nose narration from Blake.
More and more, Outlast 2 seems to revel in discouraging a stealthy approach for the blind panic of a chase, forcing you into scripted sequences where hiding will get you nowhere. These would be fine were it not that they descend into trial and error. What starts as terrifying soon becomes frustrating, diminishing the scares and momentum alike.
The camera also heightens one of the most problematic aspects of the game. It’s apparent the developer has tried to make Outlast 2 as gruesomely abhorrent as possible, right down to the readable notes scattered throughout the game. Unfortunately, the level of gore becomes so excessive and constant that it loses its power to shock - here’s another head on a spike, here’s another pit of corpses and so on. However, there are still key scenes that remain disturbing, often involving the severe mistreatment of women, but what does Blake do? Instead of help he films these scenes… It just feels wrong beyond the impression the developers were trying to make.
It doesn’t help that the writing is cliche-ridden and fairly terrible. Everything is written in portentous, cod-religious script but laden with graphic references to sex and death of the kind you’d find in the online ravings of a teenage social outcast. It’s not clever, but simply there to shock and, with its one-note tone, that is soon gone too. Even then, it pushes boundaries but for no reason more than what feels like censor-baiting.
That seems to be Outlast 2’s modus operandi - to create a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Here it succeeds and fans of the first game are likely looking for exactly this. Upping the nastiness certainly makes it unique but it also feels like a distraction technique from the lack of evolution in the gameplay department. It’s competently made, appropriately intriguing and a worthy successor to the first. But that unpleasantness is a double-edged sword; it will attract some and put off many others. And given the way it handles some of the more sensitive scenes, it doesn’t feel like Red Barrels have the maturity to earn their inclusion.
So the game is worth a recommendation, albeit with a huge caveat. If you liked the first, get it. But to anyone else, beware - it’s not an enjoyable game. Something like Alien: Isolation nails the tension, whereas this at times feels unfair. If Resident Evil VII was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - a gruesome but well-executed thrill - Outlast 2 is the Hostel series. Nasty for nasty’s sake, coupled with troubling views that potentially reflect badly on those who wrote it.