Rescue your wife from a town full of insane cultists.
PC Release: April 25, 2017
By Ian Coppock
Grab a pitchfork and propose to a cousin, because Red Barrels’ long-awaited hillbilly horror game has arrived at last. After Outlast stormed the boards in the fall of 2013 with its eerie green-tinged environments and flat-out terrifying enemies, Outlast 2 was a foregone conclusion for many fans. Sure enough, Outlast 2 was announced a few years later, and much like a Mount Massive Insane Asylum patient barging through a door, could not be restrained by delays and obstacles. Now it’s time to delve once more into what could very well be the scariest universe in contemporary gaming.
Like its predecessor, Outlast 2 is a first-person survival-horror game that emphasizes careful exploration and avoiding crazed monsters. The game is set some time after the events of Outlast, but features a new cast of characters and a setting far away from the original’s Colorado crazy-house. Players assume the role of Blake Langermann, a cameraman who along with his wife Lynn has been investigating the murder of a pregnant woman in Arizona. The couple’s sleuthing leads them to the state’s remotest desert region, and to what could be a big break for Lynn.
As Blake and Lynn prepare to touch down in the desert, a strange blast of light forces their helicopter to crash. Blake regains consciousness and finds his trusty video camera, but cannot locate his wife in the wreckage. He follows a spine-tingling trail of screams to what looks like a town… only, there’s not supposed to be a town so far out here. The word “town” is also quite generous. “Dilapidated village from Hell” is a more apt descriptor of this place.
It doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that the town is inhabited… by a vicious cult that believes the end times are upon the world. Barely managing to stay one step ahead of the zealous cultists, Blake also realizes that the townsfolk have captured Lynn, and are preparing to cart her off to a fate worse than death. Armed only with his camera, it’s up to Blake to rescue his wife and find a way out of this hellish little corner of the desert.
That camera is players’ only hope for survival in Outlast 2, as Blake is unable to fight back against the cultists (despite the entire town being full of farming implements). Blake’s camera is far more sophisticated than the one Miles Upshur used in Outlast, with improved zoom, night vision, and even microphones that can pick up distant footsteps. Blake can run, jump, and slide his way out of trouble provided his reflexes are quick enough, but the town’s inhabitants are armed to the teeth and none too shy about attempting a murderous 50-meter dash.
Although the basic run-and-record gameplay of Outlast 2 is nothing that fans of Outlast won’t be familiar with, the sequel does make a few crucial tweaks that refine the first title’s gameplay. For instance, the player can now look behind themselves at any time instead of just when sprinting. Additionally, the retinue of hiding spots has increased dramatically, and the player now has a wide selection of barrels, troughs and ponds to hop into when Cousin Cletus comes knocking. The whole camera setup feels a bit too derivative of the first game, but it remains a fluid setup indeed.
Outlast 2 also makes some rather malicious modifications to the game’s survival systems, doing away with the health regeneration of Outlast in favor of limited health and bandages. This mechanic is a great way to up the tension. Players can still expect to find batteries lying around, but Outlast 2 demands far more usage of the night vision mode than the first game did, so players have to be resourceful when whipping the camera out. Outlast 2 also does a much better job than the first game did of hinting to players when an event is worthy of recording, and allows players to review footage they’ve taken for clues and Blake’s insights.
The enemies that Outlast 2 throws at Blake are even more terrifying that the mutated inmates at the first game’s insane asylum. Something malicious has clearly driven these townsfolk over the edge, and as an outsider, Blake is the unlucky recipient of the village’s collective ire. The villagers are smarter and more thorough than the monsters in Outlast, using more intricate search patterns and working together in teams to hound the player. It’s an impressive AI upgrade over what Outlast provided, though the villagers are little less oblivious to when the player is walking right behind them.
Outlast 2 also succeeds in providing a greater variety of foes than the first game. For all their admitted scariness, the inmates in Outlast constituted a single enemy type. As Blake progresses through the village, he has to put up not only with angry villagers, but sickened outcasts that crawl around and stalk the player from a distance. The heretics, a splinter faction opposing the town, are little friendlier to Blake than the villagers but are brutal ambush predators. None of this is to say anything of the game’s unique and particularly gruesome villains, like the 8-foot-tall pickax lady.
Outlast 2‘s most dramatic change over the original Outlast is in the level design department. The game abandons the constricting linear environments of the insane asylum in favor of open hamlets and corn fields. This shift in level design is a refreshing change, but it certainly doesn’t stop the monsters from being thorough with their patrols. The corn fields represent the zenith of this transition, as players have to adjust from creeping down asylum corridors to blindly pushing through corn stalks while who knows what waits in the next patch over.
Unfortunately, this transformation to a starkly open environment makes it difficult for players to know where to go next. A few areas here and there are marked with telltale lights or a pushed-over cart pointing toward a door, but too often finding the path forward becomes an obnoxious spate of trial-and-error. Players have to run around an environment hoping that they blunder into the exit, but might very well blunder into Billy Jean’s ax and have to start all over again. For the visceral new sense of terror afforded by Outlast 2‘s much more open design, the game loses a lot of structure in the process.
The real heart of the problem with Outlast 2‘s format change has less to do with the change itself and more to do with how enemies act in it. This game is rife, absolutely rife, with scripted chase sequences, which the player is still expected to navigate even while in an open area. It becomes dull and frustrating to endure a chase scene over and over again because the player can’t find the direction the game wants them to run in. There’s something inherently dysfunctional about applying a linear chase sequence to an open environment. It happens a lot in Outlast 2, and it’s less scary than irritating.
Despite the drawbacks of Outlast 2‘s world, it remains one of the scariest game settings developed in years. This spooky Arizona backwater is intricately detailed with decaying buildings and ghoulish religious iconography, all of which gives it a dreadful atmosphere. The game certainly doesn’t let up on showering the town with (literal) buckets of blood, bodies, and gore, all of which is carefully arranged to show, not tell, additional little stories. These details, plus a heap of sophisticated lighting and weather effects and outstanding PC performance, make the town even scarier than the setting of the first game. Outlast 2‘s comprehensive options menu doesn’t hurt the game either.
The other thing that makes Outlast 2‘s setting so scary? The horror. The pure, visceral, unleashed, unrestrained horror. The horror of watching the pickax lady murder someone for not muttering Biblical phrases properly. The horror of being licked by an all-too-amorous cultist who really wants to feel the spirit. The horror of watching townsfolk get stretched on the rack, flayed alive, and then burned at the stake. The horror of being vomited on by a plague-ridden cultist before watching him retreat to a cabin half-sunk in his own feces.
Yeah, Outlast 2 does not hold back in its portrayals of graphic violence. Indeed, it might be one of the most violent games ever made, and for this medium that’s saying something. Red Barrels’ decision to go full-throttle on portraying the very worst excesses of the human mind means that most players will experience the game while under the duress of a perpetual heart attack. Even iron-hearted horror aficionados may find themselves flinching at some of the torture and assault portrayed in this game. For better and for worse, Outlast 2 digs its adrenaline-tipped barbs into players’ hearts and doesn’t release itself for most of its 8-9 hour playtime.
This constant cringe also creeps into the main narrative, thanks to some talented writing and horrifyingly brilliant voice acting. Unlike Miles Upshur, Blake can talk, and usually gives very realistic reactions to the awful things he witnesses. As Blake makes his way through the village, he also begins having flashbacks of unpleasant events at his Catholic elementary school. These scenes are wound together with the main game into a foreboding miasma, one with implications of unspeakable acts whose portrayal in media is usually taboo.
Forsaking nuance in favor of ramming through as much brutality as possible is not as foregone a horror game strategy as many gamers might think. It’s easy to look at games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the Doorways saga and automatically assume that they pack all sorts of unspeakably atrocious things into its production. While it’s true that both games have plenty of content that’s terrifying more for its implication than what it is, horror games usually still have at least some restraint when it comes to portraying things like sexual assault and child abuse. Outlast 2 doesn’t. And that bestial lack of restraint is all that the game seems interested in.
For better and for worse, Outlast 2 seems interested purely in being scary. In cramming as much gruesome stuff and shocking subject matter into its audience’s eyeballs as possible. In so doing, Outlast 2 forsakes the narrative that’s supposed to hold this all together; the reason that all of this horror is being experienced to begin with. Even more than the level design, the game’s focus on overwhelming terror in place of a terrifying story is where the whole production really starts to fall apart. Outlast 2 is uninterested in answering the questions that its own narrative raises, which is a major problem.
It’s difficult to say much more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Outlast 2 starts the player off with a lot of questions and ends without having answered virtually any of them. Everything from why the rednecks have kidnapped Lynn to why Blake is having these flashbacks goes unanswered by Outlast 2. At one point Blake actually spots the source of a major plot point, but doesn’t investigate or otherwise comment on it, content to just leave it hanging. Outlast 2 prefers to focus on pure scares instead of why the scares are happening. This game’s plot holes outweigh its plot.
It may seem paradoxical to take a horror game to task for focusing exclusively on being scary, but that approach transforms Outlast 2 from a great horror game (like Outlast) into a tacky scare-house. The game’s idea of throwing constant scares at the player without rhyme or reason smacks more of desperation than competency. Outlast 2 isn’t interested in why the cultists hate Blake, or why it might suddenly start raining blood… it only expects the player to be awed by the spectacle. It’s only interested in getting a reaction from the spectacle. Anyone can make a game full of spectacle, but few can make a game full of substance. Outlast 2‘s lack of substance makes it a bitter disappointment, and patently unworthy of the asylum adventure from whence it spawned.
You can buy Outlast 2 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.