Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
At first glance, it would seem that Outlast 2 is pushing all of the right buttons. It’s a follow-up to an incredibly successful horror that was pretty stellar in its own right. It prevents itself from rehashing old tricks by taking the player from the confined halls of an insane asylum into the more open wilderness of the Arizona Desert while attempting to expand its scope in the process. In other words, it’s everything that a sequel should be, at least on paper. It’s unfortunate then that Outlast 2 finds itself stumbling over its own feet en route to an incredibly frightening, yet frustrating experience.
In Outlast 2, you once again step into the role of an investigative journalist, Blake Langermann, who serves as the cameraman for his wife, Lynn. The pair has been following a trail of clues in an investigation of the murder of an unknown pregnant woman, that has led them into the heart of the Arizona Desert. Naturally, things don’t go entirely as planned and you quickly find yourself running and hiding from the murderous denizens of Temple Gate, a town built by Sullivan Knoth and his followers so that they may worship in preparation for the apocalypse.
It’s not the first time that a game has tackled religious fanaticism as a backdrop to its plot, and overall, the world of Outlast 2 is as intriguing as any to explore. However, problems start creeping up when the game’s fast pace begins to clash with its more open level format, eliciting more than a little frustration in the process, and killing some of the tense atmosphere.
Let’s take a look at what worked and what didn’t in Outlast 2.
Outlast 2 is a legit scare fest.
Let’s start with the positives; Outlast 2 delivers on the fear factor. You will jump, your heart will palpitate, and you will be more than motivated to run and hide from the evil that stalks the world around you. Enemy types are varied, even if their outcomes are mostly the same. You can’t fight, so running away is your only option, and all but one or two enemies come packed with something that isn’t a sharp blade. You will also find some recurring characters through your journey as well; the most prominent of which is Marta, the glowing pickaxe wielding she-devil that will maim poor Blake right in the nads without hesitation. Her weapon is instantly recognizable as it has been used in a number of promo images leading up to Outlast 2’s release.
The environment around you contains just the right amount of darkness with points of light serving as your guide as you make your way through the level. Peering into your night vision camera is just as unsettling as ever, especially when you inadvertently find yourself face to face with an enemy.
Outlast 2 proves that bigger doesn’t equal better.
It’s painfully cliche how we all fall for the idea of a game getting larger environment suddenly equals that it will be better without any regard for other factors. Let Outlast 2 serve as a warning against this idea because its larger environments create issues that simply weren’t relevant in the original game. With larger environments comes the expectation that you will be able to explore them; this is not always the case in Outlast 2. The series’ main hook is creating chase sequences for players to evade their enemies, and while you will certainly have your fill of those, it seems that the added real estate in Outlast 2’s environments have created significant sign-posting issues.
On more than one occasion, I was met with a bloody end only because the game failed to visually communicate an escape route, which resulted in me going in literal circles until the enemy broke down my barricade or caught up with me. To get around this, I ended up breaking my immersion by going on sacrificial runs to figure out where to go before dying and retrying the same chase sequence, which ultimately degraded the fear factor.
The chase sequences, although frightening also had the tendency to take away my desire to explore the environment for hidden items and clues because of how quickly you can die. This isn’t to say that death in a horror game is a bad thing, it’s just that when you have to restart the same area 2-3 times, it takes away the surprise of the scare that Outlast 2 so heavily leans on.
Outlast 2’s narrative is filled with intrigue but lacks the cohesion to keep it all together.
Building an entire game world around religious fanatics who take their faith to murderous extremes is the recipe for a world most horror games can only dream of mastering. To be fair, Outlast 2 has its moments, and there’s enough here to make you want to see how it all comes to an end. Blake Langermann himself is more of a vessel to the events of the world, even though Outlast 2 attempts to add depth to his character via frequent flashbacks. And that’s part of the problem.
Outlast 2 emphasizes its characters in what is ultimately a world-driven narrative. So while you are spending the game chasing down your kidnapped wife and piecing together the meaning behind the Catholic School flashbacks, the things that end up meaning the most have nothing to do with either. You'll be too focused on adapting to a new environment and seeing how the look of the enemies evolve, fleeing from them, and trying to understand the meaning behind it all.
Events play out in front of you, but their larger context is more often ignored if there even is one at all. Cool-looking characters like Marta are little more than obstacles in your way, who in reality don’t function all that differently from regular enemies.
Outlast 2 is at its best when you’re in the midst of a chase, and you figure out where to run and hide on the fly. Ultimately death works against the game on many levels, as figuring things out on the fly quickly gives way to planning a strategy your character shouldn’t have. Outlast 2’s world is a sight to behold, but more often than not, you’ll be too busy running through it to stop and smell the roses...or rotting corpses.
I’m convinced that Red Barrels understands how to scare gamers, but its next lesson needs to be how to design environments that don’t work against the foundation that they have already laid down. Running and hiding from deadly pursuers worked wonders in the confined hallways of Mount Massive Asylum, but it doesn’t go over quite as well in the spacious wilderness of the Arizona desert.