There I was, slowly crawling through the bushes, desperately trying to stay hidden and make as little noise as possible. The moon provided a comforting glow, illuminating the scene just enough to make out the faint outlines of the world around me. Unnerving sounds came from all directions, letting me know I was not alone and-
And that’s when this insane cult lady wielding a pickaxe jumps out of nowhere, chases me down, and chops off my balls.
“Oh well, maybe next time,” I thought. Only, it wasn’t “next time”. It wasn’t even the seven times after that. Outlast 2 gets so many things profoundly right, but for a game that bills itself as the horror game, it’s not very scary.
You start off the game by learning that you’re Blake Langemann, one half of a journalistic duo that investigates the weird crap no one else wants to. You and your wife Lynn are on a mission to uncover the mystery surrounding the murder of a pregnant woman somewhere in the Arizona desert when shit inevitably hits the fan. The chopper you’re in is struck by some sort of force and crashes to the ground. You wake up and discover that Lynn isn’t among the wreckage, and set out to find her. The game’s story gets far more intricate as you progress, eventually leading to encounters with not one group of religious zealots, but two. Each is crazier than the other in different ways, and figuring out what the hell is going on is once again done through collecting notes scattered throughout the game.
A fairly large portion of the game also sees you occasionally playing through Blake’s own mix of flashbacks and hallucinations, centred around a particularly traumatic event during his childhood at a Catholic school. The transitions from main game to these sections are done very elegantly, and it’s by far one of the more interesting and horrifying aspects of the story.
As soon as you take control and start playing, it’s immediately apparent that Outlast 2 is on an entirely different level in terms of graphical fidelity compared to the original. And I don’t mean it looks a little better, I mean it looks better than 90% of new AAA games. The textures, the level of detail, the shadows, the lighting, the… everything. The game just looks absolutely incredible. A large part of its visual appeal can be attributed to the switch to a more open, outdoors setting complete with mountainous areas, farms, cornfields, mines, dilapidated shanty towns, woods, and even a fairly lengthy, decidedly terrifying river-rafting excursion.
The only thing that I’d argue rivals the game’s graphics in terms of immersion is its sound design. Every creak, every footstep, every whisper that sounds like it’s coming from places it has no business being, and a goosebumps-inducing soundtrack all come together to turn the paranoia level to the absolute max. The game’s sound effects ensure that you never feel completely safe, even when you totally are, and that’s a brilliant thing to experience.
So, how does it play? Well, it plays very much like the first game. Shocking, I know. You’re completely helpless and all you can do is run and hide, and that’s part of why I loved the original so much. Not being able to fight back is one of the most effective ways a horror game can crank up the intensity of any situation. Outlast 2 builds upon this hiding and running mechanic by letting you hide in more places, such as shallow water, and places more importance on running from your pursuers. You’re also able to traverse certain terrain you’d never be able to in the original, giving it a slight Mirror’s Edge vibe. The implementation of some of these new movement mechanics is a little lacklustre, and the controls feel ever so slightly more clunky for it, but it’s an improvement nonetheless.
You’re also again given a night vision-capable camera (that, of course, goes through batteries like I go through Monster and paychecks), but unlike the first game, you’re actually able to record certain events. And you’ll definitely want to do so, as after recording, you’re able to review the footage to gain some insight into the protagonist’s thoughts. It’s a very cool new addition, and it helps you better understand the game’s story that little bit more. Another new camera feature is the ability to use its built-in microphone to hear where enemies are, even through walls and thick vegetation. It’s a useful addition, but I found myself using it about three times throughout the course of the game.
Okay, so it looks great, it sounds great, and it plays alright – why isn’t it scary? Well, it is. There were a ton of moments in the game that had me creeped the hell out and almost made me ruin my couch cushion (because I spilled popcorn everywhere, obviously). Outlast 2 brings haunting visuals, amazing sound design, grotesque enemies, a convoluted and seriously messed up story, gore for days, and disturbing scenes together to form an extremely unsettling horror game. Unfortunately, it’s all hindered by one specific thing. I’m super bad at the game. Or at least that’s what I thought during the first few hours.
See, in my opinion (and the opinion of this author at PC Gamer who summed up my thoughts pretty well) a good horror game doesn’t rely on killing its player to scare them. Sure, you could die in Outlast, but it was a very rare thing. One of my other favourite horror titles, Layers of Fear terrified me during my entire playthrough and nothing killed me even once. My problem with death in horror games, and especially in Outlast 2 isn’t that it isn’t scary – the first time and even the second time really gets the adrenaline pumping – my problem is that it felt too frequent and sometimes highly unnecessary. And don’t even get me started on the horribly placed checkpoints.
It would often take me between five and ten tries to figure out the exact path I’m supposed to take, or the correct method of avoiding a certain enemy, at which point fear quickly gave way to frustration and little else. I’d get past a particularly difficult encounter and still be so annoyed afterwards that subsequent scares stopped fazing me. And that’s the entire game, really. Tension, running, hiding, death, repeat until you “git gud”.
Even with the game’s more open setting, the sheer number of enemies and their apparent psychic abilities that allow them to spot you even while clearly out of sight, reminds you that this is, in fact, a game, and if you don’t go exactly where the developers want you to, you’re going to die. A lot.
Before I end this thing off, I should mention that Red Barrels has recently attempted to address the difficulty issue by making the game’s normal difficulty a little less taxing. I’ve revisited a few notoriously irritating encounters post-patch, and they feel much improved. I’ve adjusted my score accordingly.