Having successfully had gamers looking fearfully over their shoulders and peering with trepidation into the gloom in 2013 first-person survival horror flee-’em-up hit Outlast, Red Barrels is back with a sequel. Outlast 2 keeps the camcorder, running away, and nasty things happening in the dark, but unfortunately makes a few changes that end up it rendering it a more frustrating gaming experience.
Leaving Outlast’s Miles Upshur and Mt Massive Asylum behind, Outlast 2 begins with husband and wife cameraman / reporter team Blake and Lynn Langermann on their way to investigate the mysterious death of an unidentified pregnant teenager. They're flying over the Arizona desert when their helicopter crashes under mysterious circumstances, but a helicopter crash is about the least terrible thing that is going to go wrong for them.
Players assume the role of Blake. With trusty camcorder once again in hand (and crucially, equipped with a night vision mode), he is tasked with both finding out just what the heck is going on, and surviving it when he does. And all is not well in Arizona. Blake finds himself amongst the murderous members of a Christianity-based sect, swept up in the sect’s own twisted prophecies and eschatological apocalypticism and hunted throughout ramshackle shacks, rocky crevices, and eerie cornfields as he sets out to rescue Lynn.
As in the original Outlast, Blake has no option for fighting back against the horrors of the night. Much more average bloke than paramilitary superman, he’s reduced to sneaking around and running away, unable even to put two and two together when in the immediate vicinity of both heavy farming implements and oblivious murderers with their backs turned. With much of the Arizona landscape pitch black, he needs to call on the camera’s night vision mode constantly, and as in Outlast, he needs to keep finding batteries to power it.
New to this game is a directional mic for the camera, which allows Blake to eavesdrop on the cultist’s creepy chats, but seems to have little practical gameplay use (apart from in one specific sequence). Bandages are another minor addition, which heal him up after taking hits. Though hiding in a wardrobe or under a bed might provide him temporary respite, ultimately Blake always needs to put enough distance between him and his pursuers that they lose the scent. This is signalled in-game by the pulse-pounding soundtrack that indicates Blake is being actively hunted being dialled back down to "Ambient Tunes to Uneasily Explore a Creepy Environment By".
In Outlast, this basic gameplay system made for plenty of tense pursuits in which the adrenalised player fled pell-mell into the dark and spent breathless moments holed up in hiding spots, watching as bludgeony-murderers passed by just a metre or so away. Something seems to have gone off-balance in Outlast 2, however, as far too many of the chase sequences become exercises in frustration – especially in the first half of the game. While dead ends and wrong turns did exist in the original, the chase sequences were more obstacle course in nature; exercises in flat-line speed that didn’t often rely on pathfinding, but were more like Mirror’s Edge with added pursuing psychopaths.
In its shift to an exterior environment, though, Outlast 2’s chases are too often exercises in working out just where to go. Can I open this door? No, it’s locked, I’m dead. Can I climb in this window? No. Dead. Can I run over here into the grass? No, turns out there’s a fence. Dead again, and once again enjoying a lengthy, unskippable getting-murdered sequence. Add in a checkpoint system that typically forces you to replay the part of the chase you have worked out before getting to your repetitive death zone, and the gameplay can get very old very fast.
On top of this, even on normal difficulty, active pursuers seem to almost always walk straight over to any given hiding place you’re cowering in and yank you out of it. As the game often likes to drop you in a cul-de-sac and put an enemy at the only way out of it, this means the best way forward is often clumsily shoving past an enemy, hoping the hit you take isn’t fatal, and trusting you’ll get a chance to bandage yourself up later.
Outlast 2 taps into what is undoubtedly the Bad Version of Action Gaming Frustration. The original Outlast had a pretty good handle on the Good Version: dying because you know what you are supposed to do, but are unable to execute it. This can be annoying sometimes, but of course generally only makes the player determined to be better next time around, motivated to overcome the challenge.
Outlast 2’s Bad Frustration stems from too often not knowing what you are supposed to be doing at all, making further attempts a random exercise in sacrificing life after life on the altar of trial and error. (Can I hide in this 44 gallon drum? Ah, knife to the face. Guess not.) This is a major irritation at the best of times, but is a particular sin in a horror game, where any successfully built-up sense of suspense or atmosphere tends to be evaporated by a repetitive round of lemming-like multi-deaths.
This is a bit of a shame, as Outlast 2 does some pretty good work elsewhere. The twisted religious ideas and environment of cult leader Sullivan Knoth and his followers are, in a word, horrible. As you’re creeping around, you’ll find documents and make recordings with your camera that lay out the cult’s beliefs and background, and it’s some creepy and at times affecting stuff. Parents in particular might find themselves emotionally hit hard.
All the while the game is laying on gorenography and themes that even the most extreme Hollywood horror films would probably balk at touching. While this is viscerally affecting as well, especially in the early going, eventually it all gets numbing, and starts to seem a bit over the top. You may find yourself starting to wonder just how many people were living out here in the desert, such is the sheer number of human corpses scattered about, and it strikes you that it would all look faintly ridiculous in daylight.
Much more effective are Blake’s sudden and (initially) inexplicable visitations to his own childhood, in which somehow he is transported from Arizona to a Catholic school where his camera records only static. The deserted night-time school is entirely bereft of Knoth’s followers and eviscerated human bits, but manages to be much, much more nerve-wracking – a testament to the effectiveness of a steady build-up of suspense.
Add in further complications such as a Satan-worshipping offshoot of the cult, strange seemingly supernatural events, the slow reveal of events in Blake’s past in step with his own unravelling sanity, and a specific document that manages to puts a whole new twist on events, and the complex story has plenty of intrigue. This is especially true of its harrowing, ambiguous ending, even if it arrives a little too late.
It's all rendered in the same high detail that we got in Outlast, too, whether you're creeping fearfully through the rustling corn in the eerie green of the night vision, or reading the complete weekly cafeteria menu on an A4 piece of paper pinned to the school wall. It’s just a shame that it so often feels like sheer slog.
Overall, it feels like Red Barrels funnelled its success with Outlast into a more ambitious effort in Outlast 2, succeeding in some ways with a complex and multilayered story, but losing some of the tightness that made the former title one of those games you’re compelled to push through in a rush. It feels bloated, and the feeling isn’t helped by its sometimes frustratingly repetitive nature. There’s still some gas in the tank of this franchise, but hopefully we see a leaner, slicker Outlast 3.