Following in the footsteps of Outlast’s grotesque depravity was always going to be a tall order.
After all, as far as most sequels are concerned, improving upon the first game can be as simple as refining pre-existing gameplay mechanics, updating graphical technology, or responding to previous grievances and annoyances. These are all things that Outlast 2 is expected to address of course, but it additionally has to conquer the challenge of topping the delightfully perverse and incomparably nasty attitude of the first game. And anyone who played Red Barrels studio’s 2013 hit will know just how insurmountable a task that could be.
Very few games have to compete with such an obscene legacy. Mass Effect: Andromeda certainly didn’t have to worry about one-upping explicit necrophilia, naked machete-wielding twins, or instances of on-screen castration (Although that would have made it a way better game).Yet Outlast 2 has to rise to these expectations, without taking it too far or making the horror feel forced.
Then there are things like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 to consider. Both of these are great examples of games that took the foundations laid by Outlast and then improved upon them immensely, adding greater depth and variety to the core gameplay loop. By contrast, the first Outlast now feels a tad limited and shallow. Back in 2013, running around in the dark, scouring for batteries and hiding in lockers still felt relatively fresh. Now however, we’ve become all-too farmilar with these tropes, and one has to wonder what else the franchise has to offer.
So in short, Outlast 2 has a lot of baggage to overcome. It has to raise the seemingly maxed-out stakes, it has to rival the ostensibly peerless villains, and it has to find innovative ways to evolve upon its own formula, after innumerable imitators have rendered it trite. Oh and it also has to make it look prettier too, as is sequel tradition.
It is therefore an extreme pleasure to report that Outlast 2 not only triumphs over this uphill battle, but emerges as one of the best indie horror titles in years. The most important thing to realise about this sequel is that it is narratively distinct from its forbear. There are no returning characters, there’s no Mount Massive Asylum, and the events of the first game have next-to-no consequence whatsoever. Which is frankly a bold move, given that the majority of Outlast’s initial identity stemmed from both its setting and its characters.
Yet as risky as it might seem, this daring choice is completely warranted, as there weren’t too many places left to go with the asylum premise, and revisiting the same location would only make this entry feel hackneyed and lazy. Instead, what we get is a brand new slice of horror, albeit one with similar themes and story beats. If the future of this franchise is to be an American Horror Story style anthology, then I am all for it, especially based on this encouraging evidence.
In this second instalment, you play as Blake Langermann, a cameraman working alongside his wife Lynn, who we infer is an investigative journalist. The game opens with both Lynn and Blake aboard a helicopter, reporting on the murder of a pregnant Jane Doe out in the Arizona dessert. While the pair are collecting B-Roll footage for their piece, a blinding light suddenly blares out in the distance, causing the helicopter to inexplicably crash.
Blake eventually regains consciousness, whereupon he discovers that Lynn is nowhere to be found and that the pilot has been flayed and impaled on a nearby tree. He thus begins frantically searching for his wife, a mission that proves to be increasingly hazardous, due to the violent proclivities of the local population. You see, where the first game pitted you against the mistreated inmates of an unethical insane asylum, Outlast 2 has you explore the highly fanatical settlement of ‘Temple Gate’, where extremest Christian zealots hunt you down in the belief that you have inseminated Lynn with the Anti-Christ.
What follows is a story that isn’t afraid to tackle hefty and highly sensitive subject matter, including religion, infanticide, mass hysteria, sexual repression and even paedophilia. This thematic depth is definitely the most impressive aspect of the game, as these topics are all explored unflinchingly and also intelligently. Indeed, rather than utilising crazy fanatics as nothing more than stock horror archetypes, Outlast 2 meaningfully explores the nature of belief, taking a look at how it can be exploited, how it can engender hypocrisy and how it can be used to justify unspeakable things.
To give away much more would likely warrant a spoiler review, so all I will say is that Temple Gate’s religious community is terrifying but simultaneously complex and enthralling. The developers never make blanket statements about faith or resort to bashing religion indiscriminately (although they do clearly have their own stance on the issue) and if you delve deep enough into the backstory and mythology, you’ll discover that nothing is as clear-cut as it seems. Some of the villains are actually treated with an unexpected level of pathos and nuance, and even the most heinous of individuals are bestowed some kind of internal logic which helps to govern their actions.
There is a caveat to this however. In order to get the most out of this story and the rich characterisation on offer, you’ll need to ensure that you collect all of the documents, read over the various ‘Gospel of Knoth’ passages, and intently explore every nook and cranny. Otherwise, you will miss a lot of the crucial intricacies. Whilst you might think that you understand the central plot-line, if you do not take in all of this supplementary material, then you could easily end up getting the wrong impression about a lot of the things that are going on.
For the most part, this obtuse approach to storytelling works perfectly, as you can immerse yourself in the mysterious lore as much as you want, without ever being subjected to clunky exposition dumps. Still, certain things could probably stand to be better telegraphed, especially when it comes to the actual explanation of the horror. Essentially, your entire understanding of the game’s ending rests solely on you reading ONE specific letter that isn’t exactly easy to find. It wasn’t a problem for me as someone who did happen to stumble across this document, but you could miss it, especially if you’re panicking in the moment. As a result, I can envision that many players will end up being confused and dissatisfied with the eventual climax, which is a shame, because there’s something quite interesting going on beneath the surface.
As for the aforementioned sexual abuse threads of the story, all I will say is that, for a franchise that made its name on blatant shock tactics and deliberately provocative imagery, Outlast 2 handles these sub-plots with a surprising degree of tact and care. Most of it is either implied or communicated after the fact, but it’s still incredibly discomforting and will likely deter a lot of people from the game. Nevertheless, if you are willing to subject yourself to more unsettling content, then this will get under your skin and push your buttons in exactly the way that it, and indeed the horror genre itself, is intended to.
For me, that’s the most admirable quality of Outlast 2, how it willingly trades in the extreme shock-factor of its predecessor for more insidiously distressing material. There’s nothing here to rival the implicit disgust of watching an inmate have sex with a corpse, or of seeing someone get their penis dragged through a circular saw. However, what we get instead is much more subtly disturbing and upsetting.
Overall then, the narrative is much stronger here than in the first game. It’s more compelling, better written, more emotionally resonant, and whilst the ending is still a little anti-climactic (especially if you don’t find that letter), it is nowhere near as asinine as the conclusion to Outlast 1.
Moreover, the technological side of the game has come leaps and bounds since 2013, as Red Barrels manage to put AAA developers to shame with frankly outstanding lighting effects, a beautiful attention to detail and almost photo-realistic environments. That last point in particular amplifies the intensity of the horror, making it feel all the more tangible and real.
There is similarly a dramatic improvement in the quality of the sound-design, which genuinely ranks among gaming’s all time best. Capturing subtle nuances like spatial proximity, or the way that sounds alter in different spaces and under the scrutiny of a microphone, this masterful auditory mix brings an unparalleled sense of verisimilitude to these otherwise-fantastical scenarios.
The best part of this is how the game largely avoids traditional spooky noises and generic monster effects, and conversely finds its own idiosyncratic voice, comprised of less familiar, more otherworldly sounds. It’s clear that Red Barrels were banking on this being their ace-in-the-hole, as several of the game’s best sequences rely exclusively on these hellish sounds for their scares.
Indeed, Outlast 2 embraces atmosphere in a way that very few horror games can match. Entire sections of the game are devoted exclusively to ratcheting up the tension, be it via the use of inventive visuals, moody lighting effects or just a top-notch musical score (”Marta’s theme” alone is capable of reducing me to a shivering wreck). The restraint that Outlast 2 shows at times is surprising, there’s even a whole chunk of the game where you just row a boat and reflect upon the events of the game thus far.
Still, ‘restraint’ and ‘Outlast’ aren’t exactly synonymous, and nor should they be, which is something that Red Barrels is crucially mindful of. So if you were worried that the series would lose its bite in its move away from Mount Massive Asylum, then rest assured that this remains one of the most intense, nail-biting experiences that can find on any platform.
The hide-and-seek sections are just as heart-stopping as ever and are now made even more exhilarating by the addition of a new stamina restriction. Normally such meters are nothing but irritants for gamers, but in Outlast 2 the limitation actually solves one of the biggest issues from the first game. No longer can you simply abandon stealth altogether and just run for the exit, because if you do, you will get tired, and you will die. Sneaking, therefore becomes a mandatory requirement, instead of just an optional strategy.
Compensating for this new disadvantage, are a bevy of new tricks and abilities that will help you to outwit your nightmarish stalkers. For example, you can now crawl on all 4s, allowing you to break line of sight with enemies and take cover in nearby foliage. You can also lock doors in order to slow your pursuers down and sneak through windows, ensuring that there is usually more than one way in-and-out of a building.
Hiding places have similarly been revamped, so that they’re more dynamic and aesthetically interesting. As a result, accompanying the traditional lockers and beds, you can now hide under the surface of water, or search for refuge in troughs of blood and faecal matter (Now that’s the Outlast we know and love). Each of these new vantage points come with their own drawbacks (stay under water for too long and you’ll drown), which means that you have to be a more considerate and take calculated risks, adding greater nuance to the originally simplistic mechanics.
The camera device also comes with an ingenious new function, whereby you can use the directional microphone in order to ascertain where enemies are, even if they are far away, shrouded in darkness, or obscured by a wall. Of course, this useful little gimmick comes with a fatal trade-off, as the microphone drains battery power in much the same way as the Night-Vision filter does. As a result, you will need to deploy this new ability sparingly, otherwise your cells will deplete at an alarming rate.
Naturally, these stealth sequences would be nothing without intimidating enemies to cower away from, and in this area Outlast 2 excels. Your garden-variety cultists are certainly frightening enough and I also really loved the cave-dwelling heretic enemies, that you encounter towards the last act.
The best enemies however are ‘The Scalled’, these diseased, Hills Have Eyes-type exiles who have been forced out of Temple Gate into a secluded part of the neighbouring forest. Upon misinterpreting your arrival as the second coming of their messiah, these pariahs become obsessed with tracking you down, firmly believing that if they eat your flesh, then they will be cured of their physical deformities. Not only do the Scalled make for visually engaging opponents, but they also have the most intriguing motivation out of the game’s 3 disparate factions. They love you, they worship you and they are immensely grateful for your presence, but they also want to crucify you, just so that you can rise again and be devoured for their benefit.
Whilst Outlast 2 has a far more diverse and interesting collection of standard enemies, its bosses are a little less memorable than they could have been. They’re all still suitable scary, especially the cult-executioner Marta, who is more outright terrifying than anyone from the first game. The problem is just that none of these villains are as colourful or as fun. There’s no jovial sadist here, there’s no chainsaw wielding cannibal. In fact, all of the enemies are remarkably serious and straight faced, which is slightly disappointing.
The other problem is that these new characters are obviously intended to function as counterparts to previous bosses, which only highlights their relative lack of personality. They’re so strikingly similar that you’ll involuntarily draw comparisons to their first game equivalents. Marta is a relentless, physically imposing brute that the other lunatics are all afraid of (ala Chris Walker), Laird is a mid-game antagonist who subjects you to torture and hunts you through his own self-contained area (ala Richard Trager), Val is a naked person with a machete (ala the naked twins…with machetes), and there’s also a supernatural foe that blatantly stands in for the Wallrider.
Regrettably, the flaws don’t stop there. As many critics have noted, navigation can be a big fucking problem with this game. The level design isn’t exactly perfect, but this detriment is less to do with geography and the layout of environments, and more to do with extremely poor signposting. This was true of the first game as well (don’t let nostalgia tell you differently), but the problem has been magnified for this sequel, as all too often you are expected to go in a very precise direction with little in the way of guidance.
The worst instances of this are when you are required to go through an almost imperceptible gap in a structure, or to use one specific exit in a hallway comprised of locked doors. If you don’t decipher the exact series of steps quickly enough, then you will die. A lot. This can quickly transform once-effective chases into annoying chores that outstay their welcome. I’m not asking for a flashing neon sign that says ‘go here’, but there need to be visual cues that can steer you in the right direction.
Moreover, the game sometimes struggles to balance its aspirations of psychological horror with its more gory, in-your-face sensibilities. Much like The Evil Within, Outlast 2 experiments with disorienting reality shifts, which can often be jarring and result in striking cases of tonal whiplash. At points it borders on the comical, as sometimes these graceless shifts can occur within the space of you opening a door.
Niggles aside, this is still a truly ballsy sequel, one that I wish was being celebrated more. In the games industry, follow-ups are all too often just more of the same, but with Outlast 2, Red Barrels have attempted to do something substantially different. They’ve moved away from their video-nasty roots, whilst still maintaining a grasp on what worked so well the first time. They’ve created something that is smarter, more refined, more thought-provoking, but still just as frightening.
The dark places that the story ventures to (particularly in some troubling flashback sequences) evidence a confidence and bravery that this medium sorely needs if it is to ever truly legitimise itself as an art form. But that’s not what most people want from Outlast. They just want mental patients being gross, and they didn’t get that here.
Hopefully the years will be kinder to Outlast 2. It may be may be a little rough-around-the-edges, but one thing that it is not, is bland. It has the guts to try new things, to challenge people and to tell its story in a unique way. It is incredibly disheartening that something this bold has been so widely dismissed, whilst titles as nondescript as Horizon Zero Dawn and Battlefield One are drenched in praise for being safe and ordinary.
Maybe one day people will come back to reevaluate Outlast 2 with an open mind. I certainly hope so, because we as audiences should be demanding more games with this level of integrity and ambition. Otherwise we’re just dooming the medium to continued mediocrity.
RATING: 8/10 In spite of some gameplay missteps here and there, Outlast 2 emerges as one of the strongest horror experiences in recent years, with a compelling narrative, some fun set-pieces and an overwhelming abundance of dread.
Outlast 2 is available now on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.