Horror films hold onto the golden rule: Never show the monster early. You can see it flit about in the shadows; the camera can linger for a while on a pair of glowing eyes as something stalks the protagonist; but never display the monster if you are trying to build the tension and subtle horror that lies beyond jump scares. Outlast 2 revels in shoving players face-first into the most awful things it can think of as if to say, "Isn't that gross and weird? ARE YOU SCARED NOW?" Its lack of nuance represents a step backward for Red Barrels.
Red Barrels greeted the world with Outlast back in 2013. The horror title received acclaim for its tense structure and story line that slowly descended into madness. Players were pulled into the world of a seemingly abandoned asylum as seen through the eyes of an intrepid journalist. Combat was nonexistent, meaning players could only run and hide from the various antagonists they encountered. The fact that the asylum housed all manner of inmates led to a very interesting, deliberate grey area when it came to horror. Some inmates would become hostile, others would not. This resulted in tense moments, fueled by a fear of the unknown. Those moments of uncertainty, when constrained within the linear story and structure of Outlast, represented some of its best attempts at horror.
Outlast 2 tells the story of Blake Langermann, a journalist and camera man, who works with his journalist partner and wife, Lynn. Together, they decide to pursue a story about the mysterious murder of a pregnant woman in a desolate region of Arizona. As they fly above the region in a helicopter, a mechanical failure causes the chopper to go down, stranding the both of them in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the two of them have fallen into the middle of a conflict between two opposing cults who believe Lynn holds the keys to the end of the world. Blake sets off to rescue Lynn and escape the manic cult members.
Outlast 2 moved away from the more interesting, murky elements of horror. Instead, it commits to subjecting the player to gruesome scenes and scenarios – shock horror. These certainly make for an uncomfortable experience, but they lack the subtlety and pacing of its predecessor or the gold standard of modern, defenseless horror, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Several things contribute to making Outlast 2 a grueling slog to play through: world structure, how players progress through the setting, and what makes for good horror.
A large portion of Outlast 2 takes place in the outdoors. You would think that this would make for an interesting dynamic; many horror games thrive on a tightly controlled, linear structure, but taking place without physical barriers seems to fly right in the face of that. The situation seems like a great opportunity to reinvent the horror genre with a more open world approach to design. Despite having access to the open air, Outlast 2 keeps to a more traditional structure, a perfectly sound, reasonable decision. Unfortunately, the implementation of this structure hurts more than helps. It ends up creating confusion in Outlast 2’s perpetual darkness.
Outlast 2 wants players to run in specific directions to specific areas in the dead of night with only a grainy camcorder to reveal the way. Ideally, the design of the world would usher players in those desired directions, toward those important areas. Too often, Outlast 2 drops the ball and becomes a confusing, frustrating exercise in trial and error in the woods and fields.
In pushing stealth and hiding as the main mechanic, Outlast 2’s design leads to players avoid the obvious routes and stick to the outskirts of any given area – until they are forced into those pathways, which triggers enemy aggression. If this is the approach the game wants to take, why bother having open, outdoor segments at all? Players are often given no time to learn an area, no time to strategize – unless they die repeatedly to scout out the proper route. This has the effect of reducing the horror as players become more familiar with any given area, something that should be the exact opposite of what the developers want players to experience.
Outlast 2 seems to be strangely aware of this deficiency, however. To counter these more open, frustrating segments, the game puts players through cutscenes and areas of minimal interactivity that deal with highly uncomfortable and twisted scenarios, like living through a crucifixion. Doubtlessly this approach will appeal to some in the horror community, but I personally found it desensitizing after a while.
That desensitization, that cheapening of the horror inherent in Outlast 2’s violence might just be the title’s biggest problem. Instead of leaving the player to feel a growing dread or an uncertainty about their surroundings, Outlast 2 opts to try going bigger and more horrible the farther that players progress. This immediately becomes a problem because Outlast 2’s starting point begins at what might in other games be part of the horror highlight reel. Within the first hour players encounter a pit of dead children, tortured people in cages, ritualistic killings, sexual assault, and more. Where else can the game go from there? It turns out that it can go quite a few places, but the staged scenes intended to shock the player become less scary and more of a grueling chore than anything else.
And that’s a shame, because the story of Outlast 2 might be one of the best things it has going for it. Repressed memories, working through trauma, how people live and survive after experiencing tragedy, all of those themes present some interesting questions throughout Outlast 2. Unfortunately, experiencing that story might be really difficult for people who are either turned off by the violence – not just because of the graphic content, but also that it eventually becomes so routine and, frankly, boring.
Instead of feeling scared or tense, I fell into a rut with Outlast 2 of just trying to make progress, and the intended scares wound up feeling flat. In other words, Outlast 2 reveals its hand too early; it breaks the golden rule and puts its hideous monster on full display in the opening minutes and never lets up until the very end. Some might find that exhilarating in a horror game – others, like myself, might find it dull compared with other titles in the genre.
Outlast 2 was reviewed on PC and is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC