Outlast 2 Review
A masterful chapter of unwavering trauma
This hiding spot has kept me safe, but I can't hold my breath any longer. The blood-tainted water inside this steel barrel makes it difficult to see or hear anything. Is she out there? I tentatively peak over the rusted rim, take in an overdue breath, and use my camera's night vision to penetrate the darkened surroundings. There is no movement near the old timber houses, nor are there any sounds beyond the fence. Now is the time to leave my watery refuge. I crawl my way along a dirt road to a sturdy gate, but it is padlocked and too high to climb. A wooden cart nearby will help me ascend, so I start pushing it. From behind me, a woman's deep gravelly voice makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Marta has found me once again, and, out of the corner of my eye, I can see she still has that massive pickaxe resting on her shoulder, partly obscured by her grimy hooded rags. Her elongated pale limbs grant her unnatural height and worrying speed. She runs towards me as the cart finally reaches the gate. With no time to spare, I scramble over and fall to the other side. Marta grumbles, unable to follow, but she'll be back—that pickaxe has my name written all over it.
Marta has a pickaxe to grind, on your rib cage
Outlast 2 is the latest scare-a-thon from Red Barrels following their successful original horror title that came out four years ago. Although set in the same universe as its forebear, it is a new story with new characters and minimal connection to the first game. In contrast to the hallways of a mental asylum, players will spend their time roaming the open air near rundown shacks, barns, and caves deep in the unforgiving deserts of central Arizona. The same horror mechanics apply—sneaking, sprinting, and dying—so fans of the original will find a lot to like when they are cowering in tall grass, hoping that a crazy man with a knife walks away before the camera battery dies.
Players take the role of a cameraman, Blake Langermann, who is trying to uncover the secrets behind a Jane Doe found on the side of a road. He is joined by his wife, Lynn, and they use a helicopter to search the rugged terrain from above. To no great surprise, a disaster sends the chopper crashing into a rocky canyon. Lynn vanishes and the pilot has been flayed on a nearby tree by persons unknown. Blake sets out to find his wife amidst the unforgiving and twisted landscape.
Far away from civilization, Blake is now a pawn in a game led chiefly by a preacher whose congregation happily kills infants because it was ordained. This abusive priest, Father Knoll, only appears a few times despite his commanding voice and disturbing sermons. Other characters pick up the narrative slack, including leaders of the heretics and the afflicted, neither of which put cleanliness high on their list of priorities. Notes found across the area reveal some of their motives, although much of it is twisted gospel. How the characters and factions link together is somewhat ambiguous. But if there is one thing the disturbed and sick tend to agree on, it's that sinners like Blake need to be punished.
Keep the camera charged and you might get out alive
Much like the first game, the world and its vile inhabitants are regularly viewed through the lens of a video camera. The atmosphere is a step above the original, with creepy building silhouettes, excellent sounds, detailed undergrowth, and humans at their most putrid. Blake's camera can zoom to focus on distant objects, although the environments are often too dimly lit to make out details. Much of the limited battery power will go towards the illuminating night vision that provides a murky green view of the immediate area. It is often required to navigate the pitch black environments. New to the sequel is a directional microphone which can "listen" through walls and provide an approximate location of any noises with volume bars. Although it uses power, the microphone is helpful when taking shelter inside a windowless room; sweeping the camera will reveal if any crazed humans are roaming outside. Batteries are a vital resource, so dilly-dallying is a good way to end up with a camera that cannot hear or see. And then you're as good as dead.
As Blake searches for his wife, the camera will record pivotal and shocking scenes. These scenes could be a mass grave, distant structures, dead birds, or a formidable enemy like Marta dragging a body with her pickaxe. Just like any notes found, these recordings can be viewed again, with extra commentary. Each recording is of the actual camera movements at the time, which is a minor but seriously awesome detail. Those jerky movements become telltale signs of stress and the camera orientation will make you recall events. These archived videos are great, but perhaps a missed opportunity because they are never used to scare. What if there were extra recordings of unexplained events? Those types of mind games could have made a great feature even better, although the game is probably frightening enough as it is.
In pure horror game fashion, Blake has no offensive capabilities or weapons, aside from being able to shove back some of the weaker and unarmed depraved, so any foe with a weapon is someone you want to avoid. The only way to do this is to either sneak or sprint.
Sneaking is more natural than its predecessor and that's mostly because you are spending more time outside and around buildings rather than within them. While there are beds, lockers, and cupboards that can be used as hiding spots, they take a back seat to steel barrels, cornfields, tree stumps, shallow water, and long grass. Even just crouching down behind a tree is fairly effective unless one of the depraved is close or points a flashlight in your direction. It's a smart change from the original, not just because the hiding spaces are different but because they are less rigid and more exposed.
Some hiding spots are better than others
Sprinting can get you to those hiding spots, as long as any pursuers are far enough behind. The areas are not huge, so hiding directly after a short run is a good way to get killed. Running into a shack, dead-bolting the door, and using a rear window provides enough of a buffer to find a suitable place to crawl up and cry. It's pleasing that running and hiding feels more organic, compared to the mechanical original, although it might lead to a few more deaths.
You can't always hide after sprinting; some sections require prolonged running that ends in more dramatic fashion. These chase segments are usually obvious, thanks to the terrifyingly loud music, narrowed paths, and threat reinforcement. Since the areas in the first half are more open, finding the correct path during chases is a little clumsy. It can seem like trial and error as you get further and further each time. But these early deaths are a good way to keep the player stressed for the later chases which are much better controlled because the 'corridors' are more obvious. Avoiding capture during chases is quite the adrenaline rush because you know how costly one blunder can be.
Most of the time you are merely trying to get through a hostile area, but this can be held up by a few simple tasks. Blake might need to start a generator to power a lift, push a cart under a ladder, or collect a hook to open a gate. These actions can take a few seconds, so you can't just run forward and hope for the best—hiding provides time and space. This type of hide and seek interaction is most harrowing when confronting the unique foes like Marta, even if they sometimes teleport to pre-defined locations. Marta will patrol an area by herself, and embed her pickaxe deep in your chest cavity after a rookie mistake. Remaining unseen will cause her, and others, to continue patrolling elsewhere (hopefully) and allow you to perform that simple task before making a tormenting run for the exit.
Although the adventure is considerably longer than Red Barrel's first game—approximately eight hours long—it actually has more variety and better horror consistency. The horror gradient is nearly perfect, preventing any acclimatization. And this is because there are many changes to setting or circumstance.
And you thought regular school was bad
The biggest source of variety comes from dream-like interludes through a Catholic high school, based on one of Blake's childhood memories. At first, the clean and well-lit school hallways are merely a strange relief from the nightmare happening in the real world. But, eventually, this trip back in time becomes even more terrifying than the horrors found in the rotten Arizona air. The transitions to and from the dream scenes are seamless, which helps to make it extremely unsettling to suddenly realize that you are back in that place again. This see-saw effect is also seen in other aspects of the game, and such a shifting weight is a heavy burden on the psyche. The trips back to school become more frequent, representing Blake's struggle with his own sanity.
While the school-based interludes are enough to keep the horror shtick from getting old, they are complimented by many other changes. And it's not just about the excellent jump scares peppered throughout. After a brutal crucifixion, a mutated foe will flush you out with fire arrows. Hearing an arrow hit a nearby building will get those legs moving double time. In another sequence, several crawling afflicted scurried through the long grass between trees, but only followed when out of view. And later, before the game becomes extra terrifying, you take a flimsy water raft across a lake. If fog descending over the open water does not send chills up your spine, the subsequent events surely will. Although the game relies heavily on sprinting and hiding, these side elements are monumental to the game's overall success.
Try not to run into the afflicted, they love to show their sores
Outlast 2 is a brilliant horror game and nearly the perfect sequel. It builds upon the distressing original, adding more diversity and jumbling the pieces so the rules aren't as transparent. Running and hiding is still a massive part of the experience, but it is less rigid because of natural hiding spaces and smarter world design. It is a much longer game than its predecessor, yet packed with variety to keep the scares fresh. With interludes like a school nightmare and a water rafting trip from hell, the stress levels never drop for long. This raw delivery of horror, relying on just a few basic hooks, is notable because it maintains such frightening stability. With Outlast 2, Red Barrels have created a new standard of horror that is so distressing that you may not want to come up for air.