Developer: Red Barrels Publisher: Red Barrels Format: PC (reviewed), PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: April 26, 2017 Copy provided by publisher
In a sea of indistinguishable first-person horror games designed primarily to make YouTubers scream, Outlast stood out for its grisly charm, tense stealth gameplay, and a consistently outrageous style.
Outlast was a relentless game, pushing audacity to its limit in order to get away with shocking scenes of violence, sexual depravity, and medical malpractice. It was by no means a masterpiece, and its mental hospital setting was already dated and riddled with implications, but its pushing of the envelope and terrifying atmosphere made it one of the better independent horror efforts you could hope to find in a post-Amnesia world.
To take an overused phrase and reverse its polarity, if you loved Outlast you’ll… like Outlast 2.
Outlast 2 is a serviceable game, but with its predecessor (and even more horrific DLC expansion) already taking things to the extreme in terms of graphic nastiness, this sequel consistently struggles to live up to its own legacy.
From a raw mechanical standpoint, the experience remains mostly the same. New protagonist Blake, like the others before him, is unarmed and martially incapable against a horde of bloodthirsty killers. The mental hospital has been replaced by an Arizonan forest as Blake attempts to rescue his wife Lynn from a baby-killing Christian cult in the woods.
The relocation means environments tend toward larger sprawls with lots of ramshackle huts to explore and dense vegetation to creep through.
While the larger maps are potentially more interesting than Outlast‘s series of rooms and corridors, they’re also much more confusing. Correct paths are sometimes needlessly obfuscated, which can be a real hassle when you’re trying to navigate one of the many chase sequences and are unsure where to go, or you’re stuck looking for arbitrary switches – or sometimes just a bloody exit – in a huge, barren, pitch-black field.
The whole creepy cult thing is more than a little uninspired to boot.
While the original’s premise wasn’t exactly innovative, it’s hard to argue that Red Barrels didn’t present its otherwise stereotypical asylum in a uniquely disturbing fashion. Outlast 2 is a lot more standardized by comparison, with an antagonistic force that has been done to death in pop culture.
Similarly, Outlast 2‘s selection of primary pursuers are so much more forgettable. Both Outlastand Whistleblower featured memorable “boss” characters set apart from standard enemies by unique weaponry, terrifying presences, and twisted personalities.
This time around we get… not a lot.
The main stalker to harass us throughout the campaign, Marta, is just a random tall woman who mutters vaguely religious gibberish and carries a big pickaxe around. That’s about all there is to her. She’s joined by a small archer who rides on the back of a hulking brute, and the leader of the “heretics” who feels tacked onto the plot and doesn’t do anything interesting despite a confrontation with her being teased for hours.
None of them are particularly inspired in their design, and not one of them has an arc that concludes in a satisfactory manner. Compare them to Richard Trager whose personality, visual design, and vocal performance made him a horror game icon, and you’re left sorely wanting.
Even the few new things Outlast 2 tries are disappointing in their execution.
Forcing players to stop and heal now rather than utilize regeneration health sounds delightfully scary in theory, but in the middle of a chase it’s just a pain in the ass, not least for the red filtering and warning text that remains plastered over the screen until the long-winded bandaging animation is dealt with.
Blake’s armed with a camera like the protagonists before him, able to record key moments as well as utilize a battery-draining night vision mode so players can navigate the otherwise unseeable surroundings. This time around, the camera has a directional microphone function allowing players to work out where enemies are from significant distances.
In theory it gives players more tools for avoiding confrontation, but the feature’s specifically useful maybe a handful of times and often it’s easier (as well as more battery conscious) to rely on your eyes than vague footsteps.
Nevertheless, Outlast 2 is still a cut above the competition, possessed of a panache that so many “also ran” horror games fail to emulate. Regular enemies are suitably creepy and only get more alarming in their behavior and appearance as the campaign unfolds. Some of the pursuits and sneaking sequences are genuinely thrilling and Red Barrels still knows how to craft a stomach churning setpiece.
The problem is that Outlast peaked with… Outlast. There was very little to go from there without becoming the next Manhunt 2, so it’s hard not to feel like Outlast 2 is a distinct step down from its predecessor.
With a less original setting, less interesting characters, and less shock value altogether, Outlast 2 is simply an inferior version of Outlast. Not a bad game by any means, but a consistent failure to either up the ante or at least match its predecessor.
This is compounded by the game’s insistence on pushing a secondary narrative that is both paradoxically obvious and ambiguous, concluding in one single sequence that lays out its unworthy “twist” in a most blatant fashion.
The subplot forces players to keep appearing at a school, uncovering details about a dead girl Blake and Lynn knew as kids. Whether these are hallucinations or some weird reality shift is up for debate, but it’s not worth debating because it’s not very good.
If you played Outlast, you’ll recall how the game got a lot more boring toward the end when it was just bright corridors in a dreary looking sci-fi lab. Outlast 2 doubles down on that dull furlong by regularly peppering its similarly sterile school throughout the entire game.
Within these scenes, Outlast 2 most closely resembles those aforementioned “also ran” titles. A spooky school with a ridiculous looking monster staggering around it? I expect more from this series than something so utterly hokie.
At one point the player is shunted back and forth between the two realities so frequently it’d be almost comical if it wasn’t so detrimental to the flow of the game.
Outlast 2 might have had a better shot if it released years ago and hadn’t followed Outlast. As it stands, it’s a lower quality photocopy of itself, with any attempts at improvement acting more as defacement of an element that needed no correction.
Red Barrels may have started too hard and too fast when it gave us necrophiles, well-endowed serial killers, and charmingly ghoulish amateur surgeons in its debut outing. Outlast 2 can’t compete with its own legacy, and while it’s still a decent horror game with plenty of scares to offer, there is nothing I can point to here that I could claim as an improvement over the last one.
And perhaps, just perhaps, I’d have been a bit more forgiving if this less impressive of version of Outlast didn’t pile one shitty ending on top of another for its final, embarrassingly deflating conclusive chapter.
I mean… if you don’t feel cheated by the time your final meeting with Mara wraps up, you really need to see some better storytelling.