Outlast 2 review
Outlast 2 hits the ground running… and screaming, and burning, and bleeding, and swearing. There’s so much viscera and violence, physical and otherwise, in the game’s opening 15 minutes that it’s hard to distinguish one giblet from the other. Within that span, I saw a flayed corpse, crawled through a mass grave, and watched my avatar’s crotch get obliterated in first-person about 11 different times.
The sensory overload isn’t scary — certainly not as scary as this wonderfully rendered nightmare, as nearly always seen through the claustrophobic lens of a handheld camera, probably deserves to be. It’s just so uniformly cranked up past splatterpunk safety levels that it becomes torpid. Which is a shame, since Outlast 2 clearly grasps the mechanisms for delivering fear, if not the more restrained and/or affecting imagery to sell with it.
As in the first game, you play a reporter. Also like the first game, your only options for survival are to run and hide. Unlike the first game, Outlast 2 takes place in the Arizona desert. Blake, our protagonist, runs and hides his way through a decrepit village of cultist Christians who believe the world is about to tend. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the fundamentalists didn’t also think Blake’s wife was pregnant with the Antichrist and/or they didn’t appear to have some kind of supernatural powers.
From there, an unbelievable hunt for Blake’s wife begins. Seriously, it’s unbelievable to me that any human being would go through the carnival funhouse of carnage Blake does, rather than flee in search of authorities or even, like, a telephone first. The previous Outlast solved this by locking me in a single abandoned mental hospital — where escape literally wasn’t an option and weapons would be improvised at best.
There are no such restrictions here, although you’re still very restricted in what you can do and where you can go to escape pursuers. Sprinting, hiding in blood-filled barrels, and crouching behind tall grass are all options. Combat, though, is a no-no, even though the town’s mumbling, murderous citizens, in a show of good sport, hardly ever carry anything more dangerous or long-range than a kitchen knife. Actually, next to Blake’s determination, the next least believable thing to me about Outlast 2 is that a U.S. Christian doomsday cult wouldn’t own any firearms.
As it has since 2010, when Amnesia popularized the “no fighting” rule of modern horror games, this funneled me towards a lot of tense, if not actually frightening, decisions. Should I hide now or try to make a break for it before some killer turns around the bend? If I sprint, can I make it to the next door before anyone stops me?
Questions like that are further heightened by Outlast 2’s fidelity and attention to detail. Swinging flashlights in the distance denote oncoming enemies. Your camera’s night vision, limited by your scarce supply of batteries, reflects enemies’ eyes in the distance as they inch — or worse, spring — ever closer. Outlast 2 excels in these minor delivery mechanisms of subtle uneasiness, even as its over-reliance on shock value numbs the senses.
And, once it calms the hell down just a bit, Outlast 2 does have a somewhat interesting story to tell. It doesn’t explore its themes of zealotry, sexual assault, and violence enough to elevate them above narrative convenience at best, and exploitative at worst. Yet it did smoothly and disquietingly cause me to question how much of what Blake saw was actually real. .
At times, the game flips from its usual rural hellscape to the cleaner, although no-more-comforting setting of an empty Catholic school. I was to assume these were traumatic visions from Blake’s childhood, but why he suddenly started hallucinating them into being was its own mystery to unravel.
Besides which, empty schools at night — like the rustling cornfields and quarter-lit barns Outlast 2 threw at me more often — are just inherently creepy. I say this as someone who has seen perhaps more than the average amount of all three settings. There’s something unnatural about a building intended for children staying so silent. There’s something wrong about nature reined in and arranged so neatly on such a large scale. Outlast 2 recognizes those quietly unsettling places, and elevates them through some stellar lighting, even if it doesn’t fill them with anything particularly compelling.
I’m not just talking about shallow shock and one-dimensional characters, either. For as perfectly creepy as the game’s levels are in stillness, it all sort of falls apart when Blake and his adversaries start moving through them.
See, enemies only ever move through a given area in one way — often spawning suddenly and in ways I couldn’t possibly have predicted until I saw it happen. The result is a lot of trial and error; especially since Blake bites it in about two or three swings from enemy cudgels. When that happens the first time, it’s intense. When it happens six times, it only serves to reveal the artifice — the repeated, predictable clockwork of A.I. routines and scripted moments — that kept me from ever forgetting “Oh right, it’s just a video game.”
I still got flashes of creepiness and tension, particularly when the game wasn’t trying to “shock” me with blood and gore. Yet the vast majority of the time I spent getting from point A to point B was frustratingly, distractingly repetitive.
By contrast, my overall opinion of Outlast 2 is irritatingly temperamental. One minute I’m in love with the game’s eerie, low-key use of its rustic setting, the next I’m completely put off by its cringingly sincere buckets of gore. Sometimes the chill I get at catching a glimpse a berserk murderer through the bushes can overshadow the overwrought torture scenes.
Less is almost always more in Outlast 2: a game which is very happy to throw as much screeching and oozing in the player’s face as possible, to see what will stick. When things do dial back a bit, however, there are worthwhile bursts of a more better — not to mention scarier — experience.