Wot I Think: Outlast 2

If you’ve ever wanted to experience crucifixion from a first-person perspective, Outlast 2 [official site] will let you scratch that one off your bucket list. Moving away from the first game’s psychiatric hospital, developers Red Barrels unearth another necropolis’ worth of horror tropes in a splatterfest about apocalypse, antichrists and clashing cults.

The most frustrating thing about Outlast 2 is that it’s few redeeming features deserve a far better game around them.

Technically, it’s a marvel. The kindest words I have for it are all reserved for the sound design, which is excellent, even when delivering some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever encountered. Composer Samuel Laflamme has created a masterwork of references, from unnerving vocal tracks that echo the opening of The Shining to the kind of scissor-like strings that cut right through nerves. Though I disagree with the target of his criticism, I’m reminded of Stephen King’s thoughts on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining: “Like A Big, Beautiful Cadillac With No Engine Inside It.”

Whether it’s doing gory details, of which there are many, or unnerving scenery, Outlast 2 is exquisitely crafted. Like the original, it often throws you into the darkness of caves or closets, and even in the outdoors where you’ll spend most of your time, the only light is the eerie glow of the moon, which paints everything with a cold blue. To battle the dark, you have a camera with a battery-sapping night vision mode.

You have a camera because you are Blake Langermann, one member of the Langermann husband and wife investigative journalism team. At the beginning of the game, you’re in a helicopter with your wife, Lynn, looking for clues about the apparent murder of a pregnant woman in the middle of nowhere. When the helicopter crashes, you quickly find that there are a lot of people in the middle of nowhere, and some of them have nabbed your wife. As the game unfolds, the night becomes increasingly unpleasant, and Blake tries his best to document everything while saving his skin from the culty bastards who are trying to put an end to him.

There are many things I disliked about Outlast 2, but the story would probably top the list if I hadn’t started ignoring it in the first couple of hours. Not content with having one cult of creeps out in the sticks, the game presents a place in the middle of nowhere that has not only developed its own offshoot religion, based on Christianity, but has endured a schism, so there is a heretic cult running around the place as well. Every single person in the game, whichever cult they belong to, is awful, existing mainly to torture and murder while writing gospels that are mostly about genitals and infanticide.

Perhaps I’d be willing to cut through all of the nonsense to see the value in the documents found lying around if I weren’t worrying about my camera’s battery levels and the people trying to murder me, but I doubt it. There are lots of letters from members of the flock, but they’re mostly saying either “Hey, I murdered my kids and I feel kind of bad about it actually” or “I murdered my kids and it made me kinda horny. Is that weird and can I fuck god now?”

The first cult you encounter are following the teachings of Sullivan Knoth, an idiot who wrote a new gospel that seems to be the result of a fundamentalist mind trying to work some porn into the Good Book. There are a lot of “cunts” (one of the game’s favourite words, sprinkled across loading screen texts taken from the gospel) and “cocks” in Knoth’s lessons, as well as some more interesting imagery of wheels within wheels and abstract angelic forms. He usually gets back to the “cunts” and “cocks” before long though, at one point describing a creature that has a face like the genitalia of angels. My mind immediately went to Alan Rickman in Dogma.

As far as I can figure it out, Knoth’s lot like to breed, often using Knoth’s seed, but have got a bit worried that one of their kids might be the antichrist so now they’re butchering them, and pregnancy is a bad thing now. The heretics also think the antichrist might be en route so they’re keen to impregnate everyone. You can probably imagine how this leads to a lot of sexual violence. Nobody is unscathed and there are more guts and gore per square inch than in almost any other game I’ve ever played, but the women get the worst of it. At the end of one scene in which Blake hides in the dark while watching a married couple meet a particularly grisly end, he comments on how sick it is that women are punished to hurt men. The game makes sure you can get all of the suffering on film.

That’s what it is, really: a first-person sufferer. Blake gets put through the wringer in so many ways that it’s amazing he keeps on trucking, and barely ever drops his camera. He’s as tough as the nails that are driven through his palms, but he can’t fight back, even when the people attacking him are so sickly that their main method of attack is to shudder and vomit all over him. Sure, he’ll kick people in the face in QTE sequences if they’re grabbing at his ankles, but there are dozens of moments when a dangerous enemy is exposed and vulnerable, when you’ve absolutely got the drop on them, and the best you can do is make a recording of them.

I get that no-fighting-back is a signature of the series, and of this particular flavour of survival horror, but I found Blake’s unwillingness to get his hands dirty incredibly frustrating. He’s choosing to go deeper into the living hell of the cult’s compound and they’re mid-massacre, apparently fighting their enemies within and without as well as culling their own, but he remains essentially passive. It makes him even more of a ridiculous figure than his dialogue, which consists mostly of repeated breathless statements about the simplest of objectives, and lines like “this is where the magic happens” when he finds the brutalised corpse of a woman, curled on a bed.

At this point I should apologise to Resident Evil 7, which I thought might have the blandest playable character in any horror game ever. Blake manages to be even more tedious and obnoxious.

Not being able to fight back means you’re going to spend most of your time sneaking and the stealth swings wildly between fairly enjoyable and frustratingly chaotic. Some sections, including two visually superb cornfield pursuits, are best blundered through rather than approached calmly and carefully, while others rely on trial and error as you tease out the exact point at which enemy patrols will be triggered. There are plenty of hiding places, and I particularly enjoy being able to duck underwater, in lakes, rivers or barrels, seeing torch beams cutting through the muck as you hold your breath and wait for a safe moment to take a gulp of air. Mostly, I ended up running though. Running until my stamina dropped, and then realising that I’d either moved to the next area, effectively eliminating any pursuers from the chase, or stumbled into a corner from which there was no escape.

The camera can be used to detect audio as well as to provide nightvision. Using built-in directional microphones you can track enemies through walls, which suggests that areas should be navigated with care, but I almost always gave up on the slow, silent approach and just sprinted from point A to point B once I’d figured out the path. I was playing on normal difficulty and I suspect I’d have had struggled on one of the harder settings, but that would have also meant spending longer playing Outlast 2 and I did not want to do that.

Put simply, I was bored most of the time I was playing. Things escalate so quickly that there’s barely any space for the horror to grow, except to greater and grosser excesses of violence. When Blake tumbled down a hill and ended up marionetted on some barbed wire, I wasn’t alarmed or shocked or squeamish, I was just mildly curious about the cleverness of depicting all of this suffering from a first-person perspective. Some of the torture sequences are impressively rendered but I shouldn’t be admiring the technical craft as these things are happening to me, I should be feeling at least some anxiety or fear.

Eventually, I entertained myself by seeing Blake as a Wile E Coyote type figure, stumbling from one calamity to the next and always bouncing back.

There’s so much to admire beneath all the slog, and the guts and the grime. Blake remembers, hallucinates or visits his own childhood in the game’s most frightening interludes. I found the story there trite, but the delivery is superb, taking place in a school that is clean and quiet and very much the opposite of the main game’s grubby environments. It’s a thoroughly alarming place and the creature design there shows more invention than the hundreds of variants of “disembowelled person who may or may not be on fire” that make up the scenery in the bulk of the game.

I enjoyed the final third more than the preceding hours as well, beginning with a setpiece on a tranquil lake that I found more nightmarish than all of the brutality that had gone before. There’s just too much too soon, and too little let-up, so that for every moment of inventive camera trickery there’s a hundred more of repetitive chases and splatter-porn.

And I like gore. Even at its most excessive, I wasn’t disgusted by Outlast 2 though, or repulsed or amused. I was so swiftly desensitised to its flayed and charred corpses that I greeted even its most creative kills with a shrug. Its elaborate corpse-structures barely drew a second glance. Then I’d find an underground temple that really did catch my eye and wish that there were more of that weirdness in the rest of the game rather than endless buckets of slop. And then there’s the strange Actual Apocalyptic happenings and more of that awesome sound design as the sky explodes with light and a siren sounds and I start to think that maybe Outlast 2 is actually quite good.

Beyond the nonsense of the story, I found it bloated though, too often losing its grip on the core mechanic of the camera and found footage theme. And it really, definitely would work better if Blake could snap a few necks when sneaking up on cult members, or gut them with their own knives. It’d give players more options during the stealth sections and allow for some much-needed catharsis. Visually, it’s an occasionally beautiful game about very ugly things, and a few hours in I felt like I’d reached the limits of my ability to endure its constant streams of offal. Later, things did pick up, but that might be the Stockholm Syndrome talking, or the fact that I accepted the best way to get through it all was to Mystery Science Theatre the whole experience as I played.

It’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as remade by Eli Roth, starting with the worst possible thing that can happen and then daring itself to go further. Shock tactics so persistently silly that they become the equivalent of a flaming bag of poo on a doorstep. I will always defend the right of horror fiction to be horrible, but never excuse it for being so dull in its depravity. One of the game’s six chapters is named after the Biblical Job and by the end of the game that’s who I felt like. I’d suffered through great and terrible hardships but was no closer to understanding why.

Outlast 2 is out tomorrow, for Windows, and will be available on GOG and Steam.

33 Comments

  1. Jalan says:

    One of the things that really bothered me about the main game was the whole pseudo-supernatural schlock. I was really surprised when the Whistleblower DLC made an effort to put that in a less… ridiculous/silly context.

    It’s a shame this seems to rely more on the former but, this early out I guess it can’t be ruled out that a Whistleblower-esque DLC won’t come along later to make it seem less loony.

  2. Dorga says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you.
    When you wrote that the past weekend you were slogging through a disappointing horror game, I worried that you were talking about Sylvio 2 (which might actually be a long time ahead, now that I think about it).
    I would say that the hamfisted approach to the plot is not surpising in Outlast’s case, and in my opinion they seem to have worked mostly on what’s important for the let’s plays that will drive the sales of the title, sound and visuals.
    What the characters say is just background to the screams and laughter of the people streaming and recording the game.

  3. Poetsaurus says:

    Missing wife. Why is there always a missing wife? Why isn’t the wife playable for once?

    • Dorga says:

      But that would mean that she herself has a wife to loose, because everybody knows that husbands never go missing. Such forward thinking is way behond our reach.

    • poliovaccine says:

      In fact, the way it was intro’d in this review, I fully expected a playable wife to be the case… guess that’s what a missed opportunity looks like.

    • Jalan says:

      Let’s not get too crazy, this isn’t the end of Resident Evil 7 after all.

    • Pharos says:

      Because these sorts of commercial stories are constructed out of pre-existing tropes like lego houses.

      Everyone knows about the “missing wife” trope which means the writers don’t need to spend any time explaining the character’s motivations (they think).

      The “missing husband” trope doesn’t carry the same implications or expectations so the writers either need to expend time and effort shaping it around their story, or try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

      There’s no reason why either approach couldn’t work fine in principle, of course, but I dare say the game is not some exquisitely tailored character arc like Silent Hill 2, and time and money are limited, so they focussed on what they thought was important.

      tl;dr Boring characters tend to have paint-by-numbers backstories and motivations because they’ve been assembled by bits of characters from other stories, rather than grown organically.

  4. poliovaccine says:

    Too bad to hear such lukewarm stuff, I was down to be into this game. But I gotta agree with the emphasis on pacing vs. “schlock value” (like that?). To date, Rosemary’s Baby is the creepiest movie I can name. Anything worse I’ve defensively blocked out of my memory.

  5. Premium User Badge

    john_silence says:

    On the bright side, now you’ve experienced crucifixion in first person!
    The stations of the cross in VR, now that would be a bestseller.

    Can I go fuck god now? (I liked that bit. It’s a good bit.)

  6. dethtoll says:

    Could this mean people are finally getting sick of “I have no hands and I must wank” Amnesia clones? One can only hope.

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      I don’t mind those types of games, provided they are well executed. Your statement is kind of like saying “Well Saw 6 was a pile of shit, hopefully that means people are sick of torture pron”. No, I’m not sick of it, that is just a bad example of it.

      • dethtoll says:

        I’d argue that the only GOOD example of the Amnesia clone genre is SOMA, and that’s down to its story and themes.

        • RichUncleSkeleton says:

          What really makes Soma (and Amnesia before it) work (as a horror experience anyway) is its masterful pacing. Gradually building up to sections that require stealth or flight to avoid danger, and then rewarding you with a period of respite where you can take in the story, themes, and environments, is what makes them effective. Lesser Amnesia clones like Outlast or Alien Isolation just smack you in the face with forced hide/run events over and over until they lose any sense of novelty. That said, Outlast had some genuinely scary moments where everything just clicked and it worked wonderfully.

          • dethtoll says:

            I agree with you re: SOMA. I don’t agree with you re: Amnesia, nor do I think you’re being fair to AI, not least because it’s explicitly not in the same genre as Amnesia.

    • GameCat says:

      I hope so, Amnesia and clones killed the horror genre for me, especially that run-em-up genre peaked at Haunting Grounds and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and both games came out before everyone started wanking to Amnesia.
      Even over the top cheesy B action horror Resident Evil couldn’t endure this trend… I’ve tried demo and it was one of the most boring game I’ve ever played.

      • horrorgasm says:

        Let’s be honest here though. People like you would complain that “the horror genre was destroyed” because a sequel used a different font.

    • TrenchFoot says:

      Wait, what? This genre sounds intriguing.

  7. ramirezfm says:

    I think every horror game/walking simulator can be sprinted through. Every time you do that it will be a boring experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Outlast (enjoyed might not be the best word, I couldn’t play more than 30mins at once due to all the tension) then seen the speedrun and… well… It took me an hour of nailbiting sneaking to get through first level, it took an hour for someone to run through the game. On the speedrun the game was so boring, nothing happened, run to somewhere, run from somewhere, game over. I think the sequel is the same, if you run through you’ll get bored to death. So I’m very much looking forward to playing this.

  8. PanFaceSpoonFeet says:

    …I bet this is still very good. I loved the other two, wasnt keen on the f.e.a.r. style supernatural elements but it was all very well done. I shall buy this..

  9. MauvePeopleEater says:

    I hate to be that guy, but there’s a small typo in the second paragraph:

    “The most frustrating thing about Outlast 2 is that it’s few redeeming features deserve a far better game around them.”

    Great review otherwise!

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      Apostrophe S as in John’s, except for it whic- WHY DO THE RULES NEVER MAKE SENSE

    • Premium User Badge

      Benratha says:

      Actually trying to get my head around this one, as usually if it’s can be replaced by ‘his’ or ‘her’ the more correct form would be its.
      But the bit that nearly gets me is that the ‘redeeming features’ Adam refers to are of it, the video game Outlast 2..
      However, if you replace it’s or its with (e.g.,)’her’ in the paragraph, you don’t need an apostrophe….

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        But he isn’t saying ‘it is redeeming features’, which would be the correct usage of it’s

    • Dilapinated says:

      Possessive “its” (“I love the cow for its mournful moo”) never gets an apostrophe. Abbreviative “it’s” as “it is” does (“I love the cow, it’s really gloomy.”)

  10. dreadguacamole says:

    Considering the first game was basically applying the latter-day Call of Duty formula (make it as dumb & loud as possible) to horror, I can’t say I’m surprised by this…

  11. keptbybees says:

    There was a first person crucifixion scene in the Darkness 2 as well should anyone be seeking out an alternative for some reason.

  12. Kodaemon says:

    Ignoring the controversial subject matter, it’s just an awful game. The developers have learned NOTHING from the first one, and in fact, have made it worse. It’s a wholly scripted “interactive movie” throughout, and what makes even more horrible is that the devs apparently have no concept whatsoever of signposting, meaning you will wander around until you find the non-obvious right path and don’t get killed by unfair AI. Oh, and remember when the game was supposed to let you defend yourself this time? It’s goddamn nothing. Random QTE events for regular enemies which don’t even happen regularily. Get Resident Evil 7 instead.

    • horrorgasm says:

      Makes you wonder why people like you buy sequels to games that are blatantly the kind of non-combat games with “unfair AI” that you clearly hate. How did you possibly not know what you were getting into? OH MAN IT STILL DOESN’T HAVE GUNS? WHO COULD HAVE KNOWN!

      • Kodaemon says:

        Yeah, I hate non-combat horror games so much that I’m actually trying to make one myself. That’s how I hate them. I also hate stealth games, that’s why my favourite game is Thief: The Dark Project.

        Thing is, Outlast 2 simply awful in the gameplay department. It’s a scripted mess from beginning to finish, with no freedom as to how to approach situations and no signposting to alleviate the frustration that comes with that.

  13. TrenchFoot says:

    So are the ball gag and nipple clamps included, or do I have to buy my own?

  14. akimbojoe says:

    I got done with this game today. Thought it was awful. The writing is terrible drivel. It’s as if they put they put the pseudo gospels together from the worst madlibs ever and said “hey yeah! That sounds like something biblical!” “Throw in some more profanity so people know this is for adults!”

    I’ve never been the world’s best Christian. I mean, I’ve legitimately tried, but time and time again I see these depictions of religion in video games that seem to miss the whole point. Religion itself seems terrifying to video game developers, and if a game has religious overtones they are sure to be negative. I guess that’s safer than trying to make a positive depiction of religion that isn’t preachy or a religious character who’s just plain normal or likeable in the climate of today’s popular culture.

    The sexual violence in the game is really exploitative, and ugly. The way women are treated is demeaning. The gratuity of the obscenity and violence in the game cheapens the experience greatly. What passes for a story is insulting to the intelligence of the audience and it’s characters. Knoth’s final decision after all he’s done is ridiculous. There’s no decision making in the game, no real sense of agency, it’s really an on the rails experience that amounts to a lot of nothing but negative feelings by the time it’s over. It all just seems like it’s trying to push the envelope to the extreme for no other reason than to garner attention and see how far they can push things and I agreed totally that the gratuity of it all became rather boring.

    So it was a surprise to me, when I searched for review scores and found this game is actually getting decent reviews. I had to alter my search terms to “outlast 2 is dumb” or something to even get this review to come up, which is the most sensible review I could find, and that’s really a shame. IGN called the game a “provocative meditation on faith”… pardon? I’ve seen more thoughtful meditations on restroom stalls.