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.