[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
As an adult of 34 years and a father of two, it’s been a long time since I soiled myself without having consumed vast quantities of alcohol and a very suspect takeaway. Outlast 2 tries everything it can to put an end to my long run of clean nights however, because it is easily one of most shocking and frightening games I’ve ever played.
Within five minutes of booting up the game, I had my first insight about the kind of thing that Outlast 2 was going to throw at me. The game opens with an anchor-woman preparing to film the introduction sequence to a documentary about some creepy goings on in the forest below. The helicopter pilot assures her that there is nothing down there. Two minutes later and the helicopter is a burning wreck, with the pilot skinned and hanging from a nearby tree.
Outlast 2 is graphic. It’s so graphic that I examined the hanging corpse for probably two or three minutes. I thought to myself “Have they… Have they skinned his cock and balls? Yes, yes they have. Oh dear.”
For those not familiar with Outlast (and this sequel, which uses the same formula) it’s a bit like a walking simulator, but with the inclusion of strong horror themes built around occult iconography and story beats.
The player is Blake Langermann, who carries a camera with a night vision feature, so seeing in the dark isn’t a problem as long as you keep the supply of batteries flowing in. Batteries do burn out quickly, and this has the effect of both creating a sense of impetus and also forcing players to use what little light there is to navigate the deceptively open environments.
What follows the grotesque introduction is about eight to ten hours of pant-shitting terror, as players creep from cover to cover past all manner of horrors both human and apparently otherwise alike. As with the first Outlast, players have no weapons to fight back with, and when an enemy spots you, you’re only options are to run – fast – and hide if you can find an appropriate barrel or wardrobe to climb into, or a bed to slide under.
It’s gut wrenching stuff, and I learned very quickly (as I predict you will) just how brutal death can be when one of Outlast 2’s denizens catches you. You will be impaled, beaten and clubbed. Your genitalia will be crushed and you will have a giant cross stuck into your chest. At least if there’s any skinning to follow, you can be safe in the knowledge that you’re already dead.
Outlast 2 takes place among the houses, fields and outbuildings of Temples Gate; a kind of redneck shanty town led by Sullivan Knoth. Knoth sees himself as a prophet of some sort, and his twisted scriptures litter the game world, with each page a vile description of the unholy nature of women, and a testament to the fact that one will sooner or later give birth to the apocalypse. This belief is further confirmed by the fact that there appear to be several mass graves in the game containing infants, children and dolls. It’s not absolutely clear to me what makes up the majority, and perhaps that is intentional, because I at least prefer to think of them as dolls, but there is overwhelming evidence that would disagree with me.
Women and childbirth are central to the story in Outlast 2, and as time in the game progresses, so too does the arc and colour of the moon. It’s not lost on me that as players progress towards the closing scenes of the game, the moon changes from a cool white to blood red, as if to highlight the already prominent themes of sexual violence, promiscuity and helplessness that the game (and its inhabitants) display towards women. It’s a pretty bleak view, and the inclusion of a relatively powerful woman among the antagonists actually reinforces my opinion that Outlast 2 simply aims to deliver traditional, high impact horror to appeal to the majority of players – ie, men in their twenties and thirties. You’ll rescue Lynn – the anchor woman who also happens to be your wife – and you’ll also fantasise about saving Jessica, a long lost love who is remembered through a series of softer, brighter memories that take place in a high school.
With so much stacked against him, and such a clear intent to do harm against him, you’d forgive our hero for taking up arms to save his wife and probably, a lot more innocent women and children in the process. Instead though, Blake clings impotently to his camera, recording the occasional gruesome murder and never raising as much as a fist to the enemy, no matter how grave the situation might be.
This is probably the most frustrating thing about Outlast 2, because where the first game featured relatively few, absolutely terrifying enemies that seemed impossible to fight with anyway, Outlast 2 is filled with stupid, often infirm hillbillies that could be dispatched with ease. The amount of times I ran past poles, knives, spades, pitchforks and other makeshift weapons was unbelievable, yet Blake never shows an inclination to pick them up, even when his life (or Lynn’s, or anyone else’s depends on it.) I should say that there are some QTE sequences, and in these he does occasionally “make contact” with enemies without dying, which is at least a change.
This leaves the player with only stealth to fall back on, and the game does that reasonably well. Outlast 2 doesn’t have the most nuanced stealth system, and it is one that is built to capitalise on the shock and horror elements of the game, rather than to emulate the experience of say a Thief or Deus Ex game. Determining enemy line of sight can be tricky due to the creepy way that enemy eyes light up in the night vision, but the direction of torchlight and the obvious placement of ambient light and shadow does give a reasonable indication of how visible Blake is. When you get it wrong (or when enemies simply do see you) the music changes from ominous-with-redneck-banjo to high-pitched-terror-dash as you instantly smash the turn around button (borrowed directly from Resident Evil) and then sprint to the nearest hiding place. If there’s one thing the inability to fight back does cause, it’s fear of confrontation.
In summary then, Outlast 2 is an effective and scary game if you let yourself be drawn into the dingy, blood-soaked and questionable world that it wants to portray. Sure, it’s a very traditional horror game that does nothing for gender representation and it is very focused on jump scares and the fear of dying, rather than anything more clever, but it is fairly honest about what it is from the outset, and I doubt anyone who plays Outlast 2 will be drastically surprised by what they see here – except perhaps the extent of deprivation that it portrays. The stealth mechanic is present purely to support the horror features, and whilst the lack of offensive capabilities can frustrate, it’s likely that being able to butcher enemies left and right would dilute and change the experience quite dramatically.