The Good: Genuinely creepy horror. Some awful (in a good way) scenery.
The Bad: Poor visual cues. Uneven balance of exploring and running for your life.
The Ugly: It is often unclear what you’re supposed to be doing or where you’re supposed to be going. Flashback to another horror in the past subplot kind of done to death.
Sometimes I wonder, when playing a game like Outlast 2, just how much I’m being watched. I’m not talking supernaturally by otherworldly beings. I’m talking about how I’m playing the game on Steam, and how much big data game companies are scraping about my playing experience. Did the folks at Red Barrel “watch” me as I was killed by the same bad guy like 12 times in five minutes, only to quit in disgust for the day? Did they watch as I cleared the corn maze in maybe 15 seconds flat in one incredibly lucky blur, when the size of the area makes me think they intended me to spend some significant time in there? Just something I’m curious about.
I should probably start my mentioning that I’m a horror guy. I watch phenomenal quantities of horror movies – good, bad awful, eye-wateringly awful, high budget, low budget, no budget, professional, independent, college film school made. It’s rare that I don’t find something worthwhile in even the worst horror movies, even if it is no more than “huh, neat camera angle,” or “interesting lighting.” So I love that horror games have become a thing in recent years, and I enjoyed Outlast when it came out back in 2013, flaws and all.
Anyway, Outlast 2 begins, like most great stories, with a plane crash. Bioshock started with a plane crash. Dead Space started with a plane crash (or was that Dead Space 2? 3?). I seem to recall the recent Wolfenstein had a plane crash. Tomb Raider started with a boat crash, but that’s the same idea. You, a cameraman, and your wife, a journalist, are taking a helicopter ride into the ass end of nowhere to investigate a murder. You crash, she vanishes, the pilot turns up skinned alive – much like a recent trip I took to Vegas. What follows is a somewhat uneven and awkwardly paced but definitely big time scary first person survival horror. You sneak around, try and piece together the story of what the heck is going on, and sometimes run like your life depends on it, because it does. You have a minimal inventory – batteries for your camcorder, bandages, that’s it. You do hold other items from time to time – a key, a crank, etc – for about two seconds, if that counts for anything. I don’t quite understand what the bandages were for – very few wounds were not rapidly if instantly fatal. Often, it seemed, I would get a notice to hold “H” to heal a mere moments before being skewered by a machete. The camcorder has a night vision capability which comes in handy. It is also the primary method by which you pick up plot narrative. I’m going to harp on this a bit, because not only does it not make much sense, but it doesn’t work all that well.
How it works (or at least is supposed to work) is you see something interesting and are given a cue to start recording. I missed this cue a lot, or maybe didn’t look at the right thing a lot. Sometimes I saw it, but too late to get the video which takes ten or fifteen seconds because the subject moved out of my field of view. Whichever, you end up with a recording that you then watch, and while you watch it your character talks about what you’re looking at. It’s a little clunky. Why didn’t I say those things while I was recording it and save me the playback? Also, I often found myself wondering how I knew the things I was saying. I figured all of that out from some still images and a few random phrases scrawled on scraps of notepaper? I’m a frigging genius! In the camcorder file storage there are spaces for things I missed – I don’t know what those were, only that I missed them. There are lots of them. So I’m running around, missing all this story. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialog is spoken in harsh whispers and coarse voices, and though I’m sure there are subtitles available, I’m not a guy who likes to turn those on – it takes me out of the game. On the whole I have no idea if I should be going more slowly or more methodically or what. In theory I suppose I could have gone more methodically, but it took me a little while to realize that was the case.
See, this is survival horror and I was prepared to be in danger every moment, but it turns out this game is broken up very cleanly into three different types of sections. One section I’ll call “look at the scenery.” In “look at the scenery” sections you’re in no danger. None. No one is around to kill you and you can take your time, enjoy the scenery, and there are some wonderfully gruesome set pieces to peruse, and probably you should be recording stuff more than I did. The second section I would call “be stealthy,” because there are inbred gomers wandering around trying to find and kill you. They’re not too bright and seem easy to hide from. I bumbled into one in the dark (I had my camcorder off to save batteries) and he did nothing about it. I also ran from one and hid under a bed, and a split second later he came into the room looking for me. He knelt down, looked right under the bed, and there I was, and he got up and went away like I wasn’t there. Don’t, however, completely dismiss the gomers – get three or four on your tail and they will find you and kill you dead. The third section I call “run for your life and die frequently.” There is one big baddie in the game (at least one I’ve run across so far) who is a woman carrying a big pickaxe, and she just loves to impale you on it. She has supernatural sight and can see you at great range, in the dark. These sections are clearly designed for you to just run. Stealth doesn’t seem to be an option. Hiding is a mixed bag – she often finds you and kills you. And the areas are laid out kind of like mazes with lots of dead ends, and if she corners you in a dead end she will kill you. Your only hope is to find the way out of the area, crawling under some fence or through a narrow opening which makes her give up and go away. These exits have poor visual cues and can be tough to spot, and you’ll likely have to die many times before you find it. Remember in Half-Life (and I realize that I’m going back kind of far here for this metaphor) where you come out into a big courtyard and the door closes behind you and the whole place is full of army guys shooting at you? Almost immediately you spot, waaaay across the courtyard, a sewer grate, and you say to yourself “Self, head for that sewer grate,” and you do and you escape. I escaped the very first time I played it and felt excited and clever because of it, but that really wasn’t my doing. I don’t know if it was the color or the lighting or the placement or what of that sewer grate, but you home right in on it automatically. Outlast 2 is the opposite of that. What you’re looking for is a small, dirty hole under a fence behind some abandoned tires hiding in deep grass in the dark. Good luck with that. I became very familiar with the end scene of the woman driving a pointed end of her axe into my groin. Sometimes, Outlast uses lights and such as effective visual cues, and it works really well. When you run, dart left, up a street, through an open doorway, leap over a table, slide into a hole in the floor, crawl under a house, etc etc – when you get that flow going with people yelling and screaming and howling behind you, your terror is high and the game really works. I wish that there had been more of that. I’ll add, as long as I’m near the subject, that while the beginning of the game seems very well balanced with regards to the three sections, towards the end you spend a lot more time just running and dying and less time looking at cool stuff. Perhaps the intent is to pump up the thrill factor, but what it does instead is pump up the frustration factor and make the game exhausting to play.
The other thing I’d like to harp on is the game has poor plot cues. My original goal is to find my wife. That seemed pretty clear. Somewhere along the way, that morphed into “get to the church.” I don’t know what church the game is talking about. I saw a church early on, but I’m pretty sure they don’t mean that one, because later on I found a generator (though I didn’t know I was looking for a generator), and when I started it, the game told me, now I can use the elevator to get to the church, though I’m not really sure where the elevator is either. This kind of what-the-heck-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing is endemic, to both the big plot arc and even small moments. For example, when I find said church (small spoiler alert) there’s a guy in there chained to a cross who begs me to kill him so he doesn’t reveal the location of the woman (I’m 99% certain he is talking about my wife, but I don’t ask him where she is, but that’s a different point than the one I’m trying to make) under the torture he is going to get when the leader of the cult returns. Sure, I figure, I can do that. Only I have no weapon, can’t find a weapon, can’t seem to strangle him with my bare hands, and can’t seem to interact with him in any way. While I’m poking around, the cult leader comes back, and his henchmen kill me. Five or six deaths later (call me dense if you like) I get the idea that I’m not supposed to kill him. Instead I try hiding, and watch through a crack while he is tortured and he reveals where the woman is. Sure, that sort of makes a narrative sense now that I’m past it, but going in there was no way to know that was the approach I was supposed to take, and no other approaches are available to advance the story.
Mixed into this are flashbacks (some really oddly timed) to a schoolhouse. What am I supposed to do in the schoolhouse? Why am I there? It’s not clear to me if you’re actually there. Do your camcorder batteries run down there? Can you die there? I don’t know the answer to either of those. In the “real” world of the cult town, you cover some distance while you’re in the school, oh, I’ll call it a vision for lack of a better word. It takes a while for this subplot to make any sense, and when it finally does I was like “So original! Only 1,000 movies/TV shows have done this recently.”
As I read back over my review, it seems very negative, and that’s only partly my intent. Many of the same flaws from Outlast 1 still exist in Outlast 2. Checkpoint saves remain inconveniently placed and cause you to replay several sections over and over again. Religious hicktown is a nice change of pace from the asylum of the previous game, and there’s no question this is a scary game, and I’m not really an easy guy to get my blood racing over a video game. The plotline though murky (perhaps it would have been less murky had I recorded all the stuff I was supposed to) works well enough for a horror movie. Perhaps rather than think of it as a horror adventure, it would be better to think of it as an interactive horror movie, possibly a mildly interactive horror movie. Explore a little – stay within the velvet ropes at all times, please – then run for your life a little – keep in mind there is only one way out and all others lead to death. I would have preferred a more open world experience, but that horror game doesn’t seem to exist yet. In the meantime, I am for the most part happy with the popular resurgence of horror, and think Red Barrel is doing a better job than most.
Note: Outlast Trinity, a physical collection of the Outlast series, is also now available, only on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Red Barrels Studio
This review is based on a digital copy of Outlast 2 for the PC provided by Red Barrels Studios.