Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
Four years after the release of the original Outlast, the developers at Red Barrels are back with a tense horror game that is absolutely not for the weak of heart (or stomach). While the gameplay has a lot in common with the first game, and the game is set in the same fictional universe as the first, the story stands on its own, and playing the original is not required.
Horror games in general are a specialized taste, and the Outlast take on things in particular, which puts you in the shoes of a character who must run and ride rather than fight, won't be something that all gamers find fun. But if you liked the first Outlast you'll certainly enjoy this one too, and if you're looking for a game to make you jump, shout, and sweat, Outlast 2 will absolutely get the job done.
For this review I completed a playthrough on Normal difficulty setting, and found roughly 70% of the recordings and in-game documents. This took me about eight hours to complete.
This review will avoid significant spoilers.
You don't fight or kill the hostiles you encounter in Outlast 2, which is the major difference between this series and games like Resident Evil. You're just a guy with a video camera, and outside of a few scripted sequences and quick time events you can't even punch or kick at your enemies.
Instead of fighting, stealth is the name of the game in Outlast 2. You creep forward and locate enemies through sound or sight, then search for paths around or between them. If you're spotted your only option is to run, and if you put enough distance between you and your pursuer and then hide in a closet or under a bed you might lose them.
Hiding in closets, lockers, or under beds is actually much less necessary in Outlast 2 than it was in the first game, which is an improvement in general. Waiting under a bed for an enemy to leave a room can move from tense to tedious in a hurry, but if you're playing smart and giving enemies a wide berth you can avoid much hiding downtime at all in this game. I probably used the "hide" option about a half-dozen times in the course of my playthrough.
Finding your enemies before they find you is aided by your camera, which has both nightvision and targeted microphone capabilities. Using your camera drains its battery rapidly (though it didn't seem to die quite as fast as it was in the first game), which requires you to find a steady supply of batteries in the world around you as you progress. Aside from avoiding enemies, managing your battery supply is the other major component of Outlast 2's gameplay.
Your camera's nightvision is absolutely essential, just as it was in the first game, and there are plenty of sections of the game that would be almost impossible to complete without it. The microphone is more interesting than it is necessary, but its ability to pinpoint enemies through walls or doors could save your life on the game's harder difficulty settings. On Normal, I mostly just used it to listen to the crazed ramblings of cultists from a safe distance (and only when I had batteries to spare)
Compared to the enemies in the first Outlast, the foes in Outlast 2 are more dangerous on the whole. The very first enemy you encounter is fully capable of killing you in two hits on the Normal difficulty setting, and has a frustratingly impressive ability to find you if your hiding spot isn't perfect. I died a half-dozen times on this first enemy, and while I did a lot better for most of the rest of the game it was only because this opening had hammered the need to be careful into me.
Because the gameplay in Outlast 2 is so stripped down and simplistic, I found that a given sequence stopped being entertaining at about the same time it stopped being scary. In contrast to the combat, secrets, and inventory management of Resident Evil VII, for example, there's just not enough game in Outlast 2 to be fun once you know what's coming.
There's really no difficulty progression to speak of, aside from sequences towards the end that require you to hide from more enemies or run for longer without getting caught. In fact you could probably skip from the first hour of the game to the final hour and not notice any significant increase in challenge at all, which puts a lot of pressure on the non-gameplay aspects of the game to keep things tense and engaging.
Outlast 2 doesn't feature the same relentless gore and mutilation as the first game, but if anything that only serves to make the sequences that do occur—which are as graphic and disgusting as anything in gaming has ever been—all the more powerful. The blood and guts are broken up by scenes of nature and even a relatively pristine school, which is a significant change from the relentlessly horrific environment of the first Outlast.
Outlast 2 doesn't pull any punches or shy away from any disturbing subjects, including rape, child abuse, and torture. Mind-boggling amounts of blood are spilled in certain sequences, and you'll see things you've probably never imagined seeing in a mainstream game (and which are all heavy spoilers, so I won't discuss them here). In addition to the horrors you'll witness first-hand, reading the notes scattered around the game world fills in more of the sickening backstory.
While trailers and last year's demo focused mainly on a Satanic-ish cult as the source of the horror in Outlast 2, there's more going on in the game's story than you might expect. In much the same way the original Outlast took a cliche "spooky insane asylum" premise and made something original out of it, Outlast 2 will keep you surprised and guessing about exactly what is going on right up until the game's end. Disease, inhuman monsters, and supernatural elements become common themes as the game unfolds, as well as enough curveballs to have you doubting the protagonist's sanity.
For the most part, Outlast 2 does a good job of avoiding the over-explaining problem that plagues so many horror games and films. If you're dedicated about finding every scrap of paper and recordable scene you'll get a more complete idea of what is going on, but most players will have more of a shadowy half-formed conception of the plot and forces at work, which is the way things should be in a proper horror experience.
Outlast 2 looks great, which is important since the game's presentation is a very large part of what makes it effective. It's an Unreal Engine game and does some wonderful things with light and shadow effects, and offers more visual flair, scenic views, and graphical set pieces than the first game.
The game's sound design is also very strong, and you'll learn to identify enemy types by the distinct ways in which their voices are unpleasant to listen to. The score is effectively subtle for the most part, using a lot of slowly building sounds to create tension that spikes with audio clues when you've been spotted by an enemy. There are also a few stand-out songs that work very well, one of which uses a single plucked note on an acoustic-sounding guitar to unsettling effect.
Startling sound stings are a major source of the jump scares in Outlast 2, which can wear thin over the length of the game (and might lead you to turn down the speakers during tense moments). The game also isn't afraid to use its music to mess with your head, and there are several set-pieces where the music is clearly indicating that you need to panic and run...when it fact you don't need to do that at all, and patience and caution are the better option.
The pre-release version of Outlast 2 I played had big issues with black screens when tabbing out of the game or simply trying to exit to the desktop, but this improved with patches released during my review period. The issues didn't disappear entirely though, so we'll have to wait and see if the public at large reports any stability issues.
I encountered a few sections of the game where the GTX 980 graphics card I used to play the game struggled to produce frame rates over 40 on the highest graphical settings, most often when the screen was full of fog, but this was an exception to the high 50s I saw most of the time.
My load times in Outlast 2 were blissfully short (running off an SSD) and checkpoints were frequent, which helped keep me from going crazy in sections where I died over and over again. Some of these sections were still a real drag, though, as I was forced to repeat a grisly death at the hands of a one-hit-kill enemy over and over again while I tried to find the right sequence of doors or turns to make my escape.
That experience sums up a lot of Outlast 2 for me, really. An invincible enemy and a graphically bloody death was effective, scary, and disturbing...until I died more than twice trying to avoid it. At that point it jumped instantly from scary fun to frustration, and I rushed through the sequence over and over just trying to get to the next checkpoint.
Outlast 2's scares get better towards the end of the game, becoming more about horror and truly unsettling events and less reliant on startling you, but the gameplay gets worse at the same time, with more instant-kills and chase sequences that go on too long. The game's narrative gets its hooks in you and drags you along, encouraging you to push through the game's rougher patches, and while the ambiguous aspects of the plot will leave some unsatisfied, it tells a better and more powerful story than the first game by a wide margin.