After several months of delays, the sequel to one of the most well-received survival horror games ever made is finally out. Does Outlast 2 live up to its predecessor or will it have you screaming for all the wrong reasons?
Outlast 2 puts you in the shoes of cameraman Blake Langermann who, together with his wife Lynn, is on a mission in backwoods Arizona to document the case of a missing woman. However, while filming one of their scenes via helicopter, something goes wrong and they crash-land and wake up wounded and separated. But, that's only the beginning of their problems. They soon find out that the region is inhabited by duelling bloodthirsty religious sects, both of which want Lynn for their own nefarious reasons. Now it's a struggle for you to find her and get out.
From its opening scenes, Outlast 2 impresses with its graphics and sound design. The visuals are eerie and sinisterly atmospheric and the many grisly sights you encounter early on make you suitably fearful of what's to come. The audio is arguably even better with dramatic, impactful sound cues and a spine-tingling string soundtrack that puts you on edge throughout the experience.
As in the first game, you're armed only with a camera. You don't have any weapons and your only means of survival are running away and hiding. Luckily, your camera is fitted with a night-vision mode that allows you to see in the dark. The only problem is that this model has the worst battery life on Earth so you have to repeatedly find new batteries to keep it going. This mechanic makes matters all the more tense as you're continually worried about running out of battery power. In turn, this means that you feel like you have to keep moving and pushing yourself ever onward into more danger before you've had time to recuperate.
Your camera can also be used to film certain events by standing and aiming at them for a while. This footage is then viewable in your library exactly as you filmed it with a little extra commentary by Blake. It's cool how your recording is saved this way but other than that, the feature adds no practical use and feels rather superfluous. There are also lots of notes scattered around that you can pick up and photograph but as it doesn't pause when you read them (and a lot of them are gibberish), you likely wouldn't want to risk your life.
These are minor complaints and, sadly, Outlast 2 has much more serious problems to focus on. Broadly speaking, its gameplay varies between terrifying and infuriating. In fact, its first half is almost nothing but frustration whereas its second is much more the kind of experience you would expect from such an anticipated survival horror title. This is evident from the very first enemy you meet in the game who comes out of nowhere and kills you in one hit several times before you work out what the game wants you to do.
From here on out, the first half of the campaign follows a similar formula. Here's how it goes: you arrive in a new area and look around a bit then enemies (usually a bunch of guys with machetes) turn up and chase you. You run but you don't know where to go so you end up frantically looking for an exit then inevitably get caught and killed and have to watch one of the boring, protracted death animations that you've already seen a bunch of times. You do this over and over until you finally find where you're supposed to escape. Then, you move on to a similar area and repeat.
The main problem here is that it's often incredibly unclear where the game expects you to go. You usually have to search for a particular door, ledge or small hole in a fence all while running around in the dark and being chased by several enemies who kill you in one or two hits. On one occasion, I had to retry a section about twenty times before I found the tiny sliver in a wall that I was supposed to know was my destination. The areas you have to operate in are also extremely compact meaning you're repeatedly getting seen by hostiles and having practically no room to outmanoeuvre them, resulting in certain death. This ensures there is no effective strategy to avoiding enemies. You just inevitably alert them then run around hoping to find the exit before you're chopped to pieces.
You can hide, of course, but it doesn't seem to work a lot of the time. Usually, you are found by the enemies even though you're completely hidden in a barrel or in tall grass. It often seems like the AI knows exactly where you are and hones in on you, making it feel very unrealistic and rendering hiding (which is supposedly a key part of the game) pointless.
This becomes all the more frustrating because your character won't do anything to defend himself. I understand that part of the fear in this kind of game comes from the feeling of helplessness but that only makes sense if you're physically weaker than your enemies or there are no weapons around to utilize. Here, many of your foes are borderline emaciated and half-dead yet still, the pathetic protagonist refuses to fight back or avail himself of any of the various pitchforks, hooks and other sharp implements that are scattered about. It's unrealistic and only adds to the frustration when you're killed over and over again by a lone weakling crawling along the ground.
Strangely, all of these problems are largely confined to the first half of Outlast 2. The second part is much more successful. This is largely because there aren't several enemies out to get you. Instead, you're usually being stalked by a single foe or traversing prolonged sections with no apparent threat, allowing the tension to build. This makes for effective mood-setting which usually culminates in a frantic chase sequence or well-crafted jump scare. In other words, it's more like what you would expect from the whole game.
There are still some annoying deaths in the second half but generally speaking, it's a huge improvement and rescues Outlast 2 from being a total write-off. There's also a greater emphasis on story which makes you actually care whether you make it out alive or not even though most of the narrative is the well-trammelled "all Christians are evil" rhetoric. How daring! But by that time, a lot of the damage has already been done and I can see a few players giving up before they even make it to the latter stages.
When I first loaded up Outlast 2, I expected an unsettling experience and that's what I got. Unfortunately, it wasn't always for the reasons the developers intended. If you can get through its many frustrating sequences, there are some good scares awaiting you but it's an incredibly flawed affair that will surely come as a disappointment to fans of the original.
- + Eerie graphics and sound design
- + Effective jump scares and creepiness
- + Using your camera to see in the dark is still a cool mechanic
- - Lots of irritating trial-and-error gameplay
- - Many unfair and unavoidable deaths
- - The frustration nullifies a lot of the scariness