STAFF REVIEW of Outlast 2 (Xbox One)

Saturday, May 13, 2017.
by Allya Venema

Outlast 2 Box art I don’t like this game. No, that’s not it. I hate this game. I hate it for the fact that it compelled me to complete it in spite of it being a wholly uncomfortable and oft-times frightening experience. Why did I put myself through this? I can handle horror films, both of the jump-scare and of the horror-porn variety, so why is it that this game had my stomach in knots and my hands trembling. Well, there’s something to be said for playing completely in the dark with headphones on. It definitely helps with the immersion factor and I highly recommend it for the complete Outlast 2 experience, but there’s more to it than that.

The difference between Outlast 2 and other horror genre game is that it takes away any sense of control; this is something of an irony in a game where you’re physically in control of your character’s actions. Do you stay hidden in a rusty barrel for several minutes or push on towards the gloom and total darkness of a creepy wooded area? The choice is just an illusion. If you want to finish the game you must eventually steel your courage and move forward. The difference between this game though and any other horror-genre one? You’re missing your shotgun, you’re missing your 9mm, you’re missing your flamethrower. Heck, you don’t even get a wrench! If you encounter an enemy the only choice you have is this one: Do you run and hide? Or do you die?

This is where Outlast diverges from anything else I’ve played. You are completely helpless. Helpless to do anything but watch in horror, hide in terror, sneak around with the constant feeling of needing to wet yourself, or run away in blind panic. And these feelings, the horror, terror, and moments of sheer panic, are all palpable. It took me so long to play through the campaign only because things would get so tense. Suspense between enemy encounters is built up so well because, by the time you get used to the mechanics and play style of the game, you are proceeding methodically slow. Always crouched. always slowly peaking around corners. You’re trying your hardest to open doors slowly so as not to make them creak in an otherwise silent environment.

Your only resource is your video camera, which you use in night vision to make your way around in the dark. It’s only useful as long as you are able to find batteries to power it. This in and of itself means that you cannot use it all the time. It’s just not possible. So you have to choose your moments and decide when you can see just enough on your own to make it through an area of near darkness enabling you to conserve your camera’s energy for the sequences you know will be in total darkness.

One sequence that sticks out to me came early on in the game. It occurred when my path forced me to travel through a cornfield. A few seconds after starting down the path, beams of light appeared behind me from the area I had just vacated. Proceeding forward, more flashlights clicked on ahead of me. I can’t go back and I can’t move forward. Into the cornfield I go, crouched all the way. The music cues raise the tension and my character’s breathing grows shallow and agitated, mirroring my own heightened level of anxiety. I have goosebumps. Flashlight beams cut through the stalks around me moving this way and that. I move in a zigzag pattern through the field as I try to avoid the beams of light hearing snatches of strange conversations and whispers all around me. Its at this moment when I realize that not all of these enemies have flashlights as I almost crawl headlong into one of them, muttering strange and horrific threats as it continues on its random search pattern. I decide to switch on my night vision. Now I can see my enemy. Their eyes glow in night vision giving them an even scarier other-worldly quality - just what I needed! At least now I can see though! A New problem arises: every time a flashlight beam crosses my path the camera is blinded - too much light. It is a frustratingly realistic conundrum. Do I rely on my own poor vision and sense of echo location to navigate these threats or do I utilize precious battery power to reveal potential hidden threats???

When I fail to maintain stealth and am spotted, an enemy calls out my location to others and my adrenaline is ratcheted up to 11. The music cue changes signalling a chase. Flashlights bare down on me. I run headlong through cornstalks not sure of my direction just trying to make it to the edge of the field so I can regain my bearings. I search for a landmark over the cornstalks - anything! The whole time I’m fatiguing. Run long and hard enough and eventually you will slow to a crawl. A sharp noise - twisted metal scraping and rending bone. A wet squelch of cartilage and soft tissue being torn asunder. A sharp cry of shock and pain - my cry. Followed by the guttural, choking moan of a dying man bereft of hope as I look down at the blade protruding from my chest. Welcome to Outlast 2. Get used to dying. A lot.

The game takes place over the course of one long, horrific night in an isolated town that doesn’t exist on any map - love those places! I won’t spoil any plot points here, but suffice it to say the writers play with some familiar horror tropes such as cults and sadists, but they are so well executed that I didn’t care that anything felt familiar. Hearing the insane mutterings of devil worshippers as they meander about whilst you try to avoid crapping your pants while hiding in tall grass is truly disturbing and really helped sell me on the sheer creep-factor of this game.

There’s a great deal of detail in Outlast 2. Skinned bodies strung up and posed, animal skull displays, and bundles of sticks and antlers used to make shrines all make liberal appearances. Did I mention these cultists love a good lynching? Pretty sure they use people instead of Christmas ornaments over the holidays. Suffice it to say that the setting is the star of this game more than anything. As much as the game Firewatch was a well-plotted, beautiful-to-look-at “walking simulator”, I could make the case that Outlast 2 is a freaky “running-away simulator”.

The only aspect of this game that I think will be a bit divisive to players is how the writer’s tackle the topic of religion. Religion, in this case some perverted form of Christianity, is what causes these heretic factions to commit the atrocities that you will bare witness to if you continue to play through the campaign - and they do not shy away from showing you, or at least heavily implying, that these acts have occurred. Lynchings? Check. Torture racks? Check. Live crucifixions? They’ve got us covered! There’s more to look forward to, but don’t worry I won’t spoil it. There’s also a subplot that revolves around your character flashing back to his time as a boy in Catholic school. It is presented and played through out of sequence so it starts off a bit jarringly and confusing, but needless to say, it gets downright disturbing by the end when the whole story finally comes together. It’s definitely an interesting story element and I personally found it compelling, but doubtless some may find it disturbing. If you’re a hardcore Catholic who loves his or her church, you may even be outraged. Just remember it’s only a game!

As already touched on, the music cues are amazing. I couldn’t even place all the strange instrumentation that was used to such great effect in creating different moods of heightened fear, anticipation, adrenaline, and so on. The sound design is also top notch in setting the room tone in various spaces, both claustrophobic interior and expansive exterior. The sound is especially good in those instances where metal meets flesh. Where the game fairs less well though is in its sound-mixing. There are some great acting performances in this game, but they are often lost. I tried tweaking the balance between sound effects and dialogue, but to no avail, so I feel as though I lost out on some of the plot.

All other aspects of the game are technically good. I only clipped through a wall once in my play through so the game is polished enough. Textures are decent, the world is richly detailed, and the maps are populated with enough natural feeling barriers that I never felt like I was on rails and being forced to an area of the maps.

A few stages begin to feel like re-skinned versions of the same situation. A boss-type enemy arrives so you must stealth your way about a map only to find the way blocked. Then you must backtrack to retrieve an item of importance so that you can clear the area, all the while avoiding your stalker. A door needs a key, a machine is missing a gear, an elevator needs the generator switched on, and so on. This is a minor gripe overall though and does not detract from the game’s enjoyment.

Normally, I’d speak at length about the combat mechanics, but there aren’t any! Let me speak about the enemy types though! Over the course of the game you’ll encounter relentlessly searching, bloodhound-like hillbilly types, static cultists in the midst of reverie who only attack if you travel too near, strange forest dwelling Lepers, and a plethora of masochists wielding blades. Interspersed with these run-of-the-mill threats are a few pervasive over-arching nemesis that will hunt you from area-to-area. Just when you’ve forgotten about them, one will come crashing through a wall to say hello and begin the fox hunt anew. There is one enemy who is quite memorable in both look and manner. I’ll leave it at that as saying more would spoil the surprise when they get their different sized paws on you.

The frustrating part is that, no matter how hard you want to kill one of these villains, you can’t. It’s such a realistic and maddeningly simple mechanic of this game. Where other horror genre games eventually turn you into an over-powered superhero able to hack and slash their way through legions of foes, you can be felled here by a single blow and you have no recourse but to run, hide, or die.

Outlast 2 successfully places you in the boots of an average Joe. As much as we all would like to think that we’d rise to the occasion and be a hero with great evil-killing potential, I think this game most accurately portrays how we’d actually have to cope with such incredible and horrific situations. In this regard the game succeeds one hundred percent - and its infuriating, but in a strangely captivating and "want to play more" manner! Well done.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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