Outlast 2 Review
Slow-Simmered Horror Perfection
The first Outlast was something of a critical darling. Many viewed it as a revolutionary horror game with a unique setting and novel premise. As a lifelong survival horror nut, though, I walked away from it with a feeling of disappointment. On a mechanical level, it was shallow. On a narrative level, it was rote. This isn’t to say it was a bad game, because certainly, I enjoyed it in fits and starts. But those fits and starts didn’t elevate it to the level of what I consider to be horror gaming greats, like Silent Hill 3, Rule of Rose, and Alien: Isolation.
As it turns out, though, Outlast can now be thought of as nothing more than a proof of concept. Because with Outlast 2, Red Barrels has managed to create what is not only one of the finest horror titles out there, but one of the greatest stories told in the medium.
On a surface level, it appears to be generic horror mush. A camera crew gets stranded in a town, town is inhabited by a crazy cult, crazy cult wants to do crazy things… you fill in the rest. Going into Outlast 2, I definitely thought the series hadn’t evolved much beyond the first game’s narrative – just gotten more lenience to get away with some of the most insane gore out there.
As it turns out, I was dead wrong. The true horror of this game lies not in its setting or situation, but rather the ways it slowly unravels the player’s morality. Indeed, this is a narrative concerned with stripping its protagonist of all power, forcing him to watch horrible things unfold in front of him. But it’s in the myriad ways the game does that that things get interesting. Blake, as a main character, is revealed to come from a Catholic upbringing which has instilled him with a deeply shame-based personality. This manifests itself in the way he reacts to the game’s two narrative arcs – the death of childhood friend (and perhaps crush) Jessica Gray and the violence perpetrated by the cult in the name of religious zealotry. Players realize that Blake is not only powerless in his inability to fight back, but powerless in his inability to fight back against his biggest foe – himself. The tragedy of this gradual realization is grueling, and by game’s end, it’s clear to the player that there’s only one logical conclusion for Blake based on his historical actions.
This, to me, is one of the most effective uses of a set protagonist. In an industry where developers want players to feel like special babies in control of every option, Outlast 2 instead forces players to be uncomfortable in the shoes of a deeply flawed character. They can’t save Jessica. They can’t help the cult’s victims. They can’t even help themselves. This kind of characterization is a stark contrast to the industry standard of letting players create their own experience. Even games with set protagonist don’t feel this willing to make players feel uncomfortable – Nathan Drake’s penis problems and commitment issues are still treated like dire issues.
There’s a lot of other stuff happening in Outlast 2’s narrative, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. I will say, however, that it’s the only game this year to get in striking distance of Nier: Automata’s plot in terms of the intellectual busywork required to fully parse it. JT Petty makes liberal use of veiled metaphors and narrative misdirection to craft a story that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. I will say that the game deals with sexual abuse in a very upfront way, however, and that if that subject is triggering for players, they’d best avoid this title.
From a gameplay standpoint, Outlast 2 is a bigger, better game than its predecessor in every way. It features some of this year’s most dynamic stealth, putting the frankly laughable options in Prey to shame in their dynamism and in game’s willingness to punish players for bad decisions. The series’ signature “run and try not to die” sequences are made all the more tense by how many enemies want to kill Blake, and by the limited stamina players now have to deal with. Maps are bigger, evading assailants is more varied, and there’s even a new resource management element found in collecting bandages to heal Blake. While it’s not exactly a return to my favorite type of survival horror, which Resident Evil 7 got close to in January, it’s certainly a more mechanically varied and interesting game than its predecessor.
It’s also a more beautiful game than the original. Outlast 2 is one of the year’s most visually stunning PC titles. The art direction is sublime here, with every setpiece feeling like a well-composed shot from a movie by someone like David Lynch or Lars Von Trier. Texture detail is lifelike and character animations are eerily close to real people, lending a startling realism and degree of humanity to the gross-out proceedings. However, the beautiful visuals really stuck with me most when they were used to render Blake’s old school, and when players have to essentially walk Jessica Gray to her demise. That climactic sequence is one of the most simultaneously beautiful and horrifying things I’ve seen in a video game, bar none. That said, if psychological and moral terror isn’t your cup of tea, the game’s got you covered with gallons of gore, jump scares galore, and more creepy dongs than you can shake a stick at.
No, not that kind of stick.
“The true horror of this game lies not in its setting or situation, but rather the ways it slowly unravels the player’s morality.”
I could probably spill 20,000 – 30,000 words worth of ink on how good I think Outlast 2 is. It’s one of the medium’s most vital stories. It’s one of horror gaming’s most frightening offerings. It’s one of the most mechanically sound, visually arresting, narratively enchanting titles I’ve ever played. I could talk about all of that in greater detail. But I think it will suffice to say that you should play Outlast 2, then find somebody to talk about it with. There’s a lot to unpack, and a lot to love in retrospect.