Falling in late 2013, Red Barrels' indie horror debut caused nightmares for many, set in a psychiatric institute suspected of administering deranged experiments. The title received acclaim for making its players feel utterly powerless, stripping them of their ability to defend themselves and giving them nothing but a dim camera light to guide their path. Almost four years later and the long-awaited sequel, Outlast 2, strives to improve upon the formula, adding a much broader open world and all-new mechanics. It also promises to be even scarier than its predecessor, even laughably inspiring the launch of a customised diaper on Kickstarter.
Outlast 2 follows investigative journalists Blake and Lynn Langermann as they travel to the Arizona desert to report on the story of a young homicide victim, known simply as Jane Doe.
After their chopper is sent hurtling towards the ground under suspicious circumstances, the pair are separated and find themselves stranded on the home turf of a mysterious sadistic cult. Stalked by the psychotic inhabitants, Blake sets out to find his missing wife, whilst also working to unravel secrets surrounding the cult that hunts him.
Blake's story takes place within the same universe as the first title, occurring sometime after the events of the Mount Massive Asylum Slaughter. Besides the short introduction cutscene and a handful sprinkled throughout, the story mainly transpires in the form of blood-soaked letters, notes, and diary pages. Blake is the first protagonist to have scripted dialogue in the series, which works to give him a sense of personality and humanisation not felt from previous leading characters. Through Blake, the horrors of the desert are magnified and we felt a much deeper sense of empathy towards him and his struggle to find his wife.
The world now has more of a varied and open-ended feel than the first title, which was restricted within the walls of a psychiatric institute. The sequel sports a range of locales and sees you cling on for survival through maze-like cornfields, eerie woodlands and slaughter houses. The chilling ambiance of the first title is still retained throughout, though, with the rustling of trees, clinking of chains, and the crackling of flames ringing throughout the air. The scope this time around feels much broader, however, allowing you to take multiple paths when escaping foes and it presents deeper exploration overall, but there's still a sense of linearity felt with regards to the structure of levels, as you're still tethered along one main path and there's little need to backtrack, even for collectables.
Much like Alien: Isolation, Outlast 2's hide and seek gameplay leaves you feeling utterly defenceless, giving you no choice but to stealthy manoeuvre your way around the looming threat of death. Within the desert's varied landscape there are many places to slip away undetected, such as stretches of murky water, rusted oil drums, and even tree stumps, but little compares to the levels of stress and panic endured when dashing through the black of night with several knife-wielding psychopaths hot on your trail. It also doesn't help matters that the AI is now more intelligent and capable of pursuing you through cramped spaces.
Just like the original title, you'll rely on nothing but your camera's flashlight to illuminate the bitter darkness, limiting your vision to all but a singular shade of eerie green. Maintaining a healthy supply of batteries is a must, or you'll find yourself staggering helplessly through the shadows with nothing but the glow of torchlight and the embers from bonfires to guide your path. Your camera is now equipped with a microphone, allowing you to exchange additional battery power to listen closely to the footsteps and hysterical cries of those who are combing for your whereabouts. We found this newly implemented feature especially useful when determining whether or not it was time to break free from the safety of cover.
What is deeply frustrating, however, is its frequent moments of trial and error, where you'll be forced to repeat the same section again as it's not immediately clear where to go. You'll find yourself sitting through the same loading screen repeatedly just because you didn't spot the small gap you were supposed to slip through in the heat of being chased. Granted, it does simulate the stress and panic of a situation where you'll have limited time to think, but having to repeat sections does quickly feel tedious. We also found that we had to switch on the setting for never failing QTE sequences in the menu, as it seemed nearly impossible to shake off foes attacking from the ground. Moving the R trigger frantically (on PS4) appeared to do nothing and it did feel like we were cheating having to select the option not to fail.
Just like its predecessor, Outlast 2 is built using the Unreal Engine 3, with Red Barrels claiming that they stayed faithful to the ageing engine as it allowed them to carry assets over from previous titles, and while it has received an extra layer of polish, it does look a little rough around the edges, especially standing alongside more recent releases. Character models look a little dated, for instance, and seem a little jarring when stood against the backdrop of its otherwise stunning open world. Composer Samuel Laflamme also makes a welcomed return, delivering yet another chilling soundtrack of discordant clashes and piercing sounds.
While it's not likely to win over those who despised the original, Outlast 2 works to augment the experience of its acclaimed predecessor, delivering a much larger and diverse open world, a more engaging protagonist and inventive new mechanics. Its visuals may not have seen much of an overhaul and things can soon descend into frustration, but it is still a harrowing yet enjoyable experience certain to satisfy those who held the original in high regard.