More than most, Outlast 2 understands that the best horror games operate as a disempowerment fantasy.
Ostensibly a sequel to 2013’s Outlast, this survival horror from Red Barrels follows in name only. Disconnected from the events of its precursor, it also carries a theme of disconnection in and of itself. When Blake Langermann flies into the Arizona desert to investigate a pregnant woman’s murder, events conspire to separate him from his journalist wife, Lynn. Isolated in a hostile backwater populated by religious zealots, latent childhood fears come back to haunt him, blurring the edges of reality.
As a first-person experience that grants the player no offensive capabilities, Outlast 2 positions its protagonist as a witness – no, a victim – to an increasingly confused and disturbing sequence of events. Skulking in shadows between barns, shacks, caves and churches, the search for Lynn is one conducted in panicked spurts, which are easily and often cut short by maniacal parishioners out for blood. Their reasons for hunting Blake aren’t immediately apparent, though sticking around to ask isn’t really an option.
Blake’s main frame of reference to understand his surroundings comes via the detached perspective of his video camera. Using it to record discarded notes and gruesome discoveries, he pieces together why Lynn might have been taken, and how he might get her back. Through these clues a story unfolds of a doomsday cult, a competing band of heretics and the prophesy of an emerging Antichrist. Dogmatic scriptures portray a blind faith for which any act is justifiable: death is a saviour, disease is a cure, and godly silence is vindication.
The blind faith of Outlast 2’s cultists reflects the desperate sense of disorientation felt by Blake. The universal chaos of the events he lands in creates a terrifying sense of bewilderment at what might happen next, while imposing a feeling of permanent unpreparedness to deal with whatever that might be. If attacked, a scant supply of bandages will only go so far. If the stock of batteries for that camera depletes, there’ll be no night vision mode to help through the shadows, nor a directional microphone to know what’s lurking in them. Outlast 2 walks that survival horror tight-rope with confidence.
Then there are the flashbacks. Another sudden disconnect, breaking reality and subverting trust in the knowable. From sodden, wind-swept fields one minute, Blake inexplicably finds himself stood in the corridors of his old high school. The contrast from those nocturnal plains is stark; buzzing artificial light hangs lazily in the atmosphere, too weak to reach far into the shadows. Experiencing these sections allows past horrors to contextualise present anxieties, while serving the more practical function of broadening the visual palette before repetition dulls its effect.
The presentation is unwaveringly excellent, with a level of drab realism that brings the player closer than feels comfortable. Think of the infamous PT demo on PlayStation 4 – in the realm of chilling visual normality, this is full course to PT’s concentrated dose. Sonically too, and especially with a good set of headphones, Outlast 2 is consistently creepy. Ambient noise does not sit still and keeps you on the precipice, while the casting of voice talent is absolutely spot on. In a genre known for hammy performances, the subtleties of fear are expertly communicated throughout.
Outlast 2 is a scary survival horror experience. It has its jump scares, but deeper than that it is serious about putting the player in prolonged discomfort for the sake of its art. I can’t think of too many horror titles that are as pure, stripping back the game elements to the bones for the sake of complete immersion. Perversely, it’s Outlast 2’s ability to connect you with its world that brings home its theme of disconnection. Amid confusion and isolation, the base instinct response of flight is the only choice left, and Outlast 2 fully delivers on forcing you down that exhilarating, terrifying path.
Outlast 2 was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.