A young, pregnant woman has been found murdered in the middle of nowhere. Alone, and with a perplexing amount of chemicals in her body, she exists as a seemingly unsolvable case. As such, the police have given up on her, leaving the investigation at a standstill while admitting that they don’t know what, exactly, happened to her during her final moments on earth.
Lucky for her, but not so much for them, cameraman Blake Langermann and his investigative journalist of a wife, Lynn, are not willing to give up so easily. In fact, they’ve gone ahead and chartered a personal helicopter, which will take them to Arizona’s unassumed canyons, where they hope to learn about and document the fate of said Jane Doe. What they don’t know is just how far down the rabbit hole they’re about to descend, or how much hellish torture awaits them in the desert. Agony that will come after their helicopter crash-lands in the middle of nowhere.
This is the opening plot line and premise of Outlast II, from Montreal’s Red Barrels Inc. The masters of indefensible horror, they’ve returned with another horrific triumph of a first-person nightmare.
It was back in 2013 that Red Barrels first burst onto the scene with the well-liked, heavily recorded and much talked-about original Outlast. A game that streamers and journalists fell in love with once they discovered how enjoyable it was to watch (and film) either their own personal reactions, or those of others, as they played through its dark, disturbing and incredibly unnerving campaign.
Simply put, Outlast was a welcomed breath of fresh air, which brought both credence and a new lifeline to the well-worn survival horror genre. It did this with panache, showing knowledge of what it takes to make horror good. No punches were held, either, as what resulted was a game that needed to be avoided by those with weak hearts and stomachs.
Sure, the original campaign wasn’t perfect, but nothing ever is. There were issues with repetition, and its nightmarish trek through a dark and seemingly abandoned mental institution was over a bit too soon. Those are things that can be worked on and rectified, however, and that’s something which was evidently put into practice during the development of Outlast II. Even still, this impressive sequel still suffers (a bit) from repetition, especially during its first chapter, and can also feel cheap at times, due to its penchant for throwing lots at the player.
Expect to die…a lot. This is a game that sometimes treads too far into the realm of trial and error, and can punish the player unfairly in the process. Then again, the point of such an experience is to feel lost, with no idea of what to do, or what’s going on around you. It’s in this pursuit of fear and confusion that Outlast II shines.
While the original Outlast — and its solid Whistleblower expansion — confined you to a creepy building, its sequel really opens things up and takes advantage of its unique location in the process. However, this remains Outlast through and through, despite a more established world and some gameplay tweaks.
Things begin aboard the helicopter, as the pair of video journalists work on a filmed opening for their documentary. It isn’t long, though, before some strange birds begin to fly into the aircraft, causing it to first swerve, then fail, before plummeting to the canyons below. Both major players survive, but are never the same afterwards.
It’s following this crash that Blake wakes up to find that his wife is nowhere to be found. Worse, there are no signs as to where she could have gone. All that exists in the immediate area is desolate canyon, which has just been marred and charred by burning metal. That is, until our protagonist takes a walk and comes across a small shack, then comes into contact with the first of many crazed cultists who call the area home.
Thus begins a game of murderous cat and mouse, where Blake must run, cower and hide in order to simply survive. Those around him aren’t willing to play fair, nor are they above killing “The Outsider,” as they hold his wife captive and do God knows what with her. The picture that is painted isn’t very nice, though, what with discarded baby dolls strewn everywhere, and notes that reference sexual acts, the disposal of newborns and the murder of children, all in the name of a dark and disturbing new religion.
Needless to say, those who play through Outlast II will want to do so with the knowledge that what they’re about to witness is not for the squeamish. With this sequel, Red Barrels is once again unwilling to hold any punches, and everything that existed before has been upped to eleven or twelve, including the gore factor. This is all helped by some utterly fantastic visuals and spectacular sound design, which really bring the nightmare to life.
It’s over the next several digital hours that gamers will come to grips with what, exactly, has been happening in this terrible old mining town. Doing so will take a lot out of everyone involved, though, as everywhere Blake runs features a threat of some kind, be it cultists or something worse. He’ll need to use his wits in order to both stay sane and remain alive, while making sure to use the environment (and its hiding places) to his advantage. After all, there are no offensive weapons in Outlast, so if you’re seen you’d best run; otherwise, your manhood may be obliterated by metallic means, or your guts ripped out via a serrated butcher knife.
What’s important to note, though, is just how much things have evolved. You see, while it remains Outlast at heart and will never be confused for something different, Outlast II is a much bigger game in breadth and scope. The world is larger, and has the feel of openness despite sometimes constricting the player to certain buildings or pathways. All of the threats are even more dangerous, too, with different types of enemies that will react in their own unique ways. From the standard deranged cultists, who will chase you while their knives gleam in the moonlight, to the muttering woman who stalks you throughout the campaign, there’s always something to fear including the basic unknown.
Don’t expect to remain in one place for too long, either. You’ll always be running — through ramshackle houses, tall cornfields, barns, mining buildings and canyon pathways — and will occasionally have to stop to solve a basic puzzle in order to progress. Think finding a hook so that you can open a gate, or turning the power off before being able to go through a watery cavern.
Hiding places remain survival aids, but they’re not as prominent as they were before. Still, that’s not to say that things have greatly changed. The gameplay has just been enhanced, updated and fleshed out, in a way that turns the environment into your best available hiding spot.
Of course, Blake doesn’t have a lot at his disposal. This means that, much like those who came before him, he can only see through the overwhelming darkness by using the night vision feature on his trusty camcorder. He’ll also need to stay vigilant, and use the thing’s new microphone in order to listen for and keep abreast of nearby enemies, especially while hiding. All of that requires batteries, though, meaning that you’ll need to keep an eye out for glowing double As, several of which can be held at any given time.
Look out for bandages, too, because you’ll need them if you hope to heal all of your wounds.
Of course, the environments also change as you go along, presenting a great mixture of constricted buildings and open countryside, complete with water that you must traverse through. Flashbacks also play a large role in Outlast II, and become increasingly common as the endgame approaches. All I can say about them, though, is that where they take you is a school — particularly the Catholic high school that Blake attended. The one in which his good friend committed suicide.
What this all culminates in is a virtual (and incredibly visceral) nightmare, where nothing is ever as it seems and what’s being presented doesn’t feel possible. It is not a dream, though, and death awaits you at every twist and turn. So, too, do clues (devilish scripture, handwritten notes and filmable sculptures) that you can use to learn more about this deranged cult.
Expect to be frightened and left on the edge of your seats from start to finish, horror fans, because Outlast II never lets up. It’s always pushing forward, and is never afraid to take the next step, all while threatening its players’ sanity. Furthermore, it’s a home run, and is an upgrade on its predecessor in every possible way.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
- Scary, unnerving, disturbing and incredibly immersive as a result
- Looks spectacular, sounds even better, and runs like a dream
- Better than the first game in every way
- Can be a bit repetitive at times, particularly during its first chapter
- Sometimes feels cheap, due to throwing a lot at the player
- The storyline can be a bit too routine at times