PC, PS4, Xbox One
Very early on in Outlast 2 we find ourselves screaming on the ground, penis severed, as we bleed out from our freshly inflicted injury. It’s a horrifying, grotesque moment, and a particularly sticky end for protagonist and cameraman Blake Langermann. But it’s also one of many we endure over the next few minutes as we attempt to deal with the tall, hooded, spiked-hammer-wielding female who emerges from the fog, on cue, every time we pass a trigger point in that section of the level.
On our second attempt we edge forward to the line that sets the AI in motion, and are cut down by the fast-moving woman as we attempt to turn tail and run. The third time, we manage to hide behind a run-down shack and then watch as she despawns – only to reappear 30 seconds later and plunge her weapon into our abdomen after we fail to locate the exit. On our fourth run at it we attempt to dash straight past her and suffer a similar fate. During the fifth, we climb into a locked house through the window, but find no way through. We come back out and finally spot that there’s a narrow gap beneath the wall of a barn that we can wriggle under – but we’re executed while doing so. On our sixth try we make it through, bleeding from a glancing blow, and dust ourselves off.
By this point, any tension that was present when we first ventured into the set-piece has been entirely wrung out and replaced with frustration and hollow relief. And it’s just one of many such encounters, where the margins for error are so fine that they feel more like mechanical obstacle courses than spaces in which to panic and improvise – something the first Outlast provided in spades. One section later on, involving two enemies and a claustrophobic dorm area, feels more like a clockwork puzzle than a stealth-survival challenge, such is the specificity of the course you’re required to steer through it.
The overbearing influence of Red Barrels’ apparent desire to create a more curated, directed experience is compounded by a breakdown in readability. While you can hide in cupboards, crouch in long grass and skulk in the shadows, it’s hard to know whether you’re visible. The absence of any kind of meter would be fine were it not for the unpredictable reactions of the AI – enemies might miss you from a few feet away, or yank you out of a hiding place you clambered into long before their arrival. The entire game is shrouded in atmospheric darkness and fog, but the way forward (or even what’s expected of you in a given area) is often obfuscated to a degree that doesn’t feel sporting. One particularly farcical moment sees us lead a conga line of murderous hillbillies around a swamp as we look for the right building to leap through to get to the next area.
Don’t get us wrong: Outlast 2 is a terrifying game, and some sections are unbearably tense. Even more so than the original game, Red Barrels’ sequel channels the excellent 2005 horror flick The Descent during its nerve-shredding endgame. It’s also the grimmest, darkest horror game in recent memory, and the unrelentingly nasty nature of its subject matter, though wonderfully written, may prove too much for some. However, it’s telling that the one sequence during which we actually feel like we’re having fun –a short cat-and-mouse hunt in a pitch-black, partially flooded underground space in the company of a crazed, torch-wielding pursuer – feels like a direct lift from the first game. At least the cast’s performances are enthusiastic. Langermann reacts with naturalistic horror and bemusement at the awful situations he witnesses or endures while searching for his missing wife, investigative journalist and reporter Lynn, and wrestles with demons from his past. The gibbering cultists that you encounter throughout the game are genuinely unnerving, too, and a fine complement to the game’s powerful, unsettling sound design.
Red Barrels also toys with your senses to a greater degree than in the first game. Bright flickering light sources are mischievously placed right in the middle of otherwise pitch-black chase sequences, for example, the abrupt change in illumination forcing you to switch between your camera’s night vision and normal settings while you desperately look for a way to escape whatever is chasing you.
Outlast 2 also introduces a new mechanic in the form of a sensitive camera microphone. Using it allows you to locate enemy positions through walls and in total darkness without resorting to the more battery-hungry night-vision mode, though you can have both modes active at once if you choose. It’s a smart idea, but while a couple of sequences make good use of this gameplay device, it never feels like Red Barrels explores its full potential. The same is true of the newly introduced option to peek while hanging from a ledge, for that matter, which – on normal difficulty, at least – is entirely unnecessary.
On finishing the first Outlast we immediately started the game over again on the highest difficulty setting, such was the potency of its depiction of vulnerability and the leeway it gave you to improvise, and run and hide from danger. However, by the time we reached the end of Outlast 2 we felt drained for all the wrong reasons. In leaving the confines of its predecessor’s psychiatric hospital setting for the wilds of southern Arizona, Red Barrels’ horror series has somehow become more linear and less pliable. And now, in the long shadow cast by Capcom’s excellent Resident Evil VII, Red Barrels’ macabre tricks are made to appear somewhat less dazzling.
Any tension that was present when we first ventured into the set-piece has been wrung out and replaced with frustration