Church camps are intense these days.
Outlast II is the follow up to mega-successful Outlast that reinvented the horror genre in videogames (at least for me). The sequel is as abstracted and esoteric with the original, and unless we can expect a Whistleblower DLC for this entry, there might be more questions than answers on a lot of what is actually happening in the story.
This time around you play as Blake, a journalist and cameraman who is traveling with his wife Lynn to research what happened to a girl found dead. You are flying over a heavily forested area (at night for some reason) when your helicopter crashes. Blake is alone, and must fend for himself while searching for his missing wife.
The addition of the spouse adds a level of commitment from the protagonist. In the first game, it wasn’t entirely clear why you didn’t leave more or less immediately from your assignment.
The crazy cultists think Lynn is pregnant with the antichrist and that you are the father of the devil. Why this revelation appears immediately isn’t entirely clear (at least without some spoilers) and you are more or less immediately in danger. Aside from the cult members, there is also a sect of heretics who are likewise dangerous, but at least want Lynn alive for the time being. You are ruthlessly hunted from both groups.
Outlast as a series does an impressive job guiding the player where they are meant to go. The level design pulls you in the correct direction through subtle cues and pathing. Unfortunately, this does not always work. When you get lost you will feel lost. The new setting of Outlast II is a breath of fresh air (literally) as you are in a major outdoor compound for the majority of the game. The areas are huge, and there are multiple ways to approach your goals. There is a bit of give and take though with the new size as it is now easier to get turned around.
Blake cannot fight (aside from some scripted events) and you are only armed with your camera. Not being a powerhouse increases the tension in the game, but it also leads to some segments being more trial and error than anything else. A lot of the time this works well as there is something inherently terrifying about being chased. The towering villain Marta pursues you relentlessly and makes for one of the better villains in this type of game. Once again, when the game is working well is works fantastically. However, if you are lost and in a segment where she is on your heels expect to die, a lot.
There are a few things that Outlast II does that annoyed me quite a bit. For the last third of the game you will be more or less under constant assault. While this does amp up the anxiety for the player it also means that the level design cannot be appreciated. You will be running through the end, and this was a huge mistake on the part of the developers. The subtle environmental storytelling is excellent, and the early level designs feature some of the best set dressing in any horror game I have ever seen. The environment itself is as corrupted as the individuals who dwell within it.
My other gripe is the camera battery. I am fine with it draining fast when using the microphone or night vision, but I do wish they would have made it not drain any battery when using it without any features turned on. There are several moments in the game where you will be hiding and watching events unfold. The camera allows you to zoom in and see what is happening better, but I found myself hesitant to do so because of the stupid battery issue.
These are small gripes in the gameplay in an otherwise strong game. Where the game is going to be more divisive is the story. I have heard some folks gripe that the plot felt a bit clichéd. It is, but so was the first entry in the series in a lot of ways. The game is trying to capitalize on fragmented storytelling, and if you’re a fan of this already you won’t mind. There are several threads within the game, and it isn’t always clear how they all connect.
As the player delves into Blake’s troubled past the game becomes more nightmarish than realistic. Several chunks of the game occur in the past when Blake was in a religious school. These moments are interesting and shake up the gameplay (and the transitions between school and forest are amazing), but the surreal qualities confuse the harsh realistic setting. At best the game has two strong mysteries blended into one experience, at worst we have a bit of a narrative mash-up.
The most divisive aspect of the game is the one I wish to spend the least amount of time discussing—the ending. The game ends abruptly, and to a certain degree it is a let down. I don’t know what more I wanted in the ending, but I felt like something was missing in the final moment. Now, Outlast: Whistleblower did an excellent job tying everything up in the first game, so we might see something like that in this one. Yet, we can’t excuse a problematic ending for a possible future episode.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the game is that it is the sequel. Outlast provided an excellent and rare experience in games. If this would have been the first entry, I think people would be singing its praises a bit louder. The game throws a lot of good stuff at the player, but there is a certain level of sameness to a lot of the interactions. This is not to say that I think the developers took any shortcuts, they did not, but there is only so much you can do with this type of gameplay.
So, is the game scary? For me, certain parts were. Marta and the mysterious Val are show-stealers in every encounter, and they provide a level of morbid uncanniness that will get under your skin. Being chased is a thrilling and frightening experience, but it is in the moment. The game didn’t get under my skin in a way that truly great horror experiences can. The scares are more situational, and the terror can amp up quickly, but it melts off equally fast. The implications of the narrative are tragic, and this is where the game will stay with you.
Overall, the game is worth playing. Neither entry has provided me with a ton of replay value, but I enjoyed my time with each thoroughly. Anyone worried they were going to skimp on the sequel can rest easy. 8/10