‘Outlast 2’ review

If there's a science to horror, Outlast 2 just delivered the master class

No game is better than Outlast 2 at making you feel helpless, alone and terrified.
No game is better than Outlast 2 at making you feel helpless, alone and terrified.
No game is better than Outlast 2 at making you feel helpless, alone and terrified.

Highs

  • Extreme horror
  • Expanded stealth toolset
  • Well-written story and characters
  • Smart, relentless enemies
  • Large, labyrinthine environments

Lows

  • Some trial-and-error
  • Literally never lets up

When a game does essentially one thing and one thing only, it had better be damn good at that thing. If the first Outlast, a horror game in which you can only run and hide from the terrors that hound you, suffered from shallow breadth of gameplay, its sequel, Outlast 2, has no such issue.

Blake suffers some of the most vile, visceral horrors imaginable, and through him, you experience them too.

You still can’t fight in Outlast 2, except for small quick-time moments where you have to rapidly press a button to escape some monster’s clutches. That generally leaves the same two options: Run, and hide. But the multiplicitous ways in which you can now scurry off and tuck yourself away somewhere dark, and the things you can do once you have, make Outlast 2 an admirable expansion of the original’s narrow vision.

Outlast 2 is also pants-crappingly scary. Obviously it’s terrifying to feel vulnerable and helpless, which in this game you always are, without a single fleeting second of safety or respite. But Outlast 2 employs a number of other psychological tricks and feints on top of that feeling of helplessness that make it truly nerve-wracking to play. This is not terror-lite; there’s no action or humor. Outlast 2 is as pure and effective a horror video game as has ever existed, which will make it a dream for some players and unplayable for others.

Welcome to Temple Gate

Like in the first Outlast, you play a camera-toting journalist in Outlast 2 (although the games appear otherwise unconnected). As Blake Langermann you travel to this remote region of Arizona with your wife and partner Lynn to investigate the circumstances that caused a pregnant woman to fall dead by the side of the road some distance away. From where did she come? What afflicted her? You set out to answer these questions.

But Blake and Lynn quickly find themselves unwilling participants in a backwater war between a village of twisted Christian sex cult maniacs and a splinter branch of woods-dwelling heretics, led respectively by a gluttonous, whale-sized child-rapist and a towering witch woman who will happily hack off your genitals with a sharpened cross if you give her the chance. And don’t think for a second that won’t happen, because she is straight up relentless whenever she appears to hunt you down in the night.

Interspersed throughout are vignettes of varying length that take place in the halls, cafeterias and libraries of Blake’s childhood school, where a close friend in his past publicly hanged herself, evidently due to some inaction on his part. There are hints of abuse and depression that feel incredibly realistic, even as demons with tongues like lashing tentacles chase you through computer labs and bathroom stalls in your mind.

Outlast 2 is not a happy game. The few characters besides Blake and Lynn who aren’t homicidal cultists, leprous swamp people, or some other such combination of murderous-cum-insane are uniformly tortured and killed dead until it feels like there are literally no good people left in the entire world.

Throughout the course of the game Blake suffers some of the most vile, visceral horrors imaginable, and through him, you experience them too. Even as you trudge toward the game’s conclusion, Blake expresses only fear, paranoia, and hopelessness—sensations that will gradually bleed into your own psyche until you’re forced to give your sweaty palms and frayed nerves a break.

Say cheese

As in the first Outlast, you’ll spend the majority of time in Outlast 2 staring furtively at the world through the lens of your trusty camcorder. And it’s still some crappy discount brand camera that eats through double-As like cultists suck down salted crickets (don’t ask), leaving you constantly on the hunt for fresh batteries.

The camera’s role has been greatly expanded in the sequel: You’ll now use it to film crucial events and scenes, indicated by a red blinking cursor when you have it pointed at something important, which you can then review later to hear Blake’s progressively more and more delusional thoughts about his circumstances. You can also use these recorded events (and any written notes you find) to track your progress through the game, since you can sort them chronologically and see how many empty spots on the camera’s memory card remain.

The camera also has a directional microphone that you can use to track enemies you can’t see, like when there are walls between you and them, if you’re in a hiding place that doesn’t let you see out, or if you don’t want to drain the battery by turning night vision on. It puts Outlast 2’s phenomenally chilling sound design on full display, like when you’re gauging cultists’ proximity to you by straining to hear their insane gospel mutterings, or when the shrieks of pursuers get louder and louder as they catch up. You’ll notice these things especially during the rare moments when Outlast 2 ups the tension by taking the camera away, which feels like turning off a sense.

Hide or die

The camera’s directional microphone is a clever and realistic addition to Outlast 2’s stealth mechanics, and one of many new tools in your arsenal that add subtlety to your options in ways that feel meaningful. The “peek” action has been expanded, for example, so you can peek out of most hiding places, over ledges you’re hanging on, and even above the surface of the bodies of water you can sometimes duck under. You can hold a button to glance disorientingly behind you any time, and you can lie down now, which helps you shimmy into crawl spaces and through tall grass where you’re harder to detect.

Often, out of desperation you’ll wind up simply sprinting around, getting killed, re-loading, and doing it again until you find where the game wants you to go.

Outlast 2 excels at creating extremely tense moments where you’re crouch-walking through cornfields or quietly treading dark water, cultists and worse whooping and hollering as they get closer and closer, flashlight beams swinging wildly to and fro above your head. Will you stop dead and hit the dirt and hope they pass you by? Flick on the camera’s directional microphone to track a distant enemy, risking one sneaking up behind you when you’re deaf to them in that direction? Make a break for it and pray you can hop a fence or slide back into the shrubs farther on?

It’s in these situations that Outlast 2’s main design flaw rears its disfigured head, as many such confrontations unfortunately devolve into simply running for it and hoping you find the exit. You’ll have to sneak through some relatively large areas, like a series of fields or a small section of village, but there’s always one correct exit, and often out of desperation you’ll wind up simply sprinting around, getting killed, re-loading, and doing it again until you find where the game wants you to go.

That doesn’t feel like the intended gameplay loop, but Outlast 2’s dense and claustrophobic environments aren’t always the best at giving you hints about where to head, and some trial and error is sometimes necessary.

Our Take

Outlast 2 is at its best when it sets you loose in some dense, labyrinthine environment, communicates to you exactly where the exit is, and unleashes some horrible foe between you and there, forcing you to use all the tools at your disposal, doubling back, hiding, peeking, watching, listening, dashing, crawling, and sweating. Thankfully that’s what most of the game is like, and Outlast 2 is a masterpiece of interactive horror.

Is there a better alternative?

With Resident Evil 7 having launched in January, 2017 is already one of the best years in recent memory for horror games. RE7 shares much with Outlast 2, mainly because it was so inspired by the original Outlast, particularly in the way it makes you feel helpless. RE7 eventually arms you to the teeth, though, while Outlast 2 never lets up. Despite their similarities, they’re ultimately two very different types of horror, and there’s currently nothing better at what Outlast does than Outlast 2.

How long will it last?

Completing Outlast 2’s campaign should take the average player between 10 and 12 hours. There are multiple difficulty settings and a sizeable number of collectible notes and scenes to capture, but that’s pretty much where the content ends. That said, 10 hours will probably be about as much as most players can handle.

Should you buy it?

If you’re down to turn off the lights, close the blinds, crank up the sound, and feel legitimately, terribly scared for a while, Outlast 2 will scratch that itch for you. Otherwise beware; this isn’t an action game with light horror elements, and it never lets up.