Friday, 28 July 2017

Outlast 2 - Review

Developer: Red Barrels Studio
Publisher: Red Barrels Studio
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower were solid foundations on which to build a contemporary horror game. Red Barrels took the minimalist design philosophy you see in Amnesia: The Dark Descent and combined it with a found footage aesthetic in order to create something that, whilst not overwhelmingly original, certainly had a good amount of polish.

Despite coming packaged with the previous two games, Outlast 2 sidesteps any newcomer problems by having its story be entirely self-contained, with only a few blink-and-you’ll-miss nods to the other instalments. Red Barrels swap the Lovecraftian setting and plot of the original (Outlast was essentially an adaptation of Lovecraft’s From Beyond short story) for the American south; replacing weirdo inmates with crazed religious zealots.

It’s a familiar enough setting, both in video games and film. Resident Evil has mined this territory multiple times both with the creepy Spanish town in RE 4 and more recently in Resident Evil 7. Still, Outlast 2 does a good enough job of creating a creepy enough setting. The weird Jim Jones-esque cult is run by Father Knoth, a batshit insane preacher with the perfect southern drawl for reeling off twisted Bible quotes.

The player character meanwhile, is another investigative journalist. Outlast 2 wastes no time throwing lead character Blake Langermann and his wife into the deep end, as the journalist duo’s helicopter crash lands on the outskirts of Father Knoth’s messed up village.

Whilst the plot and setting might be a significant change for the series, the mechanics that underpin it remain unchanged. Again, the game is distinct not so much in what it does but in how little it actually hands to the player. You can run, you can hide, be it in a barrel or a cupboard, and you can maybe survive an attack or two from an angry villager, but that’s about it.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how much you enjoy this modern trend in horror games. Sequences in Outlast 2 are short and tense, broken up into bits of exploration, followed by some sneaking around, and then a scripted mad dash for an escape route as you’re spotted.

In some ways it’s an odd game in that it plays differently for those that don’t play many video games. Those that aren’t familiar with the puppet strings that underpin most encounters (enemies won’t follow you past certain set locations and, despite being threatening, some enemies have ludicrously short sight ranges so as to prevent frustration) are likely to be more shocked and frightened than those that play games more frequently.

That’s the big take away from Outlast 2, it’s less a game and more a haunted house simulator. You enter a zone, find out what you need to do; be it move a gate, get a key or what have you. Then, you sneak around, monster goes boo, and you run away.

Outlast 2’s location harms it here. Whereas the original game and its expansion had twisting corridors and hallways to better disguise the boundaries of each area or “level”, much of Outlast 2 takes place outdoors, making such zones feel even more scripted and prescribed than even some of the original game’s weaker beats.

It doesn’t help that, for a sequel, Outlast 2 rarely progresses many of its mechanics. The camera returns and is essentially a torch, with its night vision mainly being in place both to up the scare and to simply see where the hell you’re supposed to be going.

Other moments seem to actually regress some concepts, rather than expand upon them. There’s a notable lack of stand out stealth sequences in this sequel. The original game’s best parts were when it slowed the pace down and eked out as much tension as it could from having you creepy around evading whatever twisted baddy was lurking around the area with you.

Outlast 2 frequently doesn’t bother with this however, favouring outright chase sequences instead of tense games of hide and seek. This leads to many moments devolving into a frustrating version of Mirror’s Edge, as you try and work out where the hell you’re meant to be running whilst looking through the grainy night-vision filter.

Of course, the story is meant to be the glue that holds these kinds of games together. Yet, Outlast 2 manages to botch this up despite having a solid atmosphere and location to draw upon. Whilst the promotional material, and even the game’s cover, push the notion that this is a game about getting out of a nightmare Jonestown, a lot of the game has more to do with Blake’s personal demons, which are explored via flashbacks.

This wouldn’t be a terrible idea, were it in any way interesting or engaging. So much of Outlast 2’s actual story is more akin to a CliffNotes version of Silent Hill 2 than anything else, tacked onto hackneyed visions and jump-scare hallucinations. By the time the game reaches its conclusion, it’s hard to care because this kind of story has been done to death in horror games (character has dark past, whole world is metaphor for dark past) at this point, and in much more creative ways than Outlast 2 ever does.

Perhaps the game’s biggest problem however, is one that it shares with its predecessor; Outlast 2 has one volume, and it’s cranked to 11 from beginning to end. Every blood-covered wall, every gory death sequence and every (obvious) jump scare is filled with over-the-top audio cues and violin stings. This is a game that wants you to know that it’s serious goddamnit, it’s serious horror and you’ll take it seriously.

Except, all this does it make the game feel weirdly more juvenile. Compare it to Resident Evil 7’s Baker family, that manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and frightening, because the writers know the concept is ridiculous and so run with it. By contrast, Outlast 2 feels increasingly dull and one-note the further you play it.

This isn’t to say that the game isn’t without its moments. The central location, when the game isn’t flinging you into hokey flashback sequences, is striking and memorable. Its gore-soaked locations, quite literally towards the end, as the entire town is trapped under a perpetual rain of gore, is more memorable and unsettling than any of its crazy residents or dumb monsters. The moments where it feels as if Blake is literally trapped in the nine circles of hell, where the game draws on a mix of Dante’s Inferno and Forbidden Siren, are its most striking and interesting sequences. Sadly, they don’t make up the majority of the game here.

Outlast 2 isn’t dreadful but it is muddled, and, if we’re being honest, a little bit lazy. It mistakes minimalist design for bland design, and hopes that the haunted house-on-rails will distract from how hollow the experience is. It’s a game with both too many ideas and not enough.

I’d say, if you were a fan of the original two games, then it might still be worth checking out. Although, they might just be the kind of people to be most let down by Red Barrel’s latest offering.


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