Outlast 2‘s maniacal commitment to its core conceit is simultaneously its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Like the original–which helped popularize first-person survival horror when it launched in 2013–Outlast 2 casts you as a hapless everyman with zero fighting skills and no tools beyond a camcorder. Your only option when confronted with grotesque, bloodthirsty murderers is to run and hide.
As a result, every snapping twig, every distant scream, every gruesome corpse grips you with fear even more tightly than it might if you actually had a way to defend yourself. But this also means the core gameplay cannot evolve as you progress–the chase sequences you survive at the start of the game are essentially identical to the situations you encounter near the end. There aren’t many new mechanics or scenarios to keep the intervening hours feeling varied and engaging.
To make matters worse, the game’s most harrowing moments–those sequences where you’re spotted by an enemy and must flee to safety–frequently devolve into trial-and-error tedium. Almost invariably, these chases are scripted, meaning you must get from point A to a specific point B as quickly as possible. Problem is, point B is rarely obvious. It might be a tiny opening you have to crawl through or a bookcase you have to move, but you’ll only have a few seconds to figure it out before your pursuers catch up and kill you, forcing you to replay most of the chase in order to return to the apparent dead end where you got stuck. At that point, the game stops being scary and simply becomes frustrating.
This was occasionally an issue in the first game as well, but you often had more freedom and could play more strategically–if you’re trying to avoid one bad guy in a large area while sneaking from room to room to collect valve handles, you can decide, “Okay, he’ll see me when I dart across here, but I think I can make it back to this locker and hide before he catches me.” In Outlast 2, you generally just need to run from whatever’s directly behind you and hope you figure out the one correct path as you go. At least when you do stay on track, it’s unbelievably intense and exhilarating. The fact that the game excels at delivering sudden bursts of panic keeps your nerves on edge at all times. You never quite know when hell will break loose again, but you always know it’s coming.
Tension, really, is what Outlast 2 does best. Its gameplay may stumble in certain ways, but you’re always deeply, inescapably immersed in its atmosphere. In place of the first game’s mental asylum, new protagonist Blake Langermann finds himself lost in the Arizona desert surrounded by religious zealots and fetid corpses. Though you’ll endure a wide variety of environments, desecration follows you everywhere. And while the visuals pack plenty of unsettling details, the sound design is some of the best in horror game history. From the jagged, unnerving score to the harsh whispers that seem to come from all directions, Outlast 2’s audio is the single biggest contributor to its remarkable sense of foreboding. The subtle squish and crunch that accompanies every footstep as you cross a pit full of dead infants will likely haunt you forever.
All of these scare tactics get in your head and, in a way, deepen those skin-crawling lulls between the adrenaline-pumping chases. In most games, walking into a room and grabbing an item is about as simple as it gets, but when you’re utterly convinced some new horror’s just waiting to rip your throat out, exploring for camera batteries suddenly feels like a harrowing trial. And you’ll need those batteries. Just as before, your camera’s night vision allows you see in the dark, and the new directional mic also lets you (loosely) track enemies through walls.
However, both of these comforts drain your batteries at an alarming rate, especially on higher difficulty settings. You can keep night vision on even when you run out of juice, but your screen starts to flicker and the camera can’t focus. It’s almost scarier than being totally blind, so it’s important to expend your battery power strategically. I never had a problem finding batteries on Normal, but higher difficulty settings turn this aspect of the experience into a legitimate challenge.
Even if you’re stocked up on batteries, though, there’s another reason to brave exploration: journal entries. As with the original game, there’s no traditional story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, you’re given a goal–in this case, to save your missing wife–and bad stuff happens as you pursue that goal. The only way to understand your situation is to gather information from, for example, suicide notes and deranged gospel excerpts. The writing is strong throughout, but Outlast 2’s primary narrative relies too heavily on trite horror tropes, including sadistic backwoods fanatics, demon babies, and of course, damsels in distress. The ending also falls short of the wild twist that capped the first game.
But there is another side to Outlast 2’s story. As you progress, Blake starts to experience hallucinations that seem to depict a traumatic childhood event. They reveal new details at exactly the right pace, providing subtle, devastating hints without spelling everything out. It hooked me early, compelled me through the campaign, and eventually delivered an emotional payoff, all while tying together both halves of the game through shared themes of guilt, abandonment, and the exploitation of faith. Altogether, Blake’s hallucinations prove to be one of the game’s strongest elements.
In truth, Outlast’s “no weapons” formula worked better as a shorter experience. Stretched over twice the length of the original game, Outlast 2’s gameplay starts to wear thin, especially since too many of its scripted chases funnel you down preset paths. At the same time, however, I admire its purity, and to an extent, I’m willing to accept its shortcomings for the sake of true survival horror. The campaign is scary from start to finish and delivers on its promise of unrelenting terror in part because it never allows you to fight back. The atmosphere and sound design are expertly crafted, and Blake’s hallucinations elevate the game’s story above that of the first. It doesn’t do much to build on the original formula, but it unquestionably provides a more polished version of the same idea.
Think of it as a ride through a really amazing haunted house: you don’t have a ton of control and sometimes the ride breaks down for a moment or two, but it’s basically guaranteed to leave you scared out of your mind.