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Outlast 2 review

First-person horror makes up for frustrating trial-and-error stealth with brutality and beauty.

Our Verdict

Stealth and pursuit haven’t changed much in Outlast 2, but it excels as a beautiful, brutal journey through extreme spiritual anxieties.

Need to know

What is it? A stealthy first-person horror adventure
Price: $30 / £23
Publisher: Red Barrels
Developer: Red Barrels
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i7-6700K, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 980 Ti
Multiplayer: None
Link: Steam 

What if the most deranged, doom-saying cultists are right? Outlast 2 prods this question with a pointy stick until it bleeds, festers, and wails in agony. While it plays very similarly to the original, Outlast 2 takes its Christian themes into extremely uncomfortable and surprising territory, avoiding what could have been a familiar trek through cultish cliches. 

Structurally, it’s a conventional first-person horror game, a string of tense stealth scenarios where you hide from monsters before they chase you through dense forests and flooded mines. The story is too opaque and a maddening amount of trial-and-error is needed to figure out most of the stealth sequences, but through it all, Outlast 2 is a train of depravity steered by a good old-fashioned fear of God. 

Picture this

As a freelance journalist, you’re investigating the disappearance of a Jane Doe. Your wife is quickly kidnapped by a cult, the genesis of which is fascinating, mostly told through discarded letters and environmental cues. But the details are hard to process when an entire village is actively hunting for you. Outlast 2 maintains such a relentless pace that there’s almost no time to figure out what’s really going on.

Besides the vague story and some directed flashback sequences that feel like a detour, the slow progression through rural Arizona is layered with enough apocalyptic Christian imagery to be a complete journey. Expect to witness the best of the worst of the bible through some of the most shocking first-person scenes in games, period. Your vision flashes red with hard clank of a hammer coming down on metal, the sky is a dark shade of purple, and a man piggybacking on another man blathers on about how happy he is to see you. 

On that journey, you’ll need to sneak past roving packs of rural folks gone mad. Your camcorder is your only tool, used to see in the dark with its night vision mode and a microphone that detects sound wherever it’s pointed. Both functions drain your batteries and like healing bandages, they’re limited, but never so much that you’re left without enough supplies to outwit any pursuers. Even without wit, persistence does the trick, as frustrating as it can be. 

Immoral compass 

Red Barrels’ commitment to building such a disorienting horror simulation is as admirable as it is annoying.

Early on, I wandered the same cornfield for 30 minutes, crawling the perimeter and making several suicide runs to scope out the buildings for an exit. The way out was a short sprint not far from where the sequence begins, a quick hop over a pile of wood pallets piled next to the fence. The area was a wild goose chase killbox, built only to confuse. It’s not an isolated issue either. While the original Outlast could depend on the hospital’s architectural pathways to direct the player, pulling off subtle signposting in an outdoor setting can’t be as obvious without compromising the feeling of being lost and helpless. Red Barrels’ commitment to building such a disorienting horror simulation is as admirable as it is annoying.

Such dedication can be worth it. Subtle lighting casts trees and figures like paper silhouettes against muted backdrops, and convincing effects like the camera’s depth of field and visual noise make the world look real at a glance. It’s stunning artistic and graphical work. And when you’re dashing through it, nearly out of battery while a ‘man’ screams biblical verse and shoots fiery crossbow bolts past your head it’s both thrilling and nauseating, all propped up by an incredible soundtrack.

But it’s a tower that topples often, leading to repeated attempts at trying to find a tiny hole in a huge fence, to figure out if the enemy can see me or not, or if I can grab a particular ledge to scramble away in time. There are even a few instances where enemies are set up to ambush and instantly kill you, totally deflating a close getaway. Without clear rules the illusion fades quickly, exposing the simple AI and restricted level design. The few times I happened to stumble the right way through a level, Outlast 2 felt like an audiovisual horror masterpiece. The motion capture, textures, and animation are never quite up to par with Resident Evil 7, but when everything meshes together, it hardly matters. Just don’t expect a smooth experience the whole way through. When it clicks though—those moments stick.

Getting started

If you're having trouble navigating Outlast 2's dark farmland or can't figure out how enemies keep spotting you, check out our beginner's guide

Long after the final minutes of Outlast 2, I felt queasy, uncertain that what I saw had actually happened. It’s one of the most bizarre ending sequences I’ve witnessed, tapping into a fear I’ve known since my first week at Sunday school. It's not a fear about being hunted, artistic viscera spills, or neatly arranged corpses on spikes (though there’s plenty of that stuff). It’s fear of the drastic measures people will take to ensure their salvation, the burden of guilt, and whether or not the big guy up top exists and gives a damn.

What I like most about Outlast 2 is that it doesn't just use its themes as set-dressing. The first Outlast had the same intense stealth sequences and chase scenes, but in the spooky asylum every Early Access game goes for. Outlast 2 takes you through dilapidating farms and flooded mines and old townships that all say something about the history of the people who lived there. It rains blood and spews locusts and sends twisted cultists after you through it all, just regular people wearing overalls and carrying bloody steak knives, moaning in apocalyptic overtones. There are monsters, sure, but Outlast 2's scariest moments come from its most familiar faces. 

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The Verdict

Outlast 2

Stealth and pursuit haven’t changed much in Outlast 2, but it excels as a beautiful, brutal journey through extreme spiritual anxieties.