Released in 2013, Red Barrels’ Outlast was, and still is, one of the scariest game ever made. If you were to play through it and not suffer a few ‘Code Brown’ incidents, I’d question whether you actually had a pulse.
Its masterstroke was that by placing you in the shoes of an investigative journalist; you had no combat training to fall back on, and no bravado to face the hostile denizens of the psychiatric hospital you found yourself stuck in head on. Your only option was to run and hide like a scared little child, and that’s what you did, making use of the labyrinthine structure of rooms and corridors to break the line of sight between you and your attackers before seeking refuge under a bed or in a cabinet. As such, the gameplay mechanics were simple, but they worked. And with a running time of only a few hours, the horror didn’t outstay its welcome, even when things got a bit silly near the end.
Four years later and here we are with Outlast 2, an experience that feels far removed from the original Outlast yet also crushingly similar. Once again you’re placed in the shoes of an investigative journalist armed with a video camera to document his experiences, only this time the story is more personal. When the shit hits the fan, your focus is on trying to save the life of your wife from religious fanatics whilst dealing with past trauma rather than simply escaping with a scoop, something that has much more gravitas and emotional depth. With it, the locales you find yourself in throughout your struggles are entirely different too. Stranded somewhere in the Sonoran desert, while you do wander through a fair few claustrophobic buildings and some subterranean tunnels, environments are generally more open, requiring you to make use of tall grass, corn fields and any other objects that may conceal you from sight.
Unfortunately the newfound freedom you’re afforded by the more open areas does cause some issues. In Outlast, where the gameplay was pretty much confined to the corridors of a psychiatric hospital, you always had a vague idea as to where you needed to run to proceed or at least hide. Here, in a desert with low visibility, the danger of unknowingly running into a dead end, quite literally, is very real. I mean, it’s authentic – with no cues highlighting your next destination or escape, you really feel the pressure of being lost and isolated in a hell-hole filled with zealots – but you may end up repeating a segment of the game three or four times until you find out exactly where you’re supposed to go, your pursuers often so hot on your tail that hiding isn’t really an option. It’s in these moments that Outlast 2 tests your patience rather than your nerve, something which over time can snowball into an issue that’s more trying than it perhaps should be.
Of course, where possible, taking a stealthy approach always pays dividends, and Outlast 2 does introduce a new mechanic to aid your efforts. In addition to being able to turn on your camera’s night vision mode so that you can see and sneak around in the dark, you also now have the benefit of a built-in directional microphone. It means that with the simple press of a button you can hear through walls or other objects, enabling you to keep track of those who seek to do you harm in safety. Like night vision, its usage has to be metered though; batteries for your camera can be scarce, and they are drained alarmingly fast when any special functions are activated. Sometimes your battery power can feel a little too fleeting in fact, but it does add to the harrowing sense of desperation that permeates every move you make.
Outlast 2’s capacity to make you shit your pants in terror was something I was actually quite worried about initially. For the first hour or two my progress through the game was made tentatively, sure, but it didn’t have me quite on edge as its predecessor. There were less jump scares, and being chased by religious fanatics that look a bit like your dad had nothing on being pursued by crazed murderers with their dongles swinging about freely. As I continued though, I realised that Outlast 2 was just toying with me. Each new area I ventured into was more distressing than the last; the situations I found myself in more gruesome and violent. By the end of it all I was left certain that with Outlast 2, Red Barrels had well and truly gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide horror fans with an experience they will never forget. It is without the doubt the scariest game you can play without donning a VR headset.
The fact that Outlast 2 looks and sounds so amazing certainly helps with instilling fear within you. The term photo-realistic is often flung around with reckless abandon, but if someone happened upon you playing Outlast 2 they could honestly assume you were watching a found footage movie. Performance is unbelievably smooth too, enabling you to really get immersed in the action. Only the odd unconvincing character model and a single scene set during daylight that unveils the game’s rather short drawing distance for smaller foliage etc. breaks the illusion of you actually being stranded and hunted in a rural slice of America.
By the end of the seven gruelling hours it took me to complete Outlast 2, I was sure of one thing: Red Barrels are a developer ahead of the game. They’re a developer to watch out for, whatever they do next. The production values of Outlast 2 are head and shoulders above those of its predecessor and the gameplay has been developed and refined to near perfection. Only the odd frustrating moment of trial and error sours the experience, but the rest of the game is so engrossing that you won’t let the thought of them linger in your mind. If you’re a horror fan you simply need to play Outlast 2. Just be sure to have a few clean pairs undies close by in case you have any accidents. You’re likely to.