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Review: Outlast 2

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Suffer the children

If Chekhov’s gun is the narrative principle that if a gun is shown on a mantle in the first chapter, it must be fired by the third, then Outlast 2 runs on the principle of Chekhov’s piss. If you see a mutant hillbilly pissing into a ditch of decapitated heads and severed body parts, you can be sure that you’ll have to belly crawl your way through that filth in the next 15 minutes or so.

This is a trick Outlast 2 comes back to again and again. It shows you something horrifying, something repulsive, then it grabs you by the scruff and rubs your nose in it. Outlast 2 is not game about pulling punches or subtle implications. It’s a game about terror and cruelty. About not wanting something to happen and then being forced to endure it, inch by inch, in excruciating detail.

There is something admirable about such a direct approach to terror. The eagerness Outlast 2 has for making the player wriggle uncomfortably, for forcing them to come face-to-face with some of the most gruesome and disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen in a horror game is impressive. What is less admirable, however, is the lack of follow-through in the narrative. Outlast 2 knows it wants to shock you, but it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say.

Outlast 2 [PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One]
Developer: Red Barrels 
Publisher: Red Barrels 
Released: April 25, 2017
MSRP: $29.99 

Before we go any further, you need to know that Outlast 2 deals with some extremely heavy and uncomfortable topics (and not always with the most tact or delicacy). Religion, body horror, misogyny, and sexual abuse are the overarching themes that stitch together all the moment-to-moment violence and terror. The game is exceedingly gruesome and explicit. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, then bail out now.

Outlast 2 uses a similar setup to the original, casting you as a milquetoast videographer named Blake. You and your reporter wife, Lynn, are investigating the mysterious death of a pregnant 15 year old Jane Doe found wandering a desolate highway miles from civilization. While her story is unknown, the most promising explanation is that she was a runaway from Temple’s Gate, a reclusive religious community hidden in the mountains. While filming some establishing shots of the countryside and rural compound, the chopper you’re in goes down. Needless to say, things take a quick turn for the worst.

Waking up in the wreckage, you’re separated from Lynn and are forced to explore the shanty huts and creepy chapels of the cult alone, relying on your camera’s night vision optics and directional microphone to navigate the dilapidated compound. It’s a bad situation even before you encounter knife-wielding hicks, knee-high piles of child corpses, and scrawled notes rambling about the apocalypse and a monstrous sun creature “fucking the earth.” Yeah. You’ll want to give the locals a wide berth.

The camera conceit is effective. More than simply a way to ride on the found-footage horror movie craze of the past few years, or provide a convenient excuse to play with night vision and spooky whispers caught on the directional mic -- it forces the player to linger on the depravity. As you wander through the cult’s compound, you’ll encounter gruesome scenes that demand to be recorded, scribbled notes and cryptic passages from the cult’s bizarre gospel that you feel compelled to document. You’re making something between a case against the cult in the slim chance that you might make it out alive, and a dead man’s letter to whoever might find your body.

Your role isn’t to intervene or to put an end to the madness. You have no combat skills, no folding knife or pocket full of shotgun shells. You are not the cavalry. Your role is to witness the horror. To capture it, catalog it, and ultimately wallow in it.

This is a fantastic example of game mechanics used to reinforce the themes of its narrative. The camera is both your lifeline and your burden. It is your eyes and ears in an almost literal sense, since you can’t navigate the darkness surrounding you without it. The few brief moments you spend separated from it are some of the most tense sequences in the game. But it's also a millstone around your neck, a duty you have to uphold, despite the circumstances. There is a wonderful union of action and idea at play with the camera. Unfortunately, the rest of the narrative never gels quite as smoothly.

The original Outlast and its DLC expansion The Whistleblower were similarly enthusiastic about forcing the player to confront some distinctly uncomfortable ideas. But, its criticisms and themes were more apparent and coherent. By tying the fictional charnel house of the Mount Massive Asylum to the real life debauchery and horror of the MKUltra program, Outlast 1 was a clear commentary on the overreaching cruelty of the military industrial complex. About the casual disregard for life held by large corporations willing to accept a staggering body count in the name of efficiency and progress. The othering of mental illness and the tragic repeating history of the most vulnerable being subjugated to the worst predations.

Outlast 2’s themes are more muddled. Wrapped in the trappings of the Southern Gothic and centering around an isolationist community held together by a cult of personality, the game is mostly focused on the destruction wrought by unquestioned authority and blind (or cowed) obedience. The cult and its leader, Father Knoth, could easily be seen as a stand-in for David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, or any other doomsday cult. Even the name “Temple’s Gate” is intentionally reminiscent of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult that ended in a mass suicide.

It draws parallels between the obvious and shocking evil of the cult to the insidiousness of abuse in more familiar surrounding. Allusions to domestic violence in the home, as well as within trusted institutions such as the Catholic church and its complicated and sad history of sexual abuse and cover-ups are carefully and deliberately made. These acts are all cast as different manifestations of the same kind of evil – only with one being the kind we recognize as clearly vile, and the other we'd rather turn a blind eye to or prefer to not mention. It’s a strong setup, but Outlast 2 never goes much further with it. For a game eager to push (and break) the boundaries of good taste when it comes to gore, it flinches at the last moment when delivering its message.

This is particularly disheartening given how much the game wallows in misogyny and violence against women. The abuse and victimization of young girls and women is a constant, looming shadow cast over the entire story. To Outlast 2’s credit, none of this abuse is ever played for titillation or as naughty taboo-breaking (like some popular premium cable series). The abuse is always depicted in as revolting a light as possible. Nevertheless, it is a pervasive theme throughout, and one that never quite gets the payoff I was looking for. Women are hurt, murdered, abused, and discarded, and the game just kind of moves on.

There is a scene where the cult has captured a wayward member and is torturing him for information. After he endures being blinded and broken on the wheel, the cult plays their trump card. They drag in his wife, strap her to a rack, and crack her bones to make him talk. Of course he spills his guts. Even so, the cultists go on torturing the poor woman in a display of sheer, pointless sadism. Blake witnesses the entire event, and when reviewing the film of the encounter comments that, “they always hurt women to punish the men… It’s cowardly. It’s sick.”

And in this moment, it seems like Outlast 2 is on the verge of a breakthrough; of a real commentary on its own plot and structure. But it never happens. Immediately after acknowledging how the suffering of women is too often used as a tool to spur the actions of a man in a meta-contextual moment, the game never reflects any further on it. You go right back to trying to find Lynn (who through all context and implication is likely spending most of the game being tortured and raped), or making your way through surreal flashbacks that focus on the death of a former childhood girlfriend. For a game that is largely taking a fairly nuanced look at the horrors of abuse, it skirts a little too close to the “stuffed into the fridge” trope of generating male character pathos by using dead women as props -- dismembered bodies used to flesh out a man’s backstory and motivation.

There is also the matter of some of the more supernatural and apocalyptic imagery used in the later chapters of the game. Without spoiling anything, Outlast 2 goes to some weird places. There are forces at work that go far beyond deranged yokels and crusty cult leaders. Crazy things, impossible things, happen. There is one sequence near the end of the game that I’m sure I’ll be talking about during Game of the Year discussions when trying to nail down specific moments that blew me away this year.

As absolutely fantastic, unsettling, and expertly used as these supernatural elements are, I was let down by the lack of explanation of them. While the game hints in the gentlest of ways that they might have something to do with the Walrider of the previous game (the psychic murder ghost created through concentrated trauma at Mount Massive), it never really gives any clear answers to them. Is the apocalypse building? Is this all some kind of mental break or metaphorical purgatory? Outlast 2 isn’t interested in telling.

Normally I don’t mind this kind of ambiguity (it’s usually best to leave some questions unanswered), but in this case it runs against the grain. By going so heavy on the biblical imagery and supernatural, yet never really explaining any of it, the conclusion almost weirdly validates some of the cult’s insane beliefs. I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect, but when you wag your finger at a doomsday cult as being delusional and corrupt with one hand, and then present a bitching doomsday with the other, one can’t help but be confused.

Slight narrative fumbling aside, Outlast 2 stands as a phenomenal horror experience. It’s a tight eight or so hour game, but during that time you go to so many different places, witness so many catastrophes, and evade so many rusty blades and pointed pickaxes, that it feels much longer. Time crawls when you're being tortured. 

You night have noticed I’ve spent most of the review talking about the themes and ideas Outlast 2 plays with, and there are two reasons for that. One, criticisms aside, Outlast 2 is a smarter, more nuanced horror game than most other titles out there and deals in ideas that are worth discussing. Two, I don’t want to spoil a single thing. This is a game made of gut punches, and I wouldn’t dreaming of robbing you of their full meaty impact.

Outlast 2 is harrowing. It is a horror game that will make you want to take a shower after you’re done with it. It’s a horror game that will make you want to hold your loved ones just a little tighter next time you embrace them. It’s a horror game that will scare you in the moment with shock and gore, then haunt you in the middle of the night with its ideas. And isn’t that what the best of horror strives for?

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Outlast 2 reviewed by Nic Rowen

8

GREAT

Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.
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Nic Rowen
Nic RowenAssociate Editor   gamer profile

(formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for more + disclosures


 


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