The original Outlast was a frantic horror game of cat and mouse. It's mechanics were simple: record everything, run, hide and evade. Throughout it’s entirety, it consistently made my heartbeat intensify, which forced me to pause the game or wait in hiding for an extended amount of time. Outlast 2 serves up the same meaty dish of heart palpitations and sprinkles it with an unwholesome garnish of cerebral terror.
Outlast 2 follows Blake and Lynn Langermann, two journalists out to investigate the murder of a pregnant woman that disappeared in the Havasupai region of Arizona. As they enter the airspace, their helicopter is shot down and the two are separated by deranged locals. After waking up from the crash and finding the pilot skinned alive, Blake stumbles upon a church where his wife is being held and raped by the town's insane leader, “Papa” Sullivan Knoth. After Lynn and Blake escape the church of Temple Gate, Knoth announces to the town that an anti-christ lives inside of her and she must be killed. During the escape, they are ambushed by his loyal followers, who are then ambushed by the Heretics, led by the equally deranged Val; taking Lynn away to her underground temple to watch over her until the “End of Days”. Everything that transpires throughout the story is as unsettling as it is macabre and felt like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a love child with The Hills Have Eyes.
The narrative forced me to go to smaller outlying areas of this decrepit town, populated by a coterie of murderous zealots or outcasts stricken by horrifying diseases; living in dilapidated cabins, shacks, or lean-to's — many of them littered with feces, blood, entrails, bones or various body parts, unsettling albeit depressing notes and torn out pages from Knoth’s biblead. Other areas were littered with totems of people skinned alive, sacrificial chambers, mass graves, and corn fields. Children of the Corn taught me one great lesson in life, don’t go into a cornfield. Especially at night, hunted by flashlight and machete wielding psychopaths, hell bent on cleansing me of my sins. Another terrifying area is the catholic school that Blake and Lynn attended as children. Throughout the game, Blake is pulled into this nightmare where his childhood friend Jessica, was found hanging from the ceiling of one of their classrooms. Trying to navigate through its dark, dank, and narrow hallways is nerve wracking, especially when a grotesque creature begins stalking you. It didn’t matter if I was in a more open space or navigating tunnels, hallways, or corn fields — having to frantically switch between night vision to see in the dark, or utilizing the microphone to get a better sense of my surroundings and lowering it to conserve battery power to aimlessly search for an escape route was frustrating, even more so with crazy people or creatures right on my heels. Outlast 2 made me feel the strongest sensations of stress and claustrophobia that I haven’t experienced since Dead Space.
Speaking of crazy people, there was always a persistent predator after you in the first game, and while I can't remember what his name ever was, a good friend of mine — who hates horror games — likes to call him “Big Biggums”. Outlast 2 has a similar antagonist who goes by the name Marta, but for the sake of word play, let’s call her “Maniacal Marta”. She’s a taller, quicker, creepier and more feminine adversary who wields a giant pickaxe that can kill you in one fell swoop, and spews crazy sermons from her high pitched and hoarse diaphragm. As I progressed through this twisted town, the moments in which she was about to show up became more obvious (thanks to her haunting audio cue), but the intensity level kept growing with every new altercation. And to make things more interesting, she’s not the only one this time around. As I got deeper into the game, new antagonizers showed up more frequently. Whether it was a deformed giant carrying an equally grotesque dwarf on his shoulders, shooting arrows of fire in my direction; naked men with face paint, screaming with anger and moaning in pain — probably from the sticks jabbed into their faces — chasing me through a rickety old coal refinery and its labyrinth of tunnels that lie beneath it; or the haunting creature that stalks the halls of the school in which Blake’s recurring nightmare takes place — it didn't matter who was out to kill me, it was all equally frightening. Even Dead Space (the most terrifying game I’ve ever played) didn’t give me the chills I experienced in the last quarter of Outlast 2. There was a moment where the back of my skull was freezing cold and tingling at the same time. Since I’ve never experienced that sensation before, I had to ascertain that I wasn’t about to have a stroke by pausing the game to make sure my room wasn’t freezing cold (it wasn’t), made sure my pulse was good (about 95 BPM), took a few deep breaths for good measure, took another sip of scotch, resumed the game, and the feeling returned almost immediately. Red Barrels has done a great job of cranking up the intensity of the frantic run-for-your-life gameplay that made its predecessor so terrifying, but the open spaces and new hiding spots got in the way at times. There were plenty of obstacles that got me hung up for no reason. Blake could climb up pre-determined cliff faces with no problem, but the simplest objects were impossible to jump over, turning a lot of hectic moments into trial and error exercises.
Red Barrels has tapped into a more sadistic and insidious narrative that is far more disturbing than anything I’ve ever played. Outlast 2 isn't the first, nor the last horror title to use the sadistic side of religion as the driving force behind their story, but they make a strong case as to how religion, and the way certain people practice it, can be so evil. The lengths to which Knoth and his community, the sickened outcasts, or Val and her heretic clan will go to appease their god is a pertinent representation of how malleable a human being is to a powerful idea, no matter how vile or heinous their actions. Everything that transpires in Temple Gate is compounded by Blake’s sporadic descent into his foreboding nightmare, where his friend’s death haunts him as he navigates the dark hallways, evading the grotesque monster. Roaming the school's halls was dark and ominous; complemented by chillingly ambient music. Most horror games (and movies) don’t scare me, or make me feel an intense cold and tingling sensation, but Red Barrels has accomplished this feat and made my head spin trying to understand what had happened well after the credits started to roll. Outlast 2 was one hell of a terrifying experience, and one I will never forget.