Friday, May 5, 2017

A single-paragraph review of Outlast 2, followed by a longer, spoiler-laden one

Outlast 2 is scary, so much so that when my father stayed overnight last week just after the game's release, I had to actually keep myself from playing it because I was worried that my screams would wake him up. So if your measure of a horror game's quality it how terrifying it is, Outlast 2 is a rousing success, though it comes with two caveats. Firstly, it's schlocky, over-the-top, and utterly unconcerned with whether or not it's offending you. It seems determined to figure out what it is that makes you lightheaded, and impressively, in my case, it was successful. Secondly, the state of stealth-based "defenseless" horror games has progressed over the last few years, and so an Outlast sequel of level quality is not necessarily an equal. 7/10, and I recommend it if you have the stomach for it.

And now, since I stand to make zero profit from this review and don't need to justify a score that will wind up on Metacritic, I'm now going to discuss Outlast 2 in more explicit detail, so be warned: spoilers beyond this point.
The original Outlast came along at the perfect time for me. An indie release called Amnesia: The Dark Descent had been bouncing around for several years and laying the groundwork for what I call the defenseless horror genre, in which players are matched against enemies that they can't kill and thus spend most of their playtime running and hiding. It's a pure and effective method of generating panic, but while I've enjoyed Amnesia's influence, I always found its actual design too obtuse. I'd longed for a game to strip the concept down to its bare essentials, unimpaired by the ambition of being something more complex than it needed to be.

Outlast, for me, was that game. Simple, straightforward, serving no purpose but to make you feel helpless in an insane asylum full of grotesque things that want to mutilate you. It was so scary that I could only play it in short bursts. That it arrived just as the AAA horror scene was burning out (with heavy-hitters like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 abandoning all pretense of actually scaring people) was a bonus, and the genre's been on an upswing since.

So where else have we seen this? Well, after Aliens: Colonial Marines became one of the most notorious disappointments of the modern era, Sega gave the makers of the Total War series the opportunity to channel the original Alien film and base an entire game around evading a single, unkillable xenomorph, and the resulting Alien: Isolation is one of the best uses of that license ever (bloated and overlong as it may be). Meanwhile, P.T. made such an impression that it's regarded as a contemporary classic even though it's technically just a demo for a cancelled game, and Capcom took some obvious cues in rebooting Resident Evil, an experiment that worked shockingly well earlier this year.
So where does that leave an Outlast sequel? Well, disappointingly, developer Red Barrels' answer seems to be "make it more disgusting." I don't want to undercut the many ways in which Outlast 2 is an effective horror game, but the torture porn element has somehow been cranked up even higher than that of its predecessor, as if Red Barrels knew that only the most thick-shelled of gamers would demand more of what they got the first time and set out to find everyone's "trigger." If there is anything that makes your stomach turn, and it's not represented in Outlast 2, don't tell Red Barrels. They'll be disappointed in themselves.

Here's mine. I went to a Catholic school (like this game's main character, and we'll get to that), and as I'm sure you know, Christians are obsessed with crucifixion. Whenever I had to endure a gruesome explanation as to what a person goes through when they're crucified, I got lightheaded. Lo and behold, there is a scene in which the protagonist of Outlast 2 is nailed to a cross. The unbroken first-person perspective forced me to imagine, more so than I ever had before, what it felt like for the person that this was happening to. It's one of the most brutal things I've ever witnessed in a work of fiction. I'm... kind of impressed.

But for as rampant and gratuitous as Outlast 2's violence is, it's ultimately a game about avoiding having such violence inflicted upon you. Again, this formula works, and I daresay that for as commonplace as low-budget indie horror titles are, this sort of genre benefits, more than most, from high production values. I want to jump every time a shadow dances in front of me. I want to hear ambient sound effects to my sides that could be approaching enemies. I want to be immersed. Outlast 2 looks and sounds great. It's an absorbing experience, one that had me nervous while playing it and feeling like I needed a shower afterwards.
Again, though, we've seen this all before, and the supercharged schlock factor is something that I imagine will shoo more people away than it will lure in. One particular disappointment is that Outlast 2 still feels narrow and linear despite the switch to an outdoor environment. I get that claustrophobia is key in games like this, but Outlast is a stealth franchise, and it often feels like you don't have enough room to maneuver through enemy routes. And when you're caught, the areas are so small that there's often nowhere to go. In some situations, if an enemy spots you, that's it.

The one incredible exception is a sequence set in a large, open cornfield, where vision is limited on both sides, and while there are plenty of places to run and hide, doing so could ultimately screw up your sense of direction. It's a brilliant moment, and Outlast 2 could have used more of them.

But the game's real missed opportunity is the plot, on multiple levels. Only tangentially connected to the first game, Outlast 2 is about a pair of married journalists who find themselves stranded somewhere in rural Arizona where a crazy Catholic cult wants to... well, they're split into factions and everyone seems to have a different goal. The preacher running the main village seems to believe that the wife is pregnant with the Antichrist, a dwarf out in the woods is reenacting the Stations of the Cross (hence the crucifixion scene), and some weird pagan lady, uh, wants to take off her clothes, smear herself in mud, and chase the protagonist around an old mine?
I'll be honest: When I finished Outlast 2, I hadn't the slightest idea what the game was actually about, what I'd just witnessed. It was only after, reading a synopsis, when I learned that a single hidden document (one of dozens in the game) reveals a key plot detail: that the enormous burst of light you keep seeing throughout the game is an experimental mind-control device, run by the same company responsible for the wrongdoing in the first Outlast.

So that's it, really. A machine is turning everyone in the area violently insane by convincing them that they're living in the biblical end times. This eventually applies to the protagonist himself, whose hallucinations more and more take center stage as the search for his wife continues, culminating in a trippy-ass final act in which he appears to completely lose his grip on reality. There's some striking imagery late in Outlast 2 - apocalyptic lightning storms, blood raining down from the sky - but the game's lack of a message or a point discourages discussion on what's real. Did the wife really birth a child? Is she actually dead? Did the cult really commit mass suicide? I can't work up the energy to stew over these questions if no one in this story seems to have a clear-cut arc either way.

That's the other thing: Outlast 2 dumps a lot of time into character-building and symbolism that never, to my view, pays off. The game doesn't really explore Catholicism on any thematic level - it's all just window dressing - and the constant flashbacks to a tragic incident from the hero's childhood are both repetitive and needless. We're never given a clear answer as to what exactly happened (if a priest accidentally killed the girl, why are we also constantly seeing images of her hanging from a noose?), nor is there any clear connection between the flashbacks and the present-day stuff. And even if there's a point that I'm missing, these sequences didn't need to be nearly as frequent, bloating a game that's longer than it should have been.
And that's my final criticism of Outlast 2, that it overstays its welcome. Horror games, by and large, benefit from brevity - the moment this becomes routine, it stops being scary. In addition to the school flashbacks, the game's last hour or two could have been trimmed significantly, as there comes a point when the developers don't have anything new to show me but nevertheless drag things out in a repetitious series of underground tunnels. Again, P.T. is widely regarded as a horror masterpiece and it lasts, what, 20 minutes?

But this is all just a way of saying that Outlast 2 is neither as tight or as relevant as its predecessor. Yet that game made such an impression on me that its sequel can afford to be several steps down. If you want a reliable scare fix, wait for the sun to go down, turn off the lights, put on a pair of headphones, and play some Outlast 2. For whatever the game gets wrong, it does what I paid it to do.

(P.S. One final observation. Outlast 2 features a miniature rogues gallery of distinctive villains. We want to see them get their comeuppance, of course, but since this is a game in which you can't attack, they all just sort of... accidentally off themselves in increasingly Tucker & Dale-esque ways. Not really a complaint, just amusing in hindsight.)

(P.S.S. The gravelly-voice pickaxe lady dies in precisely the same manner as Father Brennan from The Omen.)