Outlast 2’s narrative is characterized by a calculated vagueness, manifold questions arising, no concrete answers ever provided. The opening sees a husband and wife duo – Lynn, an investigative reporter, and Blake her cameraman partner – traveling by plane over a vast Arizona wilderness in the darkness of night, vision greatly obscured, the commanding environmental eeriness still made manifest. Prompting this journey is a murder, efforts at its unravelling – an adolescent female corpse has recently surfaced, long rotting in the torpid waters, wasting away and heavily mutilated. The precise cause of that mutilation is yet unknown – the reporter pair simply seek answers, and as consequence of that search are subject to nightmares unimaginable. Promptly things go awry; the plane crashes, the pilot killed on impact, soon found brutally mutilated, evidence of torture etched across his emaciated frame. This corpse, in all its violated glory, quickly establishes the maturity which characterizes the game and its thematic delivery – disasters and torments are portrayed unflinchingly, only increasing the effectiveness of the horror elements. Gazing on at that pitiful pilot, strung up to a cross in some bizarre ritual, succinctly expresses much of the narrative to follow, graphic in its very conception. Questions here arise: was this crash a mere accident, a fluke, attributable to faulty equipment or pilot incompetence? Or was something more sinister, menacing involved? Here again answers are elusive; the narrative soars even from the first, abounding in its ambiguities.
When regarding this early plane crash, a sort of investigative tone is adopted, musings arising over the nature of the pilot’s demise, and what precisely has happened to Lynn, not found by Blake amidst the wreckage; vulnerable and helpless as she is, player agency arises – she must be saved, and Blake – as husband – especially feels the urgency of that motivation. Also: how was this vast swathe of Arizona desert able to elude detection for so long? Why have the machinations and depravities which transpired here attracted no notice, gruesome as they are? For peopling these landscapes are less people than monster, warped and disfigured, physically and mentally – they are horrifying in conception. What is the nature of these abnormalities? Here again are questions, and in the narrative broadly some new mystery is constantly introduced, inviting player introspection; the landscape is gradually elaborated upon, as are its inhabitants, but the game always pulls back, evoking engagement alongside that introspection.
Outlast 2 is often a difficult game to play, dark and dreary as it is, and its narrative fast shows itself as exceedingly complex and ambitious, with great environmental vacillation, the Arizona deserts explored one moment, narrow school corridors explored the next, changing, always changing, staving off environmental repetition. In a stroke of mastery, both environments are exceptionally detailed and realistic. Granted, school as a setting is tired, overused, especially in the horror genre; but here, it transcends tropes, the stories told therein especially impactful and resonant. One environment consists solely of mad men, suffering perpetual agonies. Another, the schoolyard, represents lingering vestiges of hope, imparting some sense of continued optimism, though even that hopefulness is ultimately drowned in bleakness. In somewhat of a fault, the narrative connecting these environments can feel disjointed, seemingly cobbled together messily – Arizona, as a more unique location, is subjectively superior. But as the narrative nears its conclusion, these narrative threads coalesce, expertly creating one cohesive whole.
The gameplay is rather novel in construction. As a figure, Blake is helpless, vulnerable, not too far removed from his ailing, injured wife. Given his defenselessness and dearth of physical strength, Blake’s only chances at survival are related to his deftness of movement. Foes can never be confronted directly, but Blake’s swift locomotion serves somewhat of an empowering role – all is not weakness, as he vaults over or deftly climbs obstacles. The enemies, beyond being intimidating merely by dent of their strength, are also intimidating in design, both physically and aurally. Some, with their flagging sanity, calmly rock to and fro in an old rocking chair, mumbling incoherently, seemingly singing sad songs of scripture – religious overtones, so central to the game’s narrative, here show themselves, in a frightful way. Others are bestial, deathly thin, with matted air and distorted voice acting, reflecting their mental instabilities; internal torture abounds, illustrated externally. It is fast made evident that everyone in this small Arizona microcosm is afflicted by something, something still unknown – none can escape the corrupting effects of the environment or the grip of those exploiting that environment, its geographic detachment. Almost reflecting hopefulness, clearly some are not of totally fractured mind, showing fragments of sanity in their demeanor and design. But in making few to no efforts at removal, a sense of resignedness is hinted at; here is hell, and it shall be hell always, these victims feel. Why risk fleeing, when the outside world could be just as dark or darker?
The gameplay is characterized by the perpetual maintenance of tension, stemming largely from Blake’s mentioned helplessness. Traversing a dense corn field, in the dead of night, a blood red moon resting just above, the air frigid and eerie – knowing all the while that if that traversal is interrupted, if Blake is detected, a gruesome end is sure to follow, results in an unparalleled sense of exhilaration. The blatant dwelling upon that gruesomeness only furthers the horrors of death, a frequent occurrence; death is ubiquitous, again pointing to Blake’s vulnerabilities; here is no dagger or offensive capability, no effective means of defense. Distance must be maintained, while the production of sound must constantly be monitored; sprint unduly and recklessly, and detection is sure to follow, the enemies perceptive, though remaining fair in their perceptiveness, rather than cheap, a frequent occurrence in games with stealth systems. Cliched mechanics are forcibly included, though, with environmental objects existing to aid the effectiveness of stealth; barrels filled with water can be entered for concealment, while beds can be crawled under, large cabinets also serving as sanctuary; these aids seem included merely because stealth games routinely have such objects. Sprinting is viable – if the enemy’s line-of-sight can be broken, a position of concealment can be adopted, throwing off the search. But even this is discouraged, as Blake possesses overall low stamina, unable to sprint for any considerable duration, again preserving tension, increasing the harrowing nature of chase, wondering when precisely all energy will be spent. Here is a weak man to be preyed upon. And so they do prey.
Despite these seemingly advanced systems – visibility and sound production being constant concerns – the gameplay is lacking in any considerable depth; tactical considerations are present, as when choosing which objects to retreat to, when to push forward in advance, when to retreat, but no grander strategy is present. Many doors feature antiquated, bolt-type locks, which can be employed to deter the approach of enemies, particularly useful in the game’s many chase sequences. In a similar manner, environmental objects can be manipulated, a wardrobe or bookshelf positioned to also hinder the opposition. True depth, though, is lacking, stealth certainly intuitive though not refined enough. No inventory management is present, while the game’s forays into puzzle-solving are laughably basic, again seeming forced, merely to create a sense of diversity and adhere to genre tropes; often, the item needed for puzzle-completion is a scant distance away from the puzzle, itself; cerebral challenge is lacking. Destroying further potential survival-horror trappings, resource management is slight, almost becoming trivialized, as the primary resource – batteries for Blake’s camera, a device central to the gameplay in almost every way – exists in fair abundance, at least on the default difficulty level.
But whether the batteries are plentiful or no, it is the device they power which marks the game’s greatest innovation. One of its central features is a night-vision mode, crucial when considering the overwhelming darkness of the environments, the brightly-shining stars of the Arizonian wastes actually doing little to cut through the darkness of night, seemingly impenetrable; the camera must be employed for success. In efforts at realism, the usage of this mode tinges the entire screen with an unappealing green, which certainly enhances atmosphere, though making the technically impressive environments rather ugly. A secondary, less useful feature is a microphone, which directly reacts to Blake’s noise production, acting in response also to that produced by enemies, helping to reveal their locations, even through walls or other surfaces, serving the function like that found in countless other stealth titles. Battery depletion rate can be swift, their changing being a near constant occurrence. Without batteries – without the camera – there is no hope. And yet the batteries are scattered about liberally, almost illogically so, while bandages also exist in abundance. In a manner, then, Outlast 2 is both punishing and forgiving, disincentivizing direct assault by making the player powerless, though also providing ampleness of resources, minimizing tension; a bizarre balance is struck. Resource management, though, likely becomes a greater concern on higher difficulty levels, no doubt turning the game into a different beast entirely.
The narrative is delivered in clever, effective ways. Seeing as Blake is devoid of a companion for the majority of the narrative, much exposition arises solely through imagined discourse, Blake speaking to himself, a fragile man placed in a difficult situation, who seeks only to understand that situation, deriving reassurance from the act of speaking. In certain instances, the camera can be wielded, especially gruesome occurrences recorded and documented. Accompanying that documentation is further commentary, Blake making note of the scenario, offering his interpretations; here are constant efforts to stave off the insanity which has taken hold of all the poor souls under that arresting Arizona moonlight. Documents, scattered about the game’s environments, are also key to narrative development, elaborating upon the authors and the world they inhabit. The writing here is excellent, each voice unique, conveying the diversity of the settlement, some groaning helplessly, others making strange exaltations in their prose. At the center of these documents, though, is the fabled Father Knoth, a priest and prophet of sorts who manages the compound – for it is revealed to be a compound, a place founded on fanaticism. Even if the documents seem mere expressions of gibberish, the frightened scrawl of a withering congregant, undoubtedly the corrupt Father Knoth has tinged the writing with his powers of charisma, which ultimately led to the down fall of this isolated town. Here, though, the documents express a certain reverence; their minds have been warped entirely. Accordingly, tragedy abounds. Humanity has been lost. Hopefulness has departed, too. Instead is despair, flayed bodies nailed to trees, or permitted to pile up seemingly unendingly, the corpses forming one hulking mass, identity and purpose long stripped of them. All because of man’s fragility! All because of Father Knoth!
A marked achievement present within Outlast 2 is its sense of immersion, the first-person perspective clung to always; the potentials of that perspective are here seized upon, made especially notable in more scripted, cinematic scenarios – such as a crucifixion. Blake, falling under the sway of a diminutive fellow riding atop a hulking beast of a man, is promptly captured and strung up upon a cross prepared for such an event. Nails are driven into each of Blake’s palms, and each strike of the hammer elicits incredibly visceral sensations – here, again, the game is unflinching, and while the nature of such an occurrence is frightful in its very conception, and would be horrifying in any perspective, seeing the nails penetrate ever deeper, directly through Blake’s eyes, only amplifies the tension and distress in a profound manner. Mustering up unknown reserves of strength, Blake eventually frees himself from the cross, literally ripping his hands free of the stakes which once penned him, leaving gaping holes, promptly bandaged though still serving as constant reminder of the experience – an experience which was survived and bested, pointing to some sense of hope, that Blake, while physically powerless, at least possesses some resolve, which has only been awakened by his placement in such a situation, a resolve which eventually propels him to escape from a living burial, the game’s sense of immersion again arising as shovel after shovel of dirt is cast down upon Blake, squirming helplessly in a makeshift coffin. Basic first-person platforming is also present, while the stock of batteries and bandages are viewed by looking downwards, having a physical representation within Blake’s jacket. In a manner, the immersion, this maintenance of perspective, bolsters the effectiveness of the horror, fostering a sense of intimacy and groundedness, making threats more threatening, despair more despairing.
The game, then, is characterized by darkness and helplessness, reflected in all aspects of its design – in its narrative, in its gameplay, and even in its world-building. Two principal themes addressed are related to religion and childhood, both sensitive topics foundationally, already heightening uneasiness. As an environment, the school depicted here, with its muted blue lockers and overall sanitized aesthetic, is inherently frightful, schools supposed bastions of innocence – children, supposedly, are pure and humble, possessive of an abundance of love, desirous always of expressing that love. In Outlast 2, however, any time children are examined or discussed, death in some capacity is sure to follow; they are intimately connected, a tragic abundance of infanticide present, parents willingly slaughtering their offspring, many under the influence of damning Father Knoth, perpetrator of similar offenses. The nature of these murders is central to the game’s narrative, and is open to considerable interpretation – why, precisely, do these murders exist in such abundance, when such a crime is an unforgiveable offense? My possible interpretation is that these parents willingly slaughtered their children to spare them of the lives they as parents were then living – killing them was a mere act of mercy, and thusly an act of love. Hopefulness emerges, crucial when considering the darkness. That is where the game excels, in these matters of interpretation. True, there is likely a more logical sequence of events, conveyed by viewing the documents and audio recording in a sequential fashion. But it is in these moments of narrative questioning where the game shows its strengths. An ending which is initially abrupt and frustratingly becomes masterful upon further contemplation, and Outlast 2 is transformed from a mere game and into an experience, dark and mature, abounding in violence and asking difficult questions, engaging the player on both a cerebral and an emotional level.