As the game that launched a thousand Let’s Play channels, and the title to which PewDiePie owes a significant amount of his revenue, the sequel to Outlast arrives with something that many indie horror titles don’t have the burden of; a weight of expectation.
Recently, a demo of Outlast II dropped on PS4, Xbox One and PC. While the full game isn’t slated to release until 2017 (giving fans a lengthy wait before getting their hands on the finished product), at least the demo gives us a taster of what Red Barrels Studio has to offer. Yet, within the short running time of the demo, Outlast II offers you a dense plateful of reheated leftovers as opposed to a delicious hors d’oeuvres.
The demo begins with a piece of laughable exposition, which contains awful writing with lines such as “going mad may be the only sane thing to do”. The text explains that you are another freelance journalist in the shape of Blake Langermann, who finds himself in a predicament of sorts around the deserts of Arizona. His wife appears to have gone missing, and there are plenty of creeps lurking around the nearby ramshackle village. As with any freelance journalist worth his salt, Blake has a trusty camcorder with a handy night-vision mode, which you are encouraged to use to peer through the overwhelming darkness. The camcorder may chew through batteries faster than an orgy consisting solely of Duracell Bunnies, but it does at least serve as a framing device for the game, while also giving you a reason to explore your surroundings.
Red Barrels have certainly attempted to make the environments interesting in the Outlast II demo, even if the setting itself is a little trite. Rickety wooden houses are interspersed with uninviting barbed wire fences, funnelling you in the correct direction. Corners usually contain something designed to creep you out, whether that be a hollowed out cow with its intestines splayed across the floor, eyes peering at you from the bushes, or even a carpet of dead babies (or dolls; it wasn’t clear). At the very least, you can see that the developers have made an effort to bring some life to the proceedings.
On the hand, all of this merely serves to make the Outlast II demo less frightening. Most of the horror tropes you’ve come to expect are on display here. A swing blowing in the breeze. A rocking horse seemingly moving of its own accord. School lockers that slam shut for no reason. All of these, and more, can be found within the short 20-30 minutes that you’ll spend with this demo. The density of events that are designed to shock and horrify you means that the demo fails to build any sort of tension. Most windows and blind corners will contain some sort of jump scare, or at least a scene of barbaric gore. When the game isn’t doing that, you’re probably stood still waiting for the battery-swapping animation on your camcorder to finish.
The flow of environments doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. One minute you’re wandering through a small village, the next you’ve been sucked down a well and into a school house. Quite why a well would somehow be connected to the ventilation system of a school remains a mystery, and one that Outlast II makes little attempt to explain. In fact, the game attempts to distract you from these juxtapositions with short set-pieces, where a monster will bum-rush you and push you into the next location before you can get your bearings.
In another typical transition, you are pushed out of the school corridor and into a basement. From there, you are required to run outside into a cornfield, where the locals will attempt to track you down and hack you to pieces. The game opens up slightly at this point and it isn’t clear where to go next, which does at least add a sense of danger to the proceedings. As you can’t fight back, your only options are to try and sneak past your assailants, or just run for dear life. This is the first part of the game where you feel as if you aren’t on-rails anymore, but no sooner than you reach this point, the demo is over. It might be interesting to see where Red Barrels take this type of gameplay in the full game, but for now it serves as one of the more challenging and worthwhile parts of the demo.
Compared to the original game, the pace of Outlast II seems faster, but this comes at the expense of the anxiety that the first game managed to convey. This could also have something to do with the amount of similar games that are out there on the market. Outlast II may suffer from diminishing returns where similar games such as SOMA, Layers of Fear, and of course, the mighty P.T. have taken the horror mantle since Outlast’s previous outing.
All in all, the Outlast II demo doesn’t achieve the main aspect that it sets out to do; to scare you. The atmosphere never reaches the heights it strives for because everything feels densely packed in, appearing with a familiar regularity. In that regard, it feels like walking through a haunted house designed for hobbits. If the full game allows itself time to breathe while breaking up that rhythm, it could still work. On this impression though, Outlast II feels like less than the sum of its parts.