The first Outlast was a quiet revolution for the state of the horror genre in games, with its influences clearly felt in the re-imagined Resident Evil 7 earlier this year and, to a lesser extent, Alien Isolation.
Outlast re-popularised the idea of horror games with more vulnerable protagonists, but also carved out its own distinct personality with the now-signature green haze of a handycam's night vision. As Hollywood turned away from found footage frights, Red Barrel captured all that worked so well with the concept and applied it to games, putting the studio on the map overnight.
Having said that, it was a game that lost traction despite its short five-hour span. Its loop of pushing forward, getting caught, running, hiding and running again just wasn't strong enough to completely sustain it. Add to this, an ending that descended into nonsense and the actual quality of Outlast, while good overall, has been somewhat overstated.
Four years on, and benefiting from a more mature development team, Outlast 2 is the game the first was made out to be. And quite obverse to the last title, Outlast 2 is a game that only gets stronger the longer it goes.
This time, players inhabit the shoes of Blake, who is one half of a journalism team with his wife, Lynn. Together, they're heading out to the Supai region of Arizona to investigate the murder of a bizarre Jane Doe. By way of a helicopter crash, Blake ends up stranded and searching for his wife in a spooky town filled with some... shall we say... enthusiastic Christians.
What follows is a game that is truly unpleasant and aggressive, but entirely on the terms it sets. The story it tells is one that tries to reach into your soul and rip it from your innards, and while it felt genuinely unsettling, there is no doubt that it's effective.
That cycle from the first game is still at the heart of Outlast 2. You will find yourself creeping around a world seeped in religion, avoiding all kinds of nasties ready to tear your heart out. This is a plate-spinning act of keeping quiet, managing your camera's battery life and knowing when exactly to leg it.
While it shares no story ties with the first, the second is a true successor. In terms how the game plays it's certainly very familiar, but what makes Outlast 2 fresh, for the most part, is the experience Red Barrel brings with its second bite at the concept. The environments are crafted so that, when you're fleeing from ravenous terrors, those moments feel scripted even when they aren't. The developer clearly knows how its players are going to behave, making the process feel tailored in a very specific and very engaging way.
Outlast 2 draws you in closer to the screen time and time again, and that's an experience that can is proving harder to find in games.
That ''crafted'' feeling is something that lingers throughout. This feels like a developer that really grasps what its strengths are, and makes sure it executes on them as firmly as possible. That feeling is just seeping from the atmosphere of Outlast 2.
What you might notice first about the game is just how gorgeous it can look. The lighting and fog of scenes come together to create dour yet enchanting vistas. Just about everything from the outdoors of the Arizona wilderness to the evolving locales creates an environment more enduring than the original's Mount Massive Asylum, which is no small feat.
With that said, this is a title that, unlike its predecessor, has a much stronger second half. The first few chapters of the game don't feel like too much of an evolution of the formula. It's smaller threats aren't particularly scary, it's characterised bosses are a bit silly and that gameplay loop does begin to feel a little tired. For a game that only lasts around 5-7 hours, it's not entirely forgivable that brief portions of it feel like a slog. However, once the game turns around the bend, it really is something else.
There's an astonishing quality to some of Red Barrels ideas and their implementation late on in the game. Not wandering too far into spoiler territory, there is another plane of existence in the game and as that began to blend with the main environment, it conjured a true emotional reaction in me. The skill at work in weaving the story and gameplay together is really something special at its strongest, and a testament to how good this studio can be.
The result late on is a true mix of compelling and uncomfortable during a sequence that might rank among the strongest in the horror genre.
This isn't to say that Outlast 2 knocks everything out the park though. The whole game revolves around some genuinely unpleasant issues, and it'll be up to the viewer to decide if it earns the right to touch them. This is only exacerbated though in the title's sheer relentlessness.
Drama is a series of peaks and troughs, and Red Barrel aren't so fussed about the troughs. It's a shame, because in the minutes when the game takes a breath, it works, but too often that breather just isn't long enough before the next aggressive encounter begins. It can feel like an onslaught at times, and while the content is often great, Outlast 2 could do with a little more gestating time to better allow players to seep in its nasty, nasty world.
This feeds into another problem, where the game gets trapped in limbo between wanting to be an in-your-face slasher horror and a psychological one. Often it will err towards the former, yet it's at its best with the latter.
To be fair to it though, this is leaning towards what the game isn't rather than what it is, and when you get to the bottom line, Outlast 2 is a fantastically compelling bit of horror.
Outlast 2 is a true improvement on its predecessor, with Red Barrel Studio planting its flag to claim the standard for horror games in 2017. From the beautifully horrific environments, the ambitious ideas to the sheer unsettling nature, it's disturbing in the ways you'll want from it. It makes this title truly interesting, even affecting. While it's aggressive in its assault on the player, perhaps to the point of becoming tiring, on the whole the game is very, very good. This is especially true of the exquisite second half of the game that sings to a developer in tune with its vision. Outlast 2 serves up an expertly crafted horror experience that will likely find itself burrowing into you even after your time in the Sonoran desert has come to an end.