If you still have the nerve and stomach, then get ready for a final Halloween gaming hardcore horror experience with Red Barrels‘ found footage-inspired first-person survival horror Outlast II.
Outlast II (PC)
(Canada 2017, developer/publisher: Red Barrels, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Investigating the murder of a pregnant woman in the Arizona desert, reporter Lynn and her husband/cameraman Blake Langermann get separated during a helicopter crash and encounter a sect of religious fanatics.
A modern tale of religious terror
The Outlast games have always dealt with controversial themes like mutilation, murder, and rape, so it’s no surprise to see these crop up again, although in a different, more expansive setting and with other characters that are easier to relate to due to their horrible predicament (although one only plays Blake). Outlast II might still throw bucket loads of blood, gore, excrement and swear words at the player, but underneath it all there’s something much more realistic and frightening than the supernatural elements of Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower could deliver.
Reading through pamphlets and gospel songs of the cult’s leader Knoth evokes violent and mostly sexual imagery that is even more difficult to stomach, especially if one learns in diaries and letters about individuals trying to get out of the sect and how their daily lives are ruled by the false prophet’s words and actions. Flashbacks to a church school where child abuse is common adds another disturbing layer to a plot that feels both tragic, open to interpretation and disturbingly real, even if nightmarish sequences could be right out of a Japanese Ring horror movie and some of the grotesque enemies resemble Resident Evil monsters.
People with a weak stomach or heart condition won’t need to apply, because there are some very uncomfortable scenes involving a crucifixion and other bodily horror torture sequences. Still, these all fit the story and only make the protagonist’s harsh path even harder to follow. It’s certainly no game one plays through without feeling revulsion or psychological exhaustion. The survival atmosphere is often heart-stoppingly intense. Crawling through the dark with the night-vision on and hearing all sorts of noises or voices can be enough for some people to turn the game off, while the chase sequences are even more relentless and evoke genuine panic.
As in previous games, the hand-held camera is an essential part of the horror experience, as it enables the player to see in the dark and also record scenes and occurrences Blake then comments on. Like the documents, this is an optional background storytelling device, but the using the night-vision is necessary to find one’s way through pitch-black environments. Another useful feature is the microphone that helps locate enemies approaching or hiding behind doors. But using these devices excessively results in enemies being made aware of one’s position, so it’s a risk and reward kind of situation. One also has to take into account that everything requires battery life, although there are usually enough supplies lying around to charge the camera up again.
Using weapons isn’t possible, making each enemy encounter a cat-and-mouse game. Slowly moving around doesn’t work every time, though, as there are many instances when one is relentlessly chased through and under houses and through dark and narrow passages. Squeezing through tight spaces, with the constant hard breathing of the main character, it’s an adrenaline-fuelled experience only known in the best of terror cinema. But the trial-and-error gameplay can be too frustrating at times. With only one savegame and some very unfair levels with too many enemies or an especially powerful boss-like cult member that always appears when one least expects it to, one will go through many keyboard-or-gamepad-throwing/eating tantrums for sure, even in the easiest difficulty mode.
Not a thinking game
Despite offering a more expansive world to traverse and some memorable scenes like crawling through a maize field full of flashlights-carrying enemies or floating with a rafter on a ghostly lake and down a faster-flowing river, the game has obvious pacing problems, as some levels are unnecessarily long and don’t add much to the story. After all, there isn’t a lot one can do except moving slowly around or running away. The few puzzle elements, e.g. looking for parts of a machine or a key, aren’t really worth writing about, and even if one can check up on current goals, some levels have a rather complicated layout with identically-looking rooms, houses, and corridors. The school segments aren’t much different, either, and the frequency how they draw the player out of the cultist environment can also break the immersion.
Looks and sounds of horror
The graphics look great, which is mainly because of the outdoor areas that offer some impressive weather and lighting effects, e.g. with a rain of blood, creating a horror atmosphere that is quite different from previous titles. Some scenes could almost be from a religious painting, although taking the subject matter into account, everything is presented with a sick twist, e.g. bodies are burned or skinned on crosses or on walls. The textures show all the bloody and gory details, while facial animations are also pretty good, even if they’re not hyper-realistic. Still, for an indie production, the graphics engine is perfect for this sort of game. The sound design is also great, with voice acting being spot-on and a soundtrack which is a combination of melancholic, brooding, and thumping tunes that never feel out of place, while the sound effects of rustling bushes, scratching noises or screams in the dark add to the nerve-shredding atmosphere.
Found-footage body horror at its best
Outlast II doesn’t change the established run-and-hide gameplay of the past and therefore suffers from the same very frustrating trial-and-error sequences. But for those who can accept this and who have nerves of steel as well as a stomach for all kinds of twisted and disgusting scenes will find a title that delivers on its terror cinema influences. The 8 hours might feel too long at times, but it’s an emotional horror ride one won’t easily forget. Unlike so many found-footage movies that try to fill their run-time with endless blabber and characters one rarely cares about, Red Barrels shows that games can be so much more immersive and terrifying and even tell an important moral story about the dangers of religion and what people can be capable of when misusing it.
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