This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Outlast 2.
In the popular sub-genre of "first-person horror games where you have all the defensive capability of a daddy longlegs in the hand of a schoolboy with a difficult home life" (of which indie developers produce at a near-constant stream because all they need is some corridors, a lighting engine, and a soundtrack made by repeatedly sitting on the arse-end of a piano keyboard), the first Outlast was arguably the benchmark-setter, a highly disturbing haunted mansion ride through a corrupted asylum that illustrated just how terrifying a thing the human penis can be when it's bathed in night-vision green and bouncing festively back and forth as it comes at you in a poorly-maintained public lavatory. It also had a plot that left a lot of unanswered questions, and now the sequel, Outlast 2, is adding another fairly significant one, namely, "What the fuck happened?!"
On the surface, the formula hasn't changed much: first-person, lost in Crazytown, lots of hiding from glowing green todgers. So why did Outlast 2 feel like such a third-place trophy full of spit? Maybe we've changed; maybe Resident Evil 7 broke the spell on these hidey-chasey horror games when it discovered that, hey, turns out having a gun does help! Wish I'd known that when I was in Slender Man's woods looking for me maths homework.
But anyway, you are ace cameraman Blake Something-or-other, who comes with his wife to hillbilly murderer country to cover a story, and makes the rookie error of showing up in a helicopter, which, in video game intro sequences, hold together like a Jammie Dodger in the back pocket of a pair of jogging bottoms. So the inevitable happens, and he's got to rescue his wife from both a Christian death cult and a Pagan death cult that appear to be at odds, but seem to find plenty of common ground when it comes to doing horrible, horrible things to Blake's gormless ass. Again, maybe Resident Evil 7 ruined this with all that chainsaw-based overzealous manicure business, because I swear, Outlast 2 is trying to break the "horrible, inescapable torture in first-person" record. Fucking hell, it's like The Passion of the Christ: VR Edition!
You want to know the precise moment Outlast 2 lost me? It was five minutes in, when I was spotted by the very first enemy before I could possibly have spotted them, whereupon they ran up and smashed me in the dick with a scythe, and then had to endure the spectacle of blood spurting from my brand-new vagina before the quickload kicked in and I was back on my feet, todger restored, barely fifty yards back. Instantly, all tension was broken; I'd seen things get as bad as they were ever going to get, especially after I got traumatically todger-tackled two more times before I realized I couldn't just sprint past the enemy, but had to sort of lure them away and give them a bit of the runaround first. So everything that was supposed to scare me from that point on was just an annoyance, 'cos the game had blown its load in the torture porn and I knew the autosaves had my back.
Part of the annoyance was that yeah, evading enemies is a perfectly adequate core mechanic, but there are two sides to that coin, Benedict Run-berbatch: running away and running to, and Outlast 2 never makes it clear where we're supposed to be running to. That's pretty obvious in a corridor, but most of Outlast 2 takes place outdoors, in the wilderness, where the difference between a plant we can push through and one with invisible walls around it can only be established by smashing headlong into it as a platoon of fundamentalists jab at our heels with pitchforks.
There are one or two bits where you have to search a cornfield for the exit while being hunted by multiple rednecks that's about as much fun as playing Pac-Man blindfolded in a sports bar where the power got cut halfway through the Super Bowl. Mind you, seems like all the other chase sequences take place in tight, linear environments where gameplay descends into trial and error, and again, I'm not frightened, I'm annoyed. Every time I'm chased into another non-obvious dead end, it's annoying in the same way as losing another round of Connect Four to a hyperactive twelve-year-old with poor sportsmanship.
So it's back to the loading screen to be alone with my nagging thoughts again, such as, "Why the fuck is Blake still filming this?" I know that's the Sword of Damocles that hangs over the plot of every found footage horror film, but in Outlast 1, it made sense; we were trying to document something to bring the perpetrators to justice. I think rescuing our wife should be a slightly higher priority than getting this isolated murder cult onto Judge Judy, Blake, mate. And one would think you'd want a hand free, to defend yourself and to dig the nails out of your flesh. "Yahtzee, clearly Blake needs the camera's night-vision mode to see in all the places that aren't lit by strung-up, burning homosexuals." All right, but why does he keep recording stuff, and why can we watch the stuff he records back to hear some of his internal thoughts on them, like he's boring us to death with his holiday snaps? "And this is the mass grave I had to claw out of, and there's me being violated, and there's me being violated from a slightly different angle, and there's me hallucinating my old elementary school, but obviously, you can't see that, because it was conjured from my fevered brain!"
Which brings me to one of the more baffling aspects of Outlast 2's story, that every now and again, Blake finds himself in a hallucinatory vision of his old school, and each time, it's hinted with varying degrees of subtlety that something traumatic happened there that went entirely beyond the cafeteria food. Now, I've played enough horror games to know that no story delves this much into the main character's seemingly-unrelated backstory without there being a big, juicy twist at the end showing how it connects to the main plot. The problem is - and here we take the exit ramp onto Spoiler Avenue, so if you're going to play this game, then cover your eyes and stick hissing cobras down your ears for the next few minutes - THERE IS NO CONNECTION! I played all the way to the end where we find out what exactly happened to Blake as a kid, and it's completely unrelated to the hillbilly murder cult he's having to deal with in the present day.
So to coin a phrase, "The fuck?" Am I reading this right? Blake responds to the hideous trauma of his situation by daydreaming about a different trauma that happened in his past? Doesn't seem very likely; personally, I'd daydream about something nice to take my mind off it, like a friendly dog with the voice of Bob Ross. Maybe I missed something; the childhood trauma involves a religious person being a bastard, so maybe that's the connection: don't trust those religious people, Blake, even if they are just trying to make sauerkraut out of your joy department.
I don't know. I didn't "get" Outlast 2; I didn't "get" what the school stuff was for, or why that lady gave birth at the end, or even what made the helicopter crash in the first place, except that it was a video game intro and that's the fucking law. I'm not even sure there was anything to get; maybe it was just a slapped-together series of horror and torture porn ideas, brainstormed by a group of oily fifteen-year-olds whose parents let them drink too much soft drinks and watch late-night television. It's pretentious, as well, with all the religious imagery and messing with our sense of reality, but at the end of the day, the only thing you need to "outlast" is your fucking gag reflex.
- Who art in Heaven: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Anyway everyone knows a scythe isn't a very efficient weapon 'cos the blade faces inwards
- Remember kids, crucify through the wrists, not the palms