Republished on Wednesday 30th October 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of October's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
If the original Outlast is considered a somewhat crude exploration of mental health and the challenges that society faces in understanding it, then its more ambitious successor is all about religion. Outlast II builds on the hide-and-seek format of its forebear, but it weaves the action around a narrative that goes to some decidedly dark places, and it'll be remembered for that more than its tiring gameplay structure.
You play as video journalist Blake Langermann, who's on an investigative assignment with his wife Lynn in the Arizona desert. Needless to say, things quickly go south, as your split from your spouse and find yourself accepted into the bosom of a cult-like society. It swiftly transpires that these twisted so-called Christians have re-interpreted the Bible's scriptures, and thus there are several religious groups warring over God's word.
This creates quite an unsettling atmosphere: the religious overtones are grim to begin with, but the text in particular – which you stumble upon via discarded notes and gospels – makes for some pretty harrowing reading material. Sex is a strong theme here, as is the mutilation of children, which can culminate in some uncomfortable moments. And the game really doesn't hold back, as it explores increasingly macabre material the further you progress.
Some will certainly feel that the game goes too far, and in trying to top the torture scene from the original, it could be argued that the release is trying a little too hard to shock you. Everything is in service of the central plot, though, which has just enough mystery to its metaphor to push you through to its conclusion.
The story is sometimes a little too ambiguous for its own good, and sometimes it feels like key moments of exposition are delivered a little too frantically for you to get a proper grasp on what the title's trying to tell you. There are some good antagonists, though, and the game's significantly larger budget means that they play a part in some of the release's very best scenes – it's just a shame they don't get a little more screen time so that their motives could be explored better.
Nevertheless, there is considerably more meat on this instalment's bones than its predecessor. Despite the original being a breakout indie hit, the visuals here rival the biggest blockbuster productions – it's just unfortunate that you'll see most of it through the grainy lens of a camera. Environments span large open fields to villages and even a mine, as the title shepherds you through an array of varied locales.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the hide-and-seek gameplay is starting to get old now, and the more linear levels don't compare favourably to the character of the Baker estate in the recent Resident Evil 7. Most encounters will find you trying to piece together the exact route the title wants you to take, and casually sussing out all of the twists and turns with loading screen interludes destroys a lot of the tension.
To the game's credit the checkpointing is very good and it doesn't take long to get back into the action, but it can feel like you're quite literally fumbling in the dark trying to feel your way to the next save point at times. And that's a great analogy because the game is often so dark you literally won't have a clue where you're going, so it almost feels like guesswork comes into play on occasion, which isn't all that fun.
Of course, your vision is very much supposed to be a commodity in the Outlast games, as that's one of the franchise's defining attributes. It's no different here, as you scoop up a surprising supply of batteries in order to power your souped-up camcorder's night vision mode. This one records in 1080p and includes a microphone which you can use to track the position of your pursuers, though the fact that the game feels the need to remind you of this feature with regularity perhaps demonstrates its usefulness.
The camera is generally implemented to better effect here, though, as you're able to record key moments which are then stored in a video journal for you to watch back later. It's a cool concept which helps sell you on the protagonist's career, even if a lot of his dialogue will cause you to question whether he's really witnessing the same things you are. It's a shame because, as mentioned, there's a lot of great writing in the game, but there's a lot of hammy writing, too – it can't quite decide what it wants to be at times.
But consider it a rollercoaster through the core of a decrepit cult and it's worth seeing. Flashback sequences involving a Catholic school – what else? – help to flesh out the fiction, though they can be a slog to play through as the title tends to change its mind about which doors can and cannot be opened with frustrating frequency. But it comes together quite nicely, and the home straight is quite the reward for surviving through to the game's grisly conclusion.
Outlast II significantly ups the ante in the production values stakes, but its biggest sin is relying a little too heavily on trial and error in the gameplay department. There's an unsettling story here that wanders into some quite shocking territory, but the writing doesn't always sing from the same hymn sheet, and some murderous moments are delivered a little too frantically for the fiction to fully marinate. Despite that, there's more than enough good on offer here to tempt you back to church. Pull up a pew and prepare for a psychological onslaught.