A suffocating darkness has descended on a remote desert town, and in Outlast II, you plunge right into it--through quiet houses, dim cellars, and sprawling cornfields. Something sinister is hiding in all that black.
After the first Outlast's release in 2013, developer Red Barrels proved it could use atmosphere to its advantage, eliciting fear in the cells of the game's abandoned asylum. Judging by a recent demo, Outlast 2 seems to be earning its jump scares as well. They don't seem forced, but rather capitalize on a rising well of dread.
As one of two investigative journalists who stumble into the town in the American Southwest, you're equipped with only a video camera. Much like in the first Outlast, this mechanic means you'll have to scavenge for batteries in toolboxes and kitchen drawers. This hoarding mentality seems even more necessary in Outlast 2: several times during the demo, my screen went completely back without the green tint of the camera's night vision effect. The ever-decreasing battery life adds a palpable tension to the already grim proceedings.
What's more, the camera's zoom function highlights things I might not want to see. A ghostly villager with a butcher knife, for instance, is a brief flash in the distance before he steps back into the darkness. I turn my camera off before I can see more. Ignorance helps.
Aside from the camera, there's not much to Outlast 2's gameplay. If the demo is any indication, the game's mechanics function only to foster fear. At the press of a button, you can glance back over your shoulder, the better to glimpse whatever might be chasing you. There's a sense of sadism involved: it might be tempting to see your pursuers, but it won't mitigate the panic that's setting in.
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The first Outlast took a somewhat open approach to exploration in its decaying asylum. Rooms were closed off at first, but by backtracking throughout the main floor, basement, and medical wing, the building opened up. In Outlast 2's opening moments, however, things are decidedly linear: the village gives way to a corpse-littered cellar, which leads to a haunted schoolhouse, which funnels you into the house of bloody killer with a maniacal laugh. Then the chase begins, and you sprint into a cornfield on the outskirts of town.
My demo lasted only 15 minutes, and I'm reluctant to spoil any of the disturbing moments and sudden jumps I found in that darkening desert town. But if it's any indication of the final game, it's clear Outlast 2 is working to earn its scares. It has an atmosphere that inspires paranoia. It has that creeping sense of dread that put the series on the map back in 2013. Red Barrels is aiming for a fall 2016 release date, and come that time, I'm curious--and hesitant--to see what's on the other side of that cornfield.