Horror is all about pulling emotions from your audience based on their primal fears. Most horror films and games aren't really about the faceless monster stalking you or the hordes looking to tear you limb from limb, they're about a fear you have in real life writ large. Most fears tend to boil down to the unknown: people are afraid because they don't know what's going to happen in a given situation and their minds are leaning towards bad things.
For some urban and suburban Americans, one of those fears involve the rural parts of the country. I'm one of those folk who drive through Appalachia with something approaching apprehension. Sure, it's just farmland and woods, and I'm certain the people that live out there are fine folk, but in my head I just think, "I don't want to be out here at night." Countless films have primed me a certain way.
Outlast II is all about preying on that fear.
Unlike the abandoned Colorado asylum that was the first game's location, Outlast II has players stepping behind the camera as Blake Langermann. Blake and his wife Lynn are investigative journalists wandering into the Arizona desert to find out the truth about the murder of a pregnant Jane Doe. Of course, things go horribly wrong, leaving Blake trapped in Arizona with only his camera, hunting for his wife.
Like the first game, things are very dark and you're unarmed. The only way to peer into the shadows is through your camera, which has a night-vision mode. Unfortunately, using it drains the battery quick. So Blake has to use the camera sparingly, hunt down other batteries to keep the damn thing charged, and hide if any trouble presents itself.
My first moments in the demo were all spent mentally yelling at Blake for not keeping his damn mouth shut in a bad situation. Did you miss the backwoods night-vision cultists, Blake? Why are you yelling?
Red Barrels uses this opening to turn up the tension, with screaming in the distance and flashes of movement in the corner of your vision. At one point, you run into a villager who simply sinks back into the darkness in front of you. The town is covered in the dead, scrawled runes, and semi-religious imagery.
The demo quickly gives way to weirdness, with Blake being drug down a well into a series of metal vents, plucking the strings of the claustrophobic among us. When you break out of these vents, you find yourself in an underground school. What happened out here? Why is there a full school under this town that's been abandoned? What's with all of the faux Christian propaganda on the walls?
Outlast II also jumps straight to the supernatural. Something invisible is stalking you in the hallways of the school. Lockers open and close on their own. At some point, something leaps into a shadow on the goddamn ceiling. Is this shades of Outlast's main antagonist, the Walrider? I'll have to save my speculation for the final game.
Eventually, I came to the demo's strongest sequence, with Blake hiding in a cornfield running from angry villagers. Imagine the opening Los Ganados village segment of Resident Evil 4 without any light, weapons, or maps. Do I stand still and wait for the light to pass, or make a run in a direction? This sequence really worked because you don't really know where to go and you have no way to defend yourself. Tearing through the corn only to run into a barbed fence felt terrifying with the villagers at your heels. Ultimately making the choice to run at the lit farmhouse required a few moments crouched in the corn, weighing my options.
After running from the villagers, I found myself in a small clearing. From behind, a dark woman came at me, knocking me down and driving a vicious-looking pickaxe into my unmentionables. That's where my demo, and I guess Blake's life, ended.
I'm still a little fuzzy on Outlast as a series. I love horror books, films, and television, but once it becomes interactive, I feel like I need to be armed. I prefer horror where I feel I can fight back, like Resident Evil or Dead Space, versus the powerless horror games like the original Outlast or Amnesia. I also think that Outlast's camera battery mechanic needs to be a tuned a little bit; the battery drains real quick, so you're always looking for more batteries as opposed to drinking in the setting. It adds tension, but it also feels like busywork.
Regardless, Outlast II looks like a more expansive take on what made the original Outlast a great horror title. If you can't wait for Outlast II's Fall 2016 release on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, you can go out into a cornfield in the dead of night and run around to prepare yourself.