A couple of months ago, I read “Children of the Corn,” a short story included as part of Stephen King’s 1978 Night Shift collection. It’s an incredible, powerful little tale, one that’s stuck around in the public subconscious long enough to spawn an ongoing franchise of ten films. I suspect it’s even more powerful if, like me, you grew up in the Midwest, in a small, heavily Christian farming town.
Prior to playing Outlast 2 last week, a video game had never really captured that same sense of familiarity and nostalgia tinged with horror for me. But after spending way too long hiding from blood-crazed zealots, cowering in a virtual cornfield? Yeah, Outlast 2 gets it.
Outlast 2 takes place in the same world and timeline as the first game, but it introduces new characters who are exploring a very different situation than the first game’s not-quite-abandoned mental asylum. You take on the role of Blake, a cameraman who primarily films his wife, an on-camera journalist named Lynn. The game opens with the couple on a helicopter, flying into a desert valley to investigate the murder of a young, pregnant woman.
Before they can even record an intro for the segment, the helicopter crashes and Blake and Lynn are separated. As Blake, players must slowly explore the surrounding area, discovering and avoiding a group of extremely, er, devout Christians of a particularly bloody sect.
As in the first Outlast, the main character carries a camera, which both allows you to record and document certain grotesque scenes and also allows you to use night vision to see in the dark — a necessity for the pitch-black barns and shaded walkways of this region. The core gameplay revolves around trying to stay out of the way of enemies and finding batteries to keep your constantly draining camera alive.
The big change from the first game is that setting. This compound, though enclosed, has areas that are much larger than the rooms and corridors of the previous Outlast. Where hiding in the previous game may have meant running into a nearby room and slamming the door shut, in Outlast 2 you often have to work harder to break line of sight with an enemy.
The best example is also the part of the game that’s most clearly drawing from “Children of the Corn.” At one point, Blake finds himself cornered, trapped between a locked door and an approaching group of very angry men armed with sharp weapons. To avoid getting chopped to bits, the player can slip underneath a fence and into the middle of a massive cornfield.
This sequence illustrates both the promise of Outlast 2 and a potential source of frustration. This cornfield is huge, which means that losing enemies who are after you is simple enough, but when you do so, you’re likely to get turned around and a little bit lost. Even if you don’t manage to confuse yourself, just finding a way out of the area not particularly easy.
I won’t lie: I died plenty in these cornfields. Either I would be discovered by one of the bad guys, diligently searching through the cornstalks with a flashlight, or I would risk dashing out into the open to look for a path forward and not find it in time. There’s a trial-and-error element, which was somewhat noticeable in the first Outlast as well, but easier to overcome thanks to that game’s more linear level design.
And yet, the cornfield sequence in Outlast 2 worked for me. It creeped me the hell out, got my blood pumping and kept me glued to the screen, gripping my controller ever tighter regardless of how many times I failed. It felt like living those uneasy words of Stephen King, existing in the same state of mounting dread as Burt and Vicky in that short story.
Beyond the gore and existential threats, Outlast 2 also seeks to mess with your head. Throughout his exploration, Blake keeps having hallucinations (flashbacks, maybe?) to a strange school. In these sequences, you explore hallways lined with lockers, classrooms of unused desks and more.
It’s here, especially, where Outlast 2’s graphic fidelity pays off. The believable lighting and high level of detail make these segments look almost photorealistic. It was impossible for me not to remember traipsing through the halls of St. Peter’s Catholic School 20-some years ago. And those memories only added to the fear.
The full game is going to have to walk a tight balance — between new elements to freak me out and things that make me recall my own religious upbringing; between areas challenging enough to get my heart racing but not so frustrating that I get bored by repeating it over and over. If the first two hours are any evidence, developer Red Barrels seems up to that task. We’ll find out for sure soon enough.
Outlast 2 will launch on April 25 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PCs. Our full review will be available closer to launch.