Outlast, the first-person survival horror game from developer Red Barrels, made waves when it was first released in 2013. Players took on the role of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who decides to explore a remote psychiatric hospital in Lake County, Colorado.
The sequel, Outlast II, is on display with a 12-minute demo at Xbox’s booth at E3, and there’s no sophomore slump in sight for this franchise. This time, you play as another freelance journalist – in the horror world, it seems that freelance journalism isn’t the safest profession. At the beginning of the demo, over a black screen, players hear the sounds of a massive helicopter crash, and you wake up in pain, screaming for your wife.
Outlast II is set in the Arizona desert – a terrifying place on its own, in my personal experience – and the farmstead I made my way through at the beginning reminded me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wandered through abandoned shacks with a nice upside-down cross or two, jumped at the sight of people standing in the surrounding corn – with eyes glowing in my night-vision camera – and, after walking over a pit full of burned bodies, ended up peering into a well, where a tongue-like tentacle dragged me into the depths. But that wasn’t the end.
Here’s where I hit a bit of a snag in the demo – I was trapped in a vent for a few minutes, without any clear visual cues as to where I needed to crawl. Eventually, I ended up falling into a classroom. The second half of the demo takes place in a Catholic school, with plenty of flickering lights, slamming lockers, and shadowy figures just out of sight.
In this part of the demo, I was hit hard by a jump scare, which resulted in me screaming (in front of a crowd of strangers), ripping off my headphones, and putting down the controller. I was genuinely scared out of my wits, and nabbed a mention in a PC Gamer article. No developer plant here, I promise – just an easily scared writer.
It’s testament to Outlast’s power that, despite the bright lights and brutal noise of the E3 showfloor, the game still managed to make me jump several times. The person playing next to me fared worse, at one point screaming and tearing off her headphones, much to the amusement of bystanders, one of whom suggested she might be a plant on behalf of developer Red Barrels.
Outlast II‘s greatest strengths lie in its sound design and its shadowy visuals. Together, they ratchet up the tension and create an environment of uncertainty – the best kind of horror environment, as it leaves the player to fill in the gaps. Was that just your shadow, or someone running past you? How many footsteps are you hearing? Will this door open into an empty room, or is something lurking behind the door? Overall, I only made it halfway through the demo before I was sufficiently scared and embarrassed, but what I played gives me high hopes for the game when it launches sometime in Q3 of this year.