Been a few rounds since my last post, so I figured it’s time to cobble something together on two recently released and very broadly related games from last week-- in the same way grey wolves are broadly related to labradoodles-- Outlast 2 and What Remains of Edith Finch. This will be a sort of mashup review/commentary on both, with slight spoilers although nothing too in depth, since for reasons that will shortly become clear, one of these games deserves to be played and the other just sort of exists, filling the space between our inevitable exit into eternal darkness. The theme of death then, is something both titles on the surface have in common, although each approaches it from a quite different angle. So here’s what I thought of them-- what worked, what didn’t, and why.
First, What Remains of Edith Finch, the second release by developer Giant Sparrow, previously acclaimed for The Unfinished Swan (which I played a bit of but was underwhelmed by. Fellow Lost Signal J. Ian Manczur quite enjoyed it though, so take that as you will.) Falling under the "walking sim” label, or as the pretentious might describe: “interactive narrative game experience,” Edith Finch combines components of games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, with maybe a bit of Dear Esther throw in for good measure, but without necessarily outright copying any of these. Rather, it marks a leap forward and step up in the genre, keeping the core conventions intact but adding a healthy dose of imagination and clever design to weave together the bittersweet chronicle of a family whose members over the years have seemingly been plagued by a series of rather unfortunate events ultimately leading to their untimely deaths.
Edith Finch manages to do a lot with a little. Every story of the tragic end of a Finch has its own feel and personality that reflects that of the member it represents as it unfolds, and this is further mirrored in the mechanics of each. The art styles both overall and as applied to the individual stories are perfectly suited to match the narrative tone throughout. Some are stronger/more memorable than others to be sure, but all have something to mark them as distinct, so that taken together they create a collage of melancholic tales rather than retreading one single defining feature for the 6 or so hours it takes to see them all. It’s difficult to comment much further without major spoilers, so just take my vague word for it, if you’re into these types of games, Edith Finch cements itself as one of the best thus far.
Now that it’s probably clear which game is which in the recommend category, let’s move onto Outlast 2, Red Barrels’ followup to the largely successful Outlast. Longtime followers may know I’m a big fan of horror in all media generally and more so in the gaming sector. I liked Outlast a lot and gave it a few playthroughs at the time. Thus I was very much looking forward to 2. First impressions were mainly positive-- the plot hits the ground running pretty hard and fast, establishing an early rock solid atmosphere and for lack of better term, gore/grotesquery accoutrements design. The rural Arizona farm setting is well realized aesthetically and largely immersive if not completely original. I can also respect its ballsy attempts to comment on and depict the darker side of religion, specifically Christianity/Catholicism. These elements though are eventually shoved so relentlessly in your face that it almost becomes satire territory.
On the gameplay side, there are a handful of quirky design choices that more often than not fall flat. The biggest thorn that comes to mind being the checkpoint system. A number of times, O2 reset me at spots where it was extremely difficult to escape a one-hit kill, throwing me into annoying loops of almost near-instant loss scenarios. God may forgive, but when this happened multiple times, all sense of tension and fun evaporated, and in an ostensible horror game, I cannot.
However, since respawning also resets health and camera battery level, it's an easy/cheap abusable exploit to run trial and error paths at other times and then purposely die so as to regain those resources. Often it forces one to do this anyway, at various points of frustrating attempts to navigate where the game wants you to go without much direction and little indication of the difference between which pieces of scenery/rendered objects are interactable vs. simply window dressing.
Because of the above, in my entire playthrough, I never had to use more than 3 bandages max and had a large stockpile of batteries midway through. There’s also an underused mechanic of listening for nearby creeping footsteps via the camera sound pickup, but I found I hardly needed this. It drains battery on top of the more frequently used and helpful night-vision, so that one might as well forgo it completely. Additionally, I found myself inadvertently creating amusing instances of ludonarrative dissonance, wherein I was going through a sequence which the game clearly wanted to impart urgency to, but which I interrupted at points looking for collectibles along the way in side rooms. “Excuse me, demented cultist, while I record footage of some of your previous victims...there, now you may resume chasing me.”
O2's length is about twice that of Outlast. Due to this some of its ideas begin to noticeably stretch thin vs. the compact running time of the first. Apparently there also is a plot point/note (collectible?) that explains a large missing piece of information pertinent to what's happening and why, but I learned this through an outside recap and not in my initial playthrough, so that if it was truly meant to be impactful/important to add to the story, it was seemingly missable/optional. Given that, and even after learning of this detail, the question I ended up asking was: what is it actually saying about all of this? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Overall, O2 was decent but didn’t reach any new heights of horror. Red Barrels delivers some satisfaction, but along with that come odd and unintuitive decisions that detract from the total experience. RE7 was still much better.
So there you go minions, if trying to decide on what game to play between these two, go for the surreal experience of dark whimsy in What Remains of Edith Finch. And if you feel like playing through some grittily atmospheric but ultimately baffling torture-porn, try Outlast 2. In the meantime, I wait dreaming in the depths for the Call of Cthulhu game to hopefully release this winter.