Outlast 2 by Red Barrels creates an immersive, atmospheric setting for a survival horror video game that goes a long way toward instilling a palpable sense of discomfort and anxiety. But for all the headway made in establishing a creepy aesthetic that puts one on edge, other elements can undermine that achievement and the ability to generate a compelling interactive fright fest.

I'm about half way through the game to date, but certain trends are emerging that thus far have made for a mixed bag. While the presentation inside and outside of night vision shows off an impressive attention to detail and artistry, features such as level design, enemy AI and certain plot devices stand in sometimes stark contrast to such thoughtful design choices.

The setup is conventional enough but is well packaged. Journalist Lynn is accompanied by cameraman/husband Blake as they investigate the murder of a pregnant woman in rural Arizona, but the two are soon separated after their chopper crashes in the wilderness. The presentation is good with solid textures and particle effects, smooth facial and body animations, quality dialog and voice acting, and atmospheric ambient sounds

The intro, however, is just that brief. Don't expect much emotional investment in the main characters and their plight, though the script and actor portrayals do help create a sense of desperation and fear for their -- and by extension, the player's -- well being. The well-realized Southwestern wilderness and rural settlements also help with immersion, as do increasingly disturbing scenes, sounds and notes discovered along the way.

Another narrative element adds an extra layer of mystery, not to mention bizarre subplot, as grade school experiences are relived through a surreal and sometimes horrific lens. Played as kinds of weird dream sequences, they are interwoven with the main storyline to create an even more unusual and unsettling context for your actions in the game world. All told, it's a strange world that you end up finding yourself in.

Scripted moments, too, are well conceived and add to the overall bizarre and unnerving goings-on, whether unexpected shoves or grasps, the introduction of truly odd NPCs, or an occasional disruptive audiovisual effect. These heighten the suspense, the terror and the mystery in eerie but effective ways. Combined with more standard features of the genre and the medium, the overall impact is provocative.

Gamers play as Blake, searching for Lynn and uncovering the disturbing machinations of a religious cult and zealots inside and outside that faction. Controls allow players to interact/knock objects (X on PS4); move objects (hold X); jump (A); jump a gap, vault waist-high objects (A + left stick forward); move on a ledge (LS forward); run (press LS); crouch/stand, drop from a ledge (B); lean (hold RT/LT); and turn around (hold LB).

Blake's use of his video camera helps set Outlast 2 apart. Reminiscent of Fatal Frame's prominent photo camera, here it functions as an important tool instead of as a weapon. Night vision (press right stick) is key to navigation and survival, while the built-in microphone also aids both but to a lesser extent. The camera also captures key events, settings and documents (RB). Recordings can be reviewed in the camera menu, with Blake voiceover.

Basic gameplay involves exploration, running and hiding. Navigation is handled well enough in general with sensible controls and responsive movement. Exploration is fairly standard. But using night vision and avoiding enemies can be a challenge. Night vision is a necessity for the most part, but drains your limited supply of batteries. It also makes distinguishing one's surroundings difficult especially when running through nighttime environments.

Of course, this situation contributes to a sense of dread as one explores settlements in the dark. Here, the presentation excels, with noises near or far such as voices, creaky doors opening or closing, rustling, etc. And when one particular enemy notices you and pursues, the pulsing music is enough to put you on edge. When she gives chase, it's a thrilling highlight in a game where atmosphere goes a long way.

Progress is linear, however, each area has multiple pathways. With enemies typically hot on one's heels, quick choices and reflexes are important to avoid death. Unfortunately, I often chose a dead end or otherwise got stuck when misjudging the environment. This resulted in trial and error gameplay until I could determine the correct path to avoid getting caught. The same holds true for attempting to avoid detection in the first place.

Granted, I am notoriously pathetic at stealth gameplay. Still, I was surprised at times when I did get caught. Once, I thought I broke my pursuer's line of sight so felt safe hiding in a steel drum, only to have the enemy eventually make a beeline to my hideout and kill me. Likewise, I got caught every time I tried to sneak past one area with several enemies, only to read later that in this area gamers are practically guaranteed to be seen so the only option is to run through.

It should be noted that such chases can be exhilarating, providing one can avoid excessive trial and error navigation. Although I had to attempt some flights repeatedly, moments of dashing through doors, vaulting over obstacles and squirming through crawlspaces can excite, especially when following sequences of careful, nail-biting stealth. Creepy settings and overzealous enemies do add to the hysteria.

NPCs can represent a quandary, as most are foes but some might be allies or even bystanders. Perhaps that ambiguity is the point in this survival horror scenario; still, it was annoying to find that at least one NPC, whom I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to avoid, will notice you but won't attack provided you keep them at arm's length. Of course there's no way to know that going in, but you live and learn. 

This kind of gameplay in a survival horror game can feel like it's mining cheap thrills, especially when it sometimes boils down to discovering the exact path or gameplay choice that will lead to success. Again, it could just be me and my talent for futility, but there were times I wished I had more options to avoid failure. One other design choice that at times disappointed was in a story whose elements could feel contrived.

There's no question that the topical choice of a dangerous religious cult, and all its disturbing imagery and blasphemous narrative, can generate a palpable sense of discomfort and fear. But there were times when viewing the gross iconography or reading the lewd and offensive letters or scripture that I felt overtly manipulated. The best writing and design can avoid this pitfall, but here the attempt is so over the top as to feel forced.

I think this is why some felt it was an attack on their faith. I don't believe it was, but the degree to which this game tries to shock players can alienate and offend instead of scare or entertain. Taken together, such design choices at times can feel like cheap thrills, though I should emphasize that to date my play-through in general has been entertaining and immersive, despite the occasional misstep that can break that hold.

One such moment (above) at least also entertained. I was being chased through a settlement and managed to fall beneath the floor (next to the path I was meant to take). My pursuer also fell through and we stood face to snarling face for a while as he taunted me, until he eventually did kill me. Glitches like that thankfully have been rare and not game-breaking.

Based on what I've played so far, I can recommend Outlast 2 for the quality production values, interesting story and solid gameplay, but with the important caveat that gamers be able to stomach the sometimes over-the-top brutal context and the potential trial-and-error gameplay. For me so far, the latter has not undermined my enjoyment of the former, and I'm hopeful that the conclusion will be more clever than contrived.