The Evil Within was a flawed gem. The Shinji Mikami directed “return to the roots of survival horror” had the potential to really breathe some life into a genre that desperately needed it after the Resident Evil series decided to turn into run-and-gun shooters, and everyone else just tried to remake Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. The execution was sorely lacking though. An incoherent story that only made sense after playing (paid) DLC, frustratingly clunky controls, and awful design decisions made what otherwise was an effectively terrifying experience a chore to play. Thankfully, Tango Gameworks have taken on board (almost) all of the criticism of the first game, and The Evil Within 2 not only unnerves and terrifies more than your average horror title, but is also actually a good game.
Players once again take control of the gruff, down-and-out, alcoholic detective Sebastian Castellanos as he enters the STEM system. STEM is a bizarre consciousness-linking device built by the shadowy Mobius Organisation which allows connected individuals to live in a fantasy world created out of the memories and subconscious thoughts of one another. Castellanos discovers that his daughter, who he has long believed died in a house fire, has actually been kidnapped by Mobius and used to power the latest iteration of STEM. Unsurprisingly, this being a horror game, things have gone very, very wrong inside the system. It’s up to Sebastian to rescue his daughter and make it out of STEM alive, encountering all sorts of twisted, horrific monstrosities along the way.
Continuing the trend set by the first game, Tango Gameworks have done a fantastic job with the visuals and sound. From the basic cannon fodder enemies with their glowing red eyes and weird tentacle brains, to the gruesome bosses made from glued-together corpses and inanimate objects, there are plenty of opportunities to turn your nose up in disgust. The world slowly falls apart as the story progresses, as blood spurts from places it shouldn’t and paintings come to life like something out of Picasso’s nightmares. All this is augmented by incredible lighting and shadow effects, a score that varies from dull, incessant drones to heart-pounding drum loops, and brilliant sound design that is equal parts visceral and otherworldly.
Veterans of The Evil Within will notice a lot of clever Easter eggs and call backs to the first game, however the narrative is definitely friendly to new players. And it actually makes sense this time. Real, proper, sense. With a thematically consistent, satisfying conclusion that isn’t just sequel bait, but is open-ended enough to allow the story to continue in any future games. Characters also feel more nuanced and fleshed-out. Villains feel less like one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts of your typical ‘evil dude’, and Sebastian feels more relatable and human, actually reacting to the world around him and having a personality beyond ‘grizzled white guy protagonist.’
Speaking of the world, it’s now a sandbox as opposed to its predecessor’s series of ostensibly unrelated corridors. The advantage of setting the game inside a system built from memories and subconscious thoughts is that rigidly adhering to continuity becomes less important, but there’s a line between weird and just downright incoherent. Thankfully, The Evil Within 2 treads that line extremely well, partly thanks to its hub-based gameplay. The whole game takes place in Union – the town created from the STEM users’ brains – however individual chapters and side quests take Sebastian to particular parts of the town. Having a single world in which everything takes place grounds the sometimes wildly different environments parts of the story will take players to. The narrative is still ultimately linear, with story missions being completed in a particular order, but the option to explore side quests in order to discover more about Union and its inhabitants is definitely a welcome addition.
This notion of choice extends to moment-to-moment gameplay. Even with its upgrade system that allowed players to focus on particular play styles, The Evil Within really dictated how it wanted you to play each chapter, often making picking a single playstyle untenable. Forced stealth would be followed by huge set pieces, which would be followed by run-and-gun style action, which would be followed by puzzle solving, before the forced stealth made a comeback. Rinse and repeat. The Evil Within 2 allows players to approach most situations however they wish, and it’s more nuanced upgrade system (which also includes crafting supplies) reflects that. Boss fights are obviously still just a case of ‘shoot the monster until it dies’, and there are mandatory puzzle solving sections, but neither of these feel easier or harder based on your choice of playstyle. It’s just as feasible to finish the game going in guns blazing (if you can consistently score headshots so you don’t waste ammo) as it is playing it stealthy or utilising the environment as a weapon.
It’s not all good news, though. Despite its excellent visual style, from a performance perspective, the game feels old. There are low resolution textures in places, character animations feel stiff, and awful texture pop-in frequently occurs. In some places, The Evil Within 2 actually looks worse than its predecessor. Voice acting varies from okay to laughable, sounding like individual lines were recorded in isolation of one another, which takes the impact out of the game’s more emotionally weighty moments. However, the dialogue is generally better than The Evil Within’s ‘my first writing job’ cringe-fest.
Two of the worst design choices from the previous title have somehow made it into the game as well. Firstly, the camera is so damn close to Sebastian that at times he takes up nearly the entire screen. The intention is to make the game feel more claustrophobic, but ultimately all it does it cause serious issues with navigating the environment: Getting stuck on the corner of a desk is more frustrating than scary. The PC version has a FOV slider which can alleviate the issue somewhat, but if you’re playing on console, you’re out of luck.
The clunky, unresponsive controls also make an unwelcome comeback. Again, the purpose is to add challenge and tension, but the result is simply frustration. Combat is challenging enough (especially on higher difficulty settings) without also trying to fight a half second input delay. Sebastian thankfully doesn’t run out of stamina as quickly as he did in The Evil Within, but you’re still going to find yourself yelling at your TV or monitor for him to “JUST BLOODY RUN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!”
By now you’re probably thinking “okay, but what I really want to know is… is it scary?” In a word: yes. Visuals, sound, and gameplay all come together to make The Evil Within 2 a very memorable horror experience. One that is strong enough to overlook its shortcomings. When you’re creeping down a dark hallway that’s illuminated only by your crappy flashlight, desperately clutching to your gun with only one bullet left in it, while an unnerving buzzing sound slowly gets louder, it’s truly a heart-in-throat moment. When you’re clunkily running away from a shambling mess of body parts with its jaw hanging off its face that sounds like Sylvester Stallone after a three-day bender, it’s definitely a pause-and-cry moment. And when you’re seeing horrifying visions of people’s darkest fears manifested as a living, breathing environment that you have to navigate in a way that won’t get you killed, it’s absolutely a sleep-with-the-lights-on moment.
The Evil Within 2 (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Tense, terrifying, and a significant improvement on its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 capitalises on the potential the franchise clearly shows.