There’s no denying that the original The Evil Within was a hot mess. Shinji Mikami and the team at Tango Gameworks were trying to recreate the feeling and success of Resident Evil 4, and if they had any success at all it was the fact that it did feel like a game straight out of 2005. At a time when games like Outlast and Alien: Isolation were pushing the survival genre toward a new direction, The Evil Within felt out of touch, and more than a little rough around the edges. With this in mind, I approached The Evil Within 2 with trepidation, but what followed was something of a shock. The good, non-scary kind of shock.
The Evil Within 2 takes place three years after the events of the first game. Returning protagonist Sebastian Castellanos receives a call from an agent of Mobius, the shady organization responsible for creating STEM, an alternate world created to unite and control the minds of the public. This agent informs Sebastian that his daughter Lily, whom he had believed to be dead, was in fact alive and being used to power a new version of STEM, but had recently gone missing inside the world and is in need of saving. Upon plugging into the machine, Matrix-style, Sebastian enters the world created in Lily’s mind to find that it has become twisted and overrun by all manner of maniacs and monsters. This central plot thread in The Evil Within 2 is interesting, but not terribly compelling. Like in the original, Sebastian is the perfect example of a gruff, middle-aged white guy with absolutely no depth or personality, causing any emotional impact derived from the search for his daughter to fall flat. Thankfully this time around there’s a lot going on outside of the core storyline, and it’s here that the game shines.
Speak for yourself, ominous sign
The Evil Within 2 is based predominantly in Union, the once-peaceful town inside STEM now turned into a nightmare landscape. It’s possible to bee-line through the game, moving from place to place in Union’s open world without stopping to explore its dark corners, but doing so would be missing out on some of the best moments the game has to offer. Every building in Union begs to be poked around in, and more often than not the reward for doing so is one of many unique, self-contained experiences that take more creative liberties than the rest of the game. Entering one house might see you promptly locked inside, and confronted with twisted hallucinations for a few minutes, while another building might contain a mysterious computer capable of transporting you to another place entirely for an optional side story. Early on, you’ll even encounter a ridiculous shooting gallery with a strangely entertaining colour-matching challenge. It’s all great stuff, and between these and the majority of the main missions in The Evil Within 2 there’s a sense of self-awareness and a boldly irreverent attitude towards the genre it occupies that make it far more compelling than it ought to be.
All of this is backed up by gameplay systems that completely shake up the foundations laid by the original. The move to a more open world format makes the game feel immediately more cohesive, despite still jumping around all manner of places inside the Matrix STEM. There’s an addictive hook to be found in scouring the environment for hidden items and crafting components, a necessary task in order to face the many evils lurking in Union and survive. Sebastian quickly amasses an arsenal of weapons similar to those in the first The Evil Within, and just as before he can upgrade both those and his own abilities using materials found in the environment or taken from downed enemies. The brilliant thing about the town of Union, is that despite not being a completely safe environment (baddies dot the landscape, minding their business until you get too close) it represents a familiar and weirdly comforting point of reference to return to after tackling the story’s big challenges.
Knees weak, arms are heavy
Coming off of one of the game’s brilliant and tense boss fights to spend some time pottering around and hunting for shiny things breaks up the pacing perfectly and makes The Evil Within 2 hard to put down. Aside from the aforementioned boss fights, none of which I’ll spoil but most of which are great, enemies consist of pretty standard don’t-call-them-zombie types, with the occasional really creepy Japanese body horror abomination to contend with. Most go down pretty easily, and Sebastian is quite capable in stealth, so they can’t be relied on for any real thrills, but a lot of the designs are great and the level of gore accompanied by a well-executed headshot makes them satisfying to take out. The only disappointment is that the standard baddies seem to show up inexplicably in a lot of the more abstract and artistically interesting segments, lessening their impact considerably. Zombies by any name will forever be en vogue in gaming it seems, but other modern horror games have shown that a deliberate rationing of combat sequences can have a profoundly positive effect on the overall atmosphere.
Visually, The Evil Within 2 is an absolute cut above the original. The Evil Within was a mess of bad art, bad lighting and horrendous technical performance that undermined the whole experience. This time around, things run smooth as butter and the developers have struck a fantastic balance between adopting more contemporary visual design and letting completely loose with their own imaginations. The environments are easy to read and do a great job of funnelling the player toward either the end goal or interesting diversions without signposting or handholding, and the variety in locales keeps things fresh throughout. Shinji Mikami is still the king of gore and body horror in gaming, and though his involvement in the sequel is lessened, no punches have been pulled in creating some truly disturbing and unsettling imagery. Audio design is equally competent and chilling, and bears all the hallmarks of a great horror game in both the unsettling ambience and the loud, crunchy gore. Voice acting leaves something to be desired, but is oddly fitting in a B-movie kind of way, given the inherent silliness in the game’s scenarios. It feels wrong to place too much importance on the presentation of a game like this, but the huge uplift in quality here has such a huge impact on playability that it’s one of the best arguments for detractors of the original to give the franchise another chance.
The before and after of a good jump scare
If the original The Evil Within was a middle finger to modern game design, then this sequel is an apology, and a quiet admission that perhaps some modern gaming tropes are actually worth paying attention to. The Evil Within 2 is a welcome change in direction and a surprisingly engaging sequel. In recognising its B-grade, tongue-in-cheek potential, Tango Gameworks have found the perfect niche for their franchise going forward. Just ditch Sebastian, maybe.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.