The Evil Within 2 Review
Survival Horror is always a fascinating genre to write about because it’s just so rare that we get games of this ilk. Pioneered by Alone in the Dark and later Resident Evil, entries in this field have never quite penetrated the mainstream market, and for good reason: Creeping through abandoned hallways to collect handgun bullets and plant-based remedies just isn’t immediately appealing in the same way military sims and historical action adventures are. That’s absolutely okay, though, because it only means that the occasional true survival horror title is a genuine gem in the rough. There are fewer experiences more thrilling, immersive, and yes, stressful, than navigating the terrifying confines of The Baker House, Ishimura Spaceship, or the Silent Hill town. And so I was delighted to finally play The Evil Within 2, a brainchild of genre legend Shinji Mikami, whose work on the Resident Evil series remains a constant source of inspiration for the entire industry. But before the discussion can really begin, it’s important to set the context of the original Evil Within.
Released on October 14 by Mikami’s newly-founded studio Tango Gameworks, The Evil Within promised to capture the magic of arguably the best action horror game of all time, Resident Evil 4. Despite being highly anticipated by fans of the genre, it was met with a lukewarm reception from both critics and players, much of the disappointment stemming from its nature as a brutally uncompromising combat gauntlet. But I personally found it to be an endlessly engaging, if somewhat rough experience, once I approached the game on it’s own terms. The plot follows detective Sebastian Castellanos as he investigates a homicide case at Beacon mental hospital, only to be whisked into a nightmare dimension and forced to fight for his life at the expense of horrifying monsters via STEM technology.
The Evil Within is a violent, muddy, sickening experience that turns hopeful horror enthusiasts into hardened veterans over the course of fifteen straining hours. The overwhelmingly dark tone is reminiscent of Saw and Manhunt in a way that turned away many players, which is a legitimate reaction to a game that feels like it could cause heart palpitations after extended play. The structure differs from classic Resident Evil, prioritizing a linear campaign path over metroidvania-esque locations like the Spencer mansion. The lessened focus on exploration only intensifies the already tense survival-horror combat characterized by crunchy gunplay and unforgiving opponents. Resource management is the primary concern of most fights, an aspect that couldn’t have been quite so crucial in an easier game. Utilizing stealth, environmental hazards, and ensuring that every shot counts are absolutely essential to success, although the laser-precision of the combat is somewhat let down by a completely irrelevant narrative that ends up being Evil Within’s greatest downfall. Sebastian is a frustratingly blank-slated protagonist who never seems to understand the gravity of his own situation, and the cast of supporting characters don’t fare much better. Too many cutscenes and un-requested explanations of history and technology bog down what should be a non-stop horror thrill ride. But I at least appreciated that the dull story remained trapped in cutscenes, and the core gameplay was rarely affected much.
Right off the bat, The Evil Within 2 makes the mistake of being a direct story sequel that once again follows Sebastian on an adventure in a STEM alternate reality. The benefit of all that world-building in the original could have easily been used to lay a foundation in the same mythos, but it’s clear that the team at Tango values their characters more than they should. These returning faces are one of few similarities between titles, though, as The Evil Within 2 is an entirely different experience. Whereas 1 sent the player down a deliberate action path riddled with monsters and bullets, the sequel has an increased focus on cinematic presentation, tense horror moments, and open exploration. It creates an experience that, while generally entertaining, doesn’t capture the same bloody magic as it’s progenitor.
The Evil Within 2 catches back up with Sebastian years after the Beacon incident, as he is once again pulled into STEM, this time to save his missing daughter from the nefarious Mobius corporation. But the nightmare is different now, with the grimy hallways and chainsaw maniacs of Beacon replaced by a lush semi-open slice of Americana in the form of the small town Union. Even though it was a different thing, I really enjoyed the first few hours of the campaign. It was moody and dripping in atmospheric elegance, a Hannibal-like sensibility that couldn’t be further removed from the savage aesthetic of Beacon. Sebastian is dumb as ever and the setup for why he enters STEM feels contrived at best, but at least he has personal motivation for succeeding this time around. And the game sets up an excellent villain in the form of Stefano, a crazed artist who makes statues from the flesh of his victims.
After the first hour or so, the player is let loose in the wet streets of Union, with several blocks of open town to explore at their leisure. The environments look stunning in 4k and I particularly enjoyed the realistic lighting, but it’s a shame that the new visual identity doesn’t quite work with the monsters that Sebastian faces. The common zombie enemies just look horrible — and not in a good way. They’re boring, muddy, un-detailed disappointments that pale in comparison to both the more realistic designs found in the recent Resident Evil remakes as well as the minimalist look from the Left 4 Dead series. This alone kills much of the energy during violent encounters, so it’s nice that combat at least feels decent to play. Sebastian has a satisfying weight and inertia to his movements, which can largely be chalked up to realistic animations. Looking down sights is properly challenging with no aim assist, and while the player doesn’t completely freeze like in Resident Evil 4, movement is greatly slowed. The default difficulty option is noticeably easier than that of Evil Within 1, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Combat is no longer the sole course being offered and it would be frustrating for punishing fights to block the player’s progress. But even with more forgiving gameplay, I really appreciated that Evil Within 2 avoids the cardinal sin of survival horror games by confronting the player with a small number of powerful opponents instead of hordes of docile flies.
This made my first foray into Union a very tense one, as I crawled around corners and behind parked cars to avoid the dangerous populace while searching for ammunition and crafting materials. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the game peaks within the first four hours. This is right when the world and its inhabitants feel the most threatening and mysterious to the player. Each head-on fight promises a swift death to the un-prepared, and supplies are still scarce, forcing frantic creativity at every turn.
Even supply management is engaging, as the player must choose between field crafting (which increases the material needed) or waiting for a workbench. The only place Evil Within 2 falters this early on is the stealth. The game is balanced in such a way that Tango obviously expects the player to sneak around opponents at the beginning of every encounter, only using outright assaults when necessary. But the stealth is so goddamn busted that I could barely make use of it as a viable option. The prompt for assassinating enemies is strangely difficult to initiate, even when I’m directly behind them, and this is only exacerbated by the zombie’s erratic movement cycles. And the only tool for more than half of the campaign are glass bottles that are supposedly meant to distract the artificial intelligence, but I could rarely get them to work. The only admirable aspect of the entire system is how it fluidly communicates with combat — the player can re-enter stealth at any point in a battle, which can be extremely useful for crafting supplies or taking a breather. I’m generally not one to advocate against innovation in gaming, but maybe there’s a reason that other classic survival horror franchises veer away from stealth.
As Sebastian continues his journey through the quaint streets of Union, it becomes clear that The Evil Within 2 falls prey to a common trap: unneeded meta progression. Every enemy killed provides Sebastian with valuable green gel (after an equally un-necessary animation) that can be used in his room to obtain skills with the help of nurse Tatiana. And while the nurse and torture chair are aesthetically cool, the skills themselves are completely arbitrary. Unlike the first game, which really pushed the player to their limits, this one just isn’t hard enough to warrant a constant need for upgrades, especially when they hold so little meaning. Each skill grants the player a simple improvement for their health, stamina, recovery, stealth, or gun handling. Not one is interesting or meaningful for gameplay, with the exception of a single skill that allows the player to escape a throttle by breaking a bottle on the enemy’s head. Similarly, the guns don’t each need a dozen upgrades. No upgrade is especially creative, with increased damage and reload speed being the only major improvements. I understand that Tango needed to create rewards that could be scattered across the map as incentive for exploration, but they could have done better than this. It’s not a terrible system by any means, but it also just does not need to be there. Elegance should be a constant goal when designing almost any game, and cutting down on bloat such as this streamlines the experience.
There are only a few boss fights in The Evil Within 2, and although they’re each reasonably fun, nobody approaches the blood-curdling heights of Laura and the Keeper from the first game. I think it’s quite telling that that the most memorable encounters were literally repeated memories from Beacon. Still, running senseless from a camera obscura that had been fused to ballerina legs was an exhilarating crescendo of both horror and action, and a high point in the adventure. I also treasured the unique mechanics of each boss enemy that allowed them to further stand apart from one another in my mind. But even fun boss fights couldn’t save the slow and tragic death of the campaign’s pacing and story. Stefano is so charismatic as an antihero that I naturally assumed he would carry the game to its conclusion. Not so. Rather, he is promptly eliminated within the first six hours, leaving the back half of the campaign in the underdeveloped hands of Father Theodore. Theodore is unquestionably less interesting and far less threatening as an opponent, owing much to his abrupt appearance in the story whose explanation for existence is too paper-thin to not be questioned.
I initially appreciated the change, as it brought along an entirely new environment to explore that aligned slightly more with classic horror tropes. But what I hoped to be a substantial shift in atmosphere ended up as a quick breather level before hopping immediately back into Union. The lack of environmental variety is helped somewhat by the Marrow, a series of industrial tunnels that Sebastian often enters between crucial moments. While not having the most interesting aesthetic, they offer a similar respite from the constant picket fences and decrepit one-story homes. But the worst part of Stefano leaving is that he seemed to take all the atmosphere out of the room with him. The first few half of The Evil Within 2 is genuinely creepy; grotesqueries paint the hallways in a grim light as dreadful creatures dance just out of the player’s view. I was constantly tense, ready for anything. Theodore ruins this in one fell swoop by just being too damn boring. His lackeys are visually stupid and lack any of the severity earned by Stefano’s antics. The story only increases in melodramatic nonsense as it progresses, destroying any possibility of redemption. None of this is helped by the stiff voice performances from almost every character (besides Stefano of course) and equally lame dialogue.
The Evil Within 2 is a strange thing to analyze. Would I recommend it for play? Absolutely. The combat, exploration, and item management are top-notch, especially when there’s so few games providing this specific type of engagement. But I wouldn’t blame a soul for abandoning Sebastian’s tale halfway through. The story is not remotely compelling, the characters hard to root for, and any sense of atmosphere is torn from the throat long before completion. I realize that The Evil Within was a far from perfect title, I really do. But it still managed to hook from beginning to end due to a singular terrifying action vision. The sequel just feels heartless in comparison.