At their rotten-yet-addictive core, the most panic-inducing of survival horror games are all about spaces. Encountering them, inhabiting them, exploring them, understanding them and overcoming them. Sure, on a stylistic level, they borrow a lot from the shock-and-awe and gore of the broader horror genre. However, the secret ingredient that often makes the survival horror experience so compelling is how well they capture and convey not just a sense of being in a place - but being trapped in one.
In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, that place is a castle. In Resident Evil, that place can be a mansion, a city or sleepy European hamlet. In Shinji Mikami’s latest foray into survival horror, The Evil Within 2, that place isn’t so much a place as it is a state of mind.
We spent an hour or so with the game at a recent preview event and came away with high hopes for the upcoming survival horror adventure, even if those hopes are a little tempered by the inherent instability and intangibility of the premise.
Set three years after the end of the first game, the series’ brooding-yet-fatherly protagonist Sebastian Castellanos teams up with sinister organization Mobius in order to rescue a daughter he thought dead. In order to do so, Sebastian must enter the rural town of Union - a nightmarish shared-consciousness experience created by Mobius’ mind-sharing technology (called STEM) run amok.
Writer Trent Haaga sums it up nicely, saying “STEM is like if Freddy Krueger made the Matrix.”
The first section of the game we played through saw us start off by quietly exploring, and then very rapidly running, through a series of spooky-looking but warehouses and gray corridors. One moment, we’d be in one environment. The next, we’d be somewhere else. The presence of a horrific-looking monster chasing ensured we kept moving forward. Eventually, Sebastian ended up being transported to one of the creepy, cluttered residences within the town of Union.
While it served as a reasonable introduction, this section didn’t do a whole lot for me. It felt very “Survival-Horror 101” - put the player in an scripted environment and use frightening sound effects, spooky visual cues, and horrific monster design to get them move in the right direction.
Thankfully, things opened up a little more once I actually made it to the rural town of Union itself. From here, I met up with another agent Mobius had sent into the simulation and restocked on supplies in one of the level’s safe-room. Then, it was up to me to explore the somewhat open-ended level and find clues about Lily’s whereabouts.
The game often helped to point me in the right direction using a frequency scanning item but mostly left you free to explore - and rewarded me for doing so. Some houses in Union held vital supplies or weapon parts (used to craft upgrades). Others acted as gateways to smaller, instanced, challenge levels that temporarily take Sebastian out of the main area. These were a little disorientating but they do suggest that the levels in The Evil Within 2 will have a lot more to discover in them than that of the first game - which was generally a little more linear.
Overall, there was enough going on here to keep me busy for the length of the session. Still, it was a little unclear whether or not the rest of The Evil Within 2 will be broken out into a series of wide-open gauntlets one-after-another or spaces connected via some sort of persistent hub-world. This structural detail might seem obscure. However, as mentioned before, satisfying survival horrror is about giving the player interesting spaces to navigate and it was hard to tell whether this was the tip of the iceberg or just one of several different icebergs, floating in a sea of monstrous viscera.
In a refreshing change, stealth is even an option here. You can run and gun it as in something akin to the more recent Resident Evil games, or, alternatively, you can tackle things with a more low-key approach. This flexibility to “play it your way”, really lets you make the experience your own and made the prospect of spending a dozen or so more hours in Sebastian’s shoes a lot more appealing. At least, to me.
Though I still have some reservations, The taste I got of The Evil Within 2 definitely had me hungry for more. That said, I do hope that the final product doesn’t lean too heavily on the conceit of its world an artificial one. One last time for the people in the back: good horror games are about exploring spaces - and while a little bit of instability within those spaces can go a long way, too much can easily spoil the magic.
The Evil Within 2 will be available on Playstation 4, PC and Xbox One from 13 October 2017.