A follow-up to the game that further cemented Japanese designer Shinji Mikami’s legacy as a maestro of the survival horror genre, The Evil Within 2 sees players jump back into the shoes of ex-detective Sebastian Castellanos. Set some time after the events of the first game, Sebastian is abducted by the shadowy cabal known as Mobius and forced to enter another virtual-reality experiment run amok.
While this setup might sound familiar, The Evil Within 2 isn’t just a retread of the first game's premise. After all, it wouldn’t be a proper horror sequel if the stakes weren’t raised. This time around, Sebastian isn’t just there to survive (and/or make sense of) the ordeal. He’s there to rescue Lily Castellanos, the daughter he thought lost to a fire several years earlier.
Little time is wasted during the game’s opening sequence, with Lily’s obvious importance to Sebastian and her more-nefarious importance to Mobius. She’s the “Core” of their latest STEM-powered mindsharing experience - and they’ve lost contact with both her and their agents inside the simulation. Things have gone dark, and they’ve turned to the only person who has been able to make it out of such a crisis before.
Once More With Feeling
There’s an easy comparison to be made here when describing this game and its predecessor in Dead Space. The first Dead Space served as a solid introduction of what the franchise was about. It set the stage. Then, the second game built on that by not just raising the stakes but flipping the premise on its head. The Evil Within 2 finds itself undergoing a similar evolution.
Sebastian is no longer the scared outsider fighting against the odds. He’s a veteran who knows exactly how to handle whatever crazy-weird nightmare fuel that STEM (Mobius’ mindsharing, virtual reality technology) throws at him. Again much like Dead Space 2 (and the later Resident Evil games), this gives The Evil Within 2 a vibe and rhythm that’s sometimes more action-horror than survival-horror.
The voice acting for Sebastian reflects that shift. Never does he really sound too surprised by the nightmarish and surreal monsters STEM throws at him. It’s just another day for Sebastian Castellanos - AAA gaming’s latest gruff, tortured “dadtagonist” - and if that day is filled with grotesque, twisted creatures and deranged photographers, so be it.
The aesthetic shift from the first game’s mental asylum to spooky rural town in The Evil Within 2 gives the game a slightly different tone. However, any significant “sense of place” here is undercut and overshadowed by the inherent video-gameness of the game’s structure. A definite improvement over that of the first, the Evil Within 2’s level design stops just short of a true metamorphosis.
Rather than repeat the corridors-and-chapters approach of the first game in the series, developer Tango Gameworks flirt with open-world and hub-based level design. Unfortunately, they don’t quite develop this aspect as much as they could (and probably should) have. It’s more of a gimmick than a game-changer for the series.
What’s disappointing is that, during the early sections of the game, the sprawling levels do a great job of pulling you into the game’s world. Honestly, they were probably the highlight of the game for me. Abandoned houses are cluttered with details and, on occasion, small sub-plots and micro-missions. With items like ammunition and medkits initially scarce, it feels like the game really effectively encouraged me to explore.
There’s a similar sort of openness to the game’s combat. As well as having a suite of different weapons at his disposal, stealth is also an option. Cautious players can distract enemies by throwing objects and then take them by surprise, eliminating them in a single, silent attack. Thankfully, the game doesn’t lean too heavily on this aspect of things too often. It’s always there as a potential - and entirely valid - playstyle you can fall back on if needed but rarely one you’re forced to adopt.
It helps that the game’s upgrade system is so robust.Your weapons can be upgraded using the game’s crafting system while Sebastian’s own attributes can be buffered using the green gel you gather from defeated enemies. There’s far too many upgrades for you to fill out the tree’s branches in a single playthrough but each upgrade is noteworthy enough that you’ll feel the difference.
This quality makes the early sections of The Evil Within 2 quite unique among horror games in that, as horrific and uncomfortable as the setting might be, it’s one that you want to spend more time in rather than less. This is a horror game with side-quests, and - most of the time - I found myself wanting to complete them. Unfortunately, I often found myself accidentally locking myself out of half-completed side-quests by advancing the story.
Likewise, the promise of open-ended levels and a more viable-stealth system frittered themselves away during the second-half of the game. The Evil Within 2’s later large-scale levels fail to surpass or even match the density of the first. Worse still, and they all but disappear towards the game’s end. By then, it feels like the game just becomes a never-ending-retread of The Marrows - the system of maintenance tunnels that connect the different areas of Mobius’ simulation.
State of Mind
Beyond its opening salvo of the grotesque, The Evil Within 2’s enemy variety also falls short - and the game fails to give each enemy much of an identity. There are the regular zombies, knife-wielding zombies, fire zombies, bloated zombies, two-headed zombies. Aside from the last two, all of these function pretty much the same - which means that the shock value of each wears thin faster than the last. You’re not really given any tools to dodge incoming attacks, so with each foe it really is just a race against time to pick them off before you’re overwhelmed.
The milky-white monsters teased in the trailers and promo art for the game spice things up at least a little bit. However, not nearly enough as is needed. Overall, they end up being far too infrequent to leave much an impression.
As we touched on back in our hands-on preview of The Evil Within 2, the most panic-inducing of survival horror games are all about spaces. Encountering them, inhabiting them, exploring them, understanding what makes them tick and overcoming the challenges within them. However, the secret ingredient that often makes-or-breaks a survival horror experience isn’t just how well is conveys the sense of being in a place but that sense of being trapped in one.
The Evil Within 2 has a lot to say on this front. The narrative’s conceit of being set within a virtual world gives it a unique opportunity and impetus to interrogate this idea: if something isn’t real, does it still matter? This question manifests both in the game’s central emotional arc (Sebastian’s struggle to overcome to the trauma of losing his daughter) and the broader metaphors of STEM and horror genre as a whole. After all, aren’t all games just virtual worlds we enter in order to fake experiences?
Much like it’s mechanics, I can’t help but wish the game had taken things just one or two steps further here. The Evil Within 2 takes its potentially subversive setting and tells what ultimately shakes out to be a pretty conventional father-finds-redemption story out of it. Sure, there’s a twist. Sure, there’s some unexpected turns and complications. However, the game never really gets under your skin and surprises you (though there was a moment in the final level where I practically jumped out my seat in excitement). It’s always plays things pretty by-the-numbers.
The Evil Within 2 isn’t just a retread of the first game. Nor is it a revolution. It’s a steady improvement and a solid horror romp that fans of the genre (and the first game especially) will enjoy. Unfortunately, an inability or refusal to take things just a few steps further holds back the game - both on a narrative and mechanical level - from reaching the heights it could have.
Sebastian Castellanos’ latest adventure might shake you up in the moment, but it’s unlikely to keep you up at night.