To cut to the chase, The Evil Within 2 is a game that improves upon its predecessor to the point that it makes the original seem like a tech demo in retrospect. It does away with enclosed spaces and hospital hallways, and manages to provide a tense and exhilarating experience while turning every prior experience you have on its head. It does an amazing job of improving upon the survival horror genre, and while occasionally undergoing a few weird tonal shifts, the game never feels unsure of itself.
The story establishes itself rather quickly. The protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, is a rough detective that drowns his guilt in alcohol after losing his daughter in a house fire and his wife disappears without a trace. His old junior detective finds him, and reveals she’s working with a corporation called Mobius, and they need his help. They reveal that his daughter is alive, and they’re using her as a test subject (in this case, she’s referred to as a “Core,”) for their project called STEM. STEM is essentially like the Matrix; it’s a collective consciousness you plug your mind into, and Sebastian’s daughter is the one keeping the entire thing intact. Things have taken a turn for the worse though, and Sebastian’s tasked with going under, retrieving his daughter (as well as a few trapped Mobius members), and getting the hell out of dodge.
The game quickly establishes itself as an authentic horror title. Eerie sound design, monster encounters, and shifting environments make this not only terrifying, but visually ambitious. The tone shifts pretty heavily towards the second half though, doing away with the scare tactics and placing far more emphasis on being an action shooter. I wasn’t sure if the game stopped being scary, or if I just became accustomed to the constant surprises. While the narrative shift is there, the story consistently ramps up to an exciting finale, one that perfectly ends Sebastian’s story and leaves the series open to one more entry if they ever decide to continue.
Sebastian was extremely dull in the original game, lacking any sort of personality. This time around, he’s a way more fun character, mostly because he’s, well, over everyone’s crap. The story is pretty nonsensical at times, and Sebastian (as well as the supporting characters) often address it. Sebastian curses up a storm now, and sarcastically responds to characters when they introduce new plot points. Enter an underground hallway that allows you to shift dimensions and navigate through the unstable game world? “That doesn’t make any sense,” Sebastian says in one of the early chapters. The game manages to embrace its ridiculousness while still being confident in its own narrative that it’s hard not to become invested in Sebastian’s external, and internal, conflict.
The in-game world (in this case, a crumbling city called Union) is a far more open area to explore than the claustrophobic and linear hallways of the first. While the first game stuck you on a straight path to your destination, with occasional bosses sprinkled throughout, this sequel does away with that and provides you with side characters you can interact with, safe houses you can take refuge in, and a large open world to explore. Whereas ammo was an indispensable resource in the first game, The Evil Within 2 always provides you with enough, as long as you’re on the lookout for it. The world of Union is riddled with houses, facilities, garages, and backyards to explore, rewarding your curiosity with ammunition as well as parts for upgrading your weapons. There are some houses that provide you with files to collect, while you can even step inside churches and hotels for some surprising mini-boss battles. These are never essential to progressing through the story, but these constant surprises are a great way to encourage curiosity and exploration, as well as further develop the terrifying world of Union.
The safe houses I mentioned are usually where you meet important side characters. You’ll often meet up with a Mobius member, and you’ll have some time to drink some coffee that recovers your health, talk to them to find out more information about what’s going on, and sit at a workbench while you decide what components to invest into upgrading your weapons and crafting additional ammo. Safe houses also allow you to transport yourself through a mirror to a deeper safe place within your subconscious, simply referred to as your Room. This place provides you with a shooting range, a board you can constantly return to in order to find out more story information, and a slide projector you can cycle through in order to have Sebastian reveal more context about his past with his family, and Mobius. Most importantly though, the upgrade system from the first game is back, and accessible here. Green gel is an important in-game resource, one that can be located around Union as well as harvested from enemies. This is the currency that allows you to upgrade Sebastian’s character skills in 5 categories. You can increase your stamina and health gauges, make your melee attacks more powerful (or make you more resilient towards enemy grabs), or even make your footsteps quieter when you crouch behind enemies. Wisely choosing how your skill trees progress is an integral part of the game, one that will definitely determine how the rest of the game will go for you.
One key flaw, however, is the character control. This game caused me to ask myself early on if terrible character controls were an integral part of survival horror. I remember playing through Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5. I know that a really tight over-the-shoulder view, and limited movement can really amp up the tension and suspense in a horror game designed to overwhelm you. But The Evil Within 2 is so unrefined in how you control Sebastian that I could not distinguish whether it was intentional or not. The monsters, naturally, make very erratic movements. And while it shouldn’t be a problem given the nature of the game, it’s difficult not to get frustrated when you waste 6 bullets on an enemy that continues to erratically shift and turn its head, especially when it only takes one headshot to kill them. There are loads of enemies around Union, some scattered and some hanging out in large groups. I never understood how to separate enemies from those large groups. While you can throw bottles to separate a couple and sneak kill them, their unpredictable movements highly discourage stealth when taking on these groups, causing you to blow through a significant amount of ammo. Being overwhelmed by a swarm of enemies is even worse. Countless scenarios saw me attacked by two or more creatures, unable to escape because Sebastian’s character model constantly overlapped with the others. I was unable to turn left, right, and most unfortunately, turn around because that isn’t associated with a button press like it is in most other survival horror games. These situations saw enemies smack the hell out of me and spit acid onto my face until I died, and it’s unfortunate knowing there is no clean way to escape these situations.
Aside from that though, The Evil Within 2 is an exciting game, one that improves upon the original in providing a more consistent narrative and a welcome amount of player choice. You’re finally invested in Sebastian’s conflict, and the terrifying encounters lurking around every corner are an absolute, macabre treat. The Evil Within 2 is a game that is far more sure of itself, and it should be commended for it. In a world that is running out of survival horror games, it’s refreshing to see a game take the roots of the genre, water them, and grow them into something far more ambitious and fresh.