“Here we go again… into the looking glass…” bemoans Sebastian Castellanos as the former Krimson City detective approaches the familiar sight of a brightly glowing mirror. The Evil Within 2 carries an assortment of familiar traits through from its predecessor; the mysterious mirror that pulls Castellanos into the otherworldly town of Union, just one of many. Still, despite extracting strands of DNA from the original, the survival horror follow-up to Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami’s 2014 hellscape is a largely ambitious and gratifying sequel that remodels the format of a questionably underwhelming debut for a physically, mentally and emotionally sapping experience.
At the end of my 17-hour journey I felt as if I’d been in a bloody fistfight and lost, yet somehow still won… but only just. That’s a rather fitting overview of The Evil Within 2. Its story might not make complete sense or become entangled within itself more often than not, but when I eventually clawed my way out the other side to a stellar conclusion I knew I’d been through the ringer. I’d tangled with death more times than I care to recall, witnessed grotesque imagery that even as I write continues to stain my eyes, and watched on agonisingly as my body unwillingly became a plaything to the cast of unsightly abominations sprawled about the game’s setting.
The Evil Within 2: Xbox One [Reviewed], PS4, PC
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 13 October 2017
Price: £49.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Picking up the story several years on from the events of Beacon Mental Hospital we find Sebastian Castellanos. Now at rock bottom, the former KCPD detective and one of few survivors of Ruvik’s twisted psyche sits alone in a bar drowning his sorrows in a glass of sauce as the ex-cop struggles to come to terms with past events and the loss of his beloved family. When he receives an unexpected visit from former partner-turned-double agent Juli Kidman, Castellanos learns that his long-thought-dead daughter Lily is in fact, alive, but lost and in immediate danger. With Umbrella Corp-like organisation Mobius behind his daughter’s apparent staged death, subsequent kidnapping, and very much now pulling the strings of this depressed, alcoholic puppet, Castellanos is given little to no choice but to settle back into the worlds worst bathtub to re-enter STEM and rescue Lily from a fate worse than death.
If anything, previous experiences have left the well-worn protagonist stronger and better prepared for what lies ahead this time around. Though unsurprisingly he’ll continue to be manipulated by the ever-altering world that welcomes him, there is a nerveless grit and satisfying determination about the former-detective that we simply saw too little of in 2014. A largely unrelatable character who bore little to no redeemable qualities last time out, Castellanos is more clued up and full of emotion at the second time of asking; starkly refusing to let anyone or anything stand in his way as he embarks on a personal crusade to save Lily from STEM and from under the control of Mobius. The raw set of emotions ebbing throughout the veins of the unenviable protagonist elevates the previously mundane character to refreshingly new heights as he battles against residual memories and personal demons in a bid to recover his one and only child.
The Evil Within 2 retains many of the qualities that made the original a divine if not slightly disappointing experience but it expertly balances out the claustrophobically linear chapters of Beacon Mental Hospital with a semi-open world full of generously spacious areas and delightfully designed set pieces that intermingle to play out like a collection of horror’s greatest hits.
An experiment gone horribly awry, as experiments so often do when a villainous corporation meddles in things it really ought not to, the unstable dream-like American town of Union plays centre stage to the connected minds of other STEM users unfortunate enough to find themselves a test subject in Mobius’s heinous plan to unite all of mankind under one immorally fucked up utopian roof. An absorbing mini sandbox of horrors, Union is a world away from that of The Evil Within, but it remains eerily familiar both visually and tonally.
Arguably its greatest asset, the atmospherically inviting town of Union is also The Evil Within 2‘s grandest departure from an original that routinely thrust the player into tight frightfully uncompromising situations, with little wiggle room to tactically outmanoeuvre enemies, pause to catch a breath or compose oneself before being tossed back under the blood-splattered bus again. Here, open exploratory spaces mix intermittently with the constricted linear sequences of old to fantastic effect, the end result: an exceptionally well-paced and drawn out horror romp that lends itself to a variety of gameplay styles and approaches not before explored in the series.
Union or “Any town, USA”, as Castellanos so brazenly puts it, is anything but that. Bending to the will of two psychopaths who both want Lily for complete control over Union, this quintessential American town complete with picket fences, flashing neon signs and a typically styled diner decked out with old-school jukebox is a fractured mess and on the verge of collapsing in on itself, but there is something special about its origin that captivates.
Rather than being continuously prodded forward in one linear direction to the conclusion of the game, the muddled mess of a town opens its doors to exploration, and it’s incredibly liberating. Though the latter stages restrict movement somewhat, The Evil Within 2‘s opening hours allow the player to probe the outer reaches of Union at their own pace as Castellanos frequents town halls, untended family homes, auto shops, and leaves his dignity behind to rummage through garbage cans for any survivalist items of value.
With a medley of RPG tropes a pleasing aspect and part of its makeup, The Evil Within 2 feels more adjacent to other titles under the Bethesda umbrella than Mikami’s sobering predecessor. The introduction of wider exploration brings other avenues into play such as interesting NPC’s, residual memories and side-objectives which Castellanos can track freely using a rather helpful communicator device. More than just story filler to pad out the main narrative; tailing an intriguing lead to its conclusion has an unquenchable draw and air of palpable tension to it as you investigate a typically American-themed diner only to trigger the appearance of a ghostly apparition that flows through concrete walls and closed doors to hunt down the player in a chilling game of cat and mouse.
Despite a newfound freedom and more space to breathe, the spaces of Union are certainly no safe haven. Not congesting or overcrowding the town with a populace of mutated creations is further evidence of Tango’s mindful attention to pacing. Thining out the herd and creating a myriad of pathways for players to traverse makes confrontation easier to negate but is by no means a brisk walk in the park. With a variety of weapons on hand, locating ingredients and the ability to fashion your own ammo on the fly or at crafting tables is often key to survival. From survival difficulty upwards, players are forced to forage Union to gather up supplies to better defend against any would-be attacker – a residing theme of The Evil Within, or make their way about the twisted landscape cautiously.
Using stealth to sneak up on a group of enemies to pick each one off using sneak kill feels more purposeful than the original but requires a level of patience and a readiness to accept each enemy’s unpredictable nature as their heads twitch suddenly back and forth as you look to pick the right moment to plunge your blade into their body, the uncertainty that comes from each sneak kill further adds to the suspense. A well-used mechanic of The Evil Within, stealth is made better here by the inclusion of a cover based system that affords players the luxury of planning out their next move using cover, but it doesn’t always stick the landing as it should, leaving for some tense moments as you scurry to get back into cover or crouch behind objects praying nothing spotted you.
With ammo again a rare offering, evading direct confrontation with the ensemble of horrors sprawled about Union is manageable using stealthy movement to sneak through the inner and outer workings of Union, but even the simplest of gameplay mechanics can fail you at the worst possible time. Enemies are more alert to Sebastian’s presence and disturbing one forces the protagonist to retreat back to safety before re-evaluating his next move or opting to take an entirely different route. With bullets in hand though, there is no greater feeling than emptying the chamber of a shotgun into the cranium of an alerted enemy only to watch on as it shambles about without a head before finally hitting the floor. Shooting like stealth can be a touch finicky on occasion but feels far sharper and punchier than its predecessor. Though it doesn’t quite match other popular shooter-based titles for excitement in the combat stakes, there’s a real kick and satisfying feeling to pulling that trigger that you just don’t get from a sneak kill.
Enemies continue to be as creative and detestable as ever – a collection of meandering, disfigured creations looking to bring Sebastian’s crusade to a screeching halt with every failed stealth move or combative mistake. As a direct result of my own failings, I’ve had acid puked directly onto my face – melting the skin off like goo, been repeatedly stabbed by an erratic woman in white brandishing a sharp kitchen knife and set ablaze as I stalked a human torch-like enemy who lights up as a form of protection. The Evil Within 2‘s rogue’s gallery of monstrosities are every bit as spine-chilling in appearance as you’d expect from the series and are a constant threat throughout, but its the game’s big boss encounters that ultimately reign supreme.
Inside the first hour, The Evil Within 2 shatters the silence as a large multiheaded abomination crashes through a mirror to trigger an intense chase scene that will have Castellanos scuttling away and hurdling objects to avoid being torn to shreds by a vicious buzzsaw attached to one of the abomination’s arms. Later, the ex-detective will be forced to survive the attention of a bizarre looking predator with a camera for a head, long enough for a ticking clock to countdown. It’s not that The Evil Within‘s big boss fights weren’t interesting or intense affairs, but more often than not they proved to be largely unfair encounters against a far greater enemy with little direction given to the player on how to damage and ultimately take each down. Here, the boss fights don’t appear as frequently but when they do, they are impressively big events that give you more of a clue on how to handle them, making each fight as exciting and pulsating as the last.
Greater than the sum of its parts, The Evil Within 2 is a masterful horror game that pays poetic homage to some of the genre’s greatest hits while doing enough to craft its own identity. Though its script falters more often than not; the wide-open areas, enjoyable exploration, visual and audio delights and exciting boss fights make this sequel a surprisingly refreshing and frightful experience that not only betters its predecessor in most areas but revels in allowing the player enough time to settle after a fright before yanking the rug right out from beneath their feet to take them to a new macabre locale.