The Evil Within 2 is a great improvement from its predecessor. The production values have been given decent polish, with some impressive visuals and audio design to show for it. The gameplay actually feels like something living up to its pedigree. There is an actual coherent plot from start to finish. And there’s a greater sense of discipline running throughout the entire production.
But I am still not entirely convinced the game is a true return to form for the talent involved. Despite all of the gloss and polish of a more confident production, the game never fully struck a chord with me due to a bunch of small problems that continued to add up.
Father and Daughter
You once again fill the shoes of detective Sebastian Castellanos. After drinking himself into a hole trying to forget the events of the first game, he is captured by the world-controlling secret society
the Illuminati Mobius. They then reveal that his daughter, believed to have died in a tragic fire, is actually alive and well. The twist is she has been plugged into STEM, a sort of alternative linked mindscape (think The Matrix) with her innocent mind used to power it. But something has gone horribly wrong inside the program, causing the digital slice of urban Americana called Union to slowly crumble to dust, so Sebastian is given a simple task: enter the crumbling world of STEM and rescue his daughter with their freedom as a reward.
And it leads to one of the bigger problems I have with the story. The first Evil Within had no real story until the final two hours or so; a nakedly obvious vehicle for various unconnected encounters and set pieces and horrific imagery. While the sequel doesn’t hit “Inception meets Hellraiser” levels of overwrought obfuscation and gratuitous gore, it does have one of the most trite and played-out motivations for a video game hero. In this case, a washed-up father rescuing his child while also overcoming personal demons. Sebastian was practically a caricature before, a generic grizzled police detective that got in way over his head, but his goal here feels as rote as a Hallmark Channel original movie… with more flesh-eating maniacs and flamethrower-wielding zealots.
This is evened out by the entire game’s presentation leaning in to a campier tone. While Shinji Mikami didn’t direct this installment, the duty falling to John Johanas this time around, the beats and ideas feel remixed almost completely wholesale from an older Resident Evil game. An evil organization with a silly plan for world domination, a squad of specially trained soldiers entering a dangerous location and getting picked off one by one, horribly unethical experimentation that backfires, scenery-chewing baddies, the list goes on. It also helps forgive Sebastian’s tendency to say “what the?” at every single unusual happening around him despite this not being his first adventure into the unknown.
Welcome to Union
Gameplay wise, The Evil Within 2 is mostly unchanged from the original: a standard assortment of third-person shooting with ammo precious and scarce, a stealth system where it is possible to distract and sidestep challenges that are not worth the ammo wasted, and a reliable customization and crafting element where you use scrap to upgrade your weapons, craft items, and improve skills using green gel dropped from defeated foes.
Thankfully the upgrade system is more robust this time around. Weapon upgrades are crucial to keeping a leg up on the horrors in STEM, and the scrap needed to get a little extra punch out of a pistol or more stopping power in a shotgun hits just the right mix of scarcity. There are also full-blown skill trees for Sebastian’s skills, allowing for a personal touch. As well as improving health and running speed, there is now a stealth skill tree, making it feel less like a mandatory feature and more like a legitimate way to play.
But what is particularly interesting in the game’s first half is that it fools around with open-world elements. The town of Union is mostly yours to explore, full of optional collectibles, side missions, and roaming enemies ready to rip you to shreds around every corner. It actually helps ground the experience in some level of normalcy, that at one point this was supposed to be a peaceful inviting world.
Which is good because the major encounters and set pieces of The Evil Within 2 are creatively outlandish and horrific. A section at City Hall can quickly escalate into an MC Escher-esque escape sequence from a giant floating camera lens. A journey through an abandoned idyllic town becomes a series of claustrophobic corridors full of insatiable horrors. Even one of the weaker boss fights in the game against the psychotic serial killer Stefano Valentini becomes gradually more exaggerated with teleportation and deadly close-quarters knife attacks.
But one of the more subtle changes to how these encounters go are how they are introduced to the player. The first game had a terrible habit of teasing major monster encounters but not telegraphing whether or not the player should stand and fight or run away, leading more to frustration than terror and foreboding. The sequel on the other hand makes such encounters more transparent with details like weapons not affecting the monster at all or just having Sebastian be unarmed. These sections don’t happen a lot in the game, but they are paced just enough to not turn every major encounter into a rain of hot lead.
While other horror games have used similar ideas and motifs before: inconsistent geography, shambling monsters, colorful villains and all, the game actually does a decent job of balancing and presenting it in novel and interesting ways. It may feel like a Greatest Hits album of horror game clichés and tropes, taking elements from as far back as the original three Silent Hill games to as recent as The Last of Us, but the presentation of these vignettes are quite a sight to behold.
Floundering in Flame
But while the major encounters and ideas in The Evil Within 2 work in concept, there are some baffling problems under the skin. The controls don’t always feel responsive, and the gunplay can get very wonky. More times than I could count, I would fire my pistol at a crucial weakpoint, the crosshairs dead on and distance point blank, only to have the shot inexplicably miss. This was after pumping a lot of points into control and accuracy.
It got to the point where I didn’t bother with any long range weapons, keeping to the shotgun and dumping my skills into physical attacks and stealth, instantly killing zombies from cover and using the environment where I could.
Also while the first half of the game is a slow boil into madness punctuated by intense skirmishes and unexpected frights, things become a lot more predictable and rote in the second half. The hub world of Union is thrown out in favor of a more linear experience. This would be fine except the entire game’s tone becomes more about upfront action. Sebastian gets a bunch of NPC partners with seemingly unlimited ammo, weapons like assault rifles and sniper rifles get introduced almost immediately, and the entire hook the back half of the experience rests its coat on is all about Sebastian’s guilt.
This is where the writing takes a serious dip in quality from what would have been passable for a cheesy B-Movie to low-grade direct-to-DVD bargain bin material. Redundant lines of dialogue are uttered about self-forgiveness and accidents, a character shows up in a completely different location with the closest thing to an explanation being a weak hand-wave, and there’s one final antagonist near the very end of the game that feels like it was pulled out of nowhere to raise the stakes.
The level design even gives the impression that it’s sprinting to the credits with levels becoming more like gauntlets against waves of enemies compared to the moodier, uncertain first half’s sections.
As much as I have a lot to complain about, I also can not fully condemn The Evil Within 2. While the overall story feels like two different games operating at different speeds, the gameplay and level design remain reliable and doesn’t miss a beat in the transition. Despite some contrived plot points and a few deviations that went nowhere, I don’t regret the twelve hours I spent playing the game. It’s an experience that sells itself more on ideas and themes more than coherence or structure, and thanks to more focused gameplay systems it mostly holds together. It’s also a modern AAA game with a New Game Plus mode, which is always welcome.
If you thoroughly enjoyed the first Evil Within, chances are you’ve already picked up this sequel. However, if you’re like me and found the original to be a lot of bark with no bite, this installment is worth the ride. Just be ready for some cringe-inducing dialogue and some tonal whiplash along the way.