The Evil Within marked the return of famed Resident Evil director Shinji Mikami to the survival horror genre and while that game certainly had its flaws, the final product was unlike anything else on the market back in 2014. The advent of The Evil Within 2 proves that Bethesda and developer Tango Gameworks believes there’s more to be done with this IP and the story of Detective Sebastian Castellanos. More madness, monsters, ammo management and that specific brand of chilling horror was exactly what I signed up for, but is The Evil Within 2 more of the same or does it manage to eclipse its predecessor?
The Evil Within 2 is set three years after the events of the first game. Sebastian is slowly drinking himself to death, haunted by the trifecta of his ordeal at Beacon Mental Hospital, the disappearance of his wife and death of his daughter. He is approached by Juli Kidman, his former partner and employee of the mysterious corporation Mobius. Mobius has developed a new version of STEM, the Matrix-like construct that allows people to enter a virtual representation of a specific subject’s mind. In this case, it’s structured around a small American town called Union, which manages to evoke 1980s horror movies, Twin Peaks and Silent Hill all at once. Mobius have lost contact with their agents within this version of STEM and once again enlist Sebastian to investigate.
The story, dialogue and voice acting have all been immensely improved this time around. Everything just makes a lot more sense with the narrative having a logical progression and cohesion to it that the first game was not concerned with whatsoever. The main cast of voice actors has completely changed which admittedly was a little jarring at first but I soon got used to it, and I actually think each of them is an improvement. Barring a few scenes right at the end (which is unfortunate), the performances, facial animation and quality of writing are all more than serviceable. Some of the dialogue in the first game had that awkward Resident Evil/early Japanese PlayStation game vibe which is thankfully all but gone in the sequel.
After Mobius plug Sebastian back in to STEM, you’re quickly reintroduced to the games main mechanics. The Evil Within 2 is a third-person shooter with stealth elements and loot management is key. I chose to play on ‘Nightmare’ difficulty as that’s what the game suggested for those who enjoyed the challenge of the first game. It’s the hardest difficulty available on your first playthrough and it manages to almost perfectly maintain the tension of being constantly low on ammo and supplies without crossing over into the frustration of being unable to heal or attack anything. In the mid-to-late game there were a couple of instances where I had to get real creative, but other than that I was always adequately rewarded for combing every house, room and alleyway to find herbs or ammo.
The shooting itself feels better than ever, with the sound design complimenting each successful hit beautifully. When shot, the corrupted denizens of STEM explode in an extremely satisfying manner, with headshots causing grotesque white protrusions to come twitching out of their faces. The menagerie of terrors that this hellish virtual world throws at you is difficult to behold and describe. Those familiar with the likes of Resident Evil 4 and the original Evil Within will have some idea of what to expect, with the updated graphics making for some truly abhorrent creatures. One terrifying example of this is the ghostly wraith that sings a discordant tune as she hunts you, calling out Sebastian’s name as she gets closer. Another creature can only be described as a fleshy spider with an old school camera as a head. The vocal performances for all these horrors are sublime; entering a room to hear any number of grunts, growls, moans and shrieks was often enough to stop me dead in my tracks.
Fairly early on you’ll arrive at the town of Union, which plays host to the handful of significantly large, open areas in The Evil Within 2. Union is cleverly designed, managing to provide a sense of freedom without sacrificing any tension or that pervasive aura of dread that survival horror games are so good at conveying. The dynamic feeling of discovery is fantastic. Whether it’s some ammo, crafting materials, green gel (XP), a story moment or a unique encounter, there’s something to gain from delving into each nook and cranny of the town. Side missions are intertwined almost invisibly into the main mission and some sequences I honestly couldn’t tell if I needed to be doing them to progress the story or not. This was quite a surprise as so often in these games the side activities are mindless tasks like collecting a certain number of items or activating radio towers. In The Evil Within 2 everything I did felt equally important both to the story and character progression.
For example, at one point I heard a woman cry out for help. Following the sound, I found that she had hidden in a house and that several zombies were pounding on the door trying to get in. After dispatching the monsters there was a series of rapid footsteps and I heard the door unlock. Going into the house I found the woman, frantic and thankful, but otherwise unharmed. I was able to ask her a few questions about what the hell was happening as well as collect the supplies she had with her. Another instance saw me find a key on the corpse of a Mobius soldier. On my way back to the locked door I knew the key must fit, a hideous, giggling monster spewed forth from a pile of corpses, chasing me with its buzzsaw. After finally getting into the locked room, the singing wraith (pictured above) came after me, temporarily transporting me back to Beacon Mental Hospital. Even the most rote activities one would expect in an open-world game feel meaningful, surprising and fully integrated into the overarching narrative.
This same freedom can lead to some hiccups, especially when it comes to story progression. There were times where I would go into a building I wasn’t supposed to yet, then after 30 minutes of exploration and side missions I’d progress the main story and discover that I had to go right back to where I’d just been. It was never a deal breaker as the open environments aren’t enormous and don’t take all that long to traverse, but it did sort of upset the immersion. There was another time where I actually jumped ahead in the story due to an animation bug. Basically when Sebastian knelt down to loot something he shot up into the air and over a fence that I was supposed to be able to get past yet. I thought I may as well continue on and ended up completing objectives, seeing cutscenes and everything, that I wasn’t up to yet. Thankfully this didn’t break the game and I was able to go back and do the stuff that immediately preceded the part I’d skipped to. Sebastian flying over a fence was the most extreme example of this, but there were a number of other occasions where looting caused him to suddenly move five metres away, sometimes right in front of a zombie. It didn’t happen often enough to be a real problem, but it was annoying when it cropped up.
I was disappointed to discover that, late in the game, a particular part of Union was reused albeit visually altered and populated with some of the more difficult enemy types. It just wasn’t fun to revisit an area I’d already thoroughly explored, nor was it interesting to fight a series of enemies that had been bosses earlier in the game. A fair number of the later chapters felt uninspired aesthetically as well as mechanically. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was, right when the story seemed to be reaching its climax, they threw in some arbitrary ‘kill all the enemies to continue’ sections. Despite all this, it wasn’t enough to detract from some fantastic narrative payoffs, especially for fans of the first game.
One of the most pleasant surprises playing this game was the discovery that I actually liked the vast majority of the side characters. While exploring Union and its surrounds you’ll come across a number of friendly NPCs each and every one of them has a distinct arc which ties into the main story in a meaningful way. Don’t go in expecting Mass Effect 2 squadmates or anything, but considering the kind of game this is the fact that supporting characters left any kind of impression on me is remarkable. A tip for those of you who like to get the most out of a game’s lore: make sure you exhaust every single dialogue option with each of these NPCs. There are a lot of rather significant story details hidden away in these optional conversations and they can be somewhat easy to miss.
I only wish I felt as strongly about the game’s antagonists. I went back and forth on whether I liked Stefano, the dude sporting a side fringe featured in most of the game’s marketing. Walking into a room to find a body suspended in mid-air, blood spurting out the back of its head, constantly rewinding and repeating the victims final moments over and over again while classical music swells… Stefano calls these his artworks and they were always spine-tingling to behold. Unfortunately, Stefano loses a lot of his mystique when he starts talking. He’s very much the Sander Cohen from Bioshock type: a psychopathic artist determined to make his masterpiece by killing people in various horrific ways. Not only is this a familiar trope, Stefano just doesn’t really click with the rest of the game, thematically speaking. The Evil Within 2 is about family, betrayal, and survivors of trauma attempting to overcome their guilt. An edgy guy who wants to make artworks out of corpses really just clashes with the main thread of this narrative.
Despite some reused environments, buggy animations and a cliched villain, as the credits for The Evil Within 2 rolled and the melancholy song from the E3 reveal trailer played, I realised the game had had a significant emotional impact on me. I don’t just mean that the game was intense, scary or irritating, I had managed to form a strong attachment to the characters and their struggle to escape the unthinkable horrors of STEM. The Evil Within 2 manages to get a lot of things right, building and expanding upon what came before without losing what made the original so unique. It’s not often in this industry that a publisher allows for second chances, but in the case of The Evil Within 2 it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.
The Evil Within 2 was reviewed on PC with a Steam code provided by Bethesda.