REVIEW: The Evil Within 2 (XBO) – The New Standard

2014’s The Evil Within released to overall excellent reception, easily one of the best-received AAA horror titles since Resident Evil 4. This didn’t come as a surprise to many, given they share the same director, Shinji Mikami, the man behind Resident Evil and often dubbed the father of survival horror as a genre. This brand-new title ticked all of the hallmark survival-horror boxes, offering a tense and terrifying world full of gruesome and disturbing creatures, whilst challenging players with an array of puzzles and very few resources to survive on. Of course, it had to create a whole new story that justified the above without becoming a Resident Evil clone zombie romp, and this is where it tripped up. The game’s story was beyond cryptic, with the landscape constantly changing, very little character development, and even less resolution and explanation by the time the credits rolled.

Enter The Evil Within 2, a sequel that has clearly tried to correct the mistakes of its far less ambitious predecessor, whilst injecting new ideas into the genre. Set three years after the events of The Evil Within, returning protagonist Sebastian Castellanos is again thrust into the nightmare of STEM, a hive-mind network world that has inevitably gone awry, now populated with mutated civilians and even more chilling creatures. Having been told that his daughter, who he believed to have died in a house fire, was in-fact kidnapped and is now trapped inside STEM, Sebastian enters the network to find and rescue her. A little bit cliché, but a far less convoluted story hook than the first game, something fans new and old should be grateful for.

As expected, all is far from fine in STEM. Right from the get-go, the game sees Sebastian exploring a creepy art gallery featuring displays of grotesque murders-in-progress reminiscent of the visual styles of the Hannibal TV adaptation. This somewhat linear segment is a fantastic introduction to the first major antagonist in this world, a psychopathic photographer with an eye for death with whom players will become very familiar as they proceed to the town of Union.

Union is a simulated reality within STEM, a town built by shady super-organisation Mobius, designed to test and grow the network for as-yet unknown reasons. The town itself has taken on an entire character of its own with an excellent sense of presence in the game. Neon signs highlighting bars, shops and other establishments, vehicles parked on street corners and files telling the living breathing story of Union create a sense of genuine normality that is juxtaposed with the sounds of tortured groans and shambling bodies – the end result is a truly discomforting environment to explore that both charms and disturbs you in one.

Speaking of the environment, perhaps the biggest change in The Evil Within 2 comes from the shift towards a more open-world experience. Looking to switch up gameplay in an inventive way, Tango opted for a semi-open world setting where Union has enough locations and real estate to encourage and facilitate exploration, but a clear limit to the area you’re in, pushing the player forward toward the next chapter in the story.

For the most part, this carefully curated pacing is absolutely spot-on. Aside from an initially jarring transitional period where I had to retrain my brain to play this game how it is meant to be played, and not the heavily linear format of most horror titles (including its predecessor), The Evil Within 2 held my interest throughout, with just enough to do in each area whilst offering enough indicators and motivation for me to move forward when needed.

Perhaps my favourite element of the game’s pacing is the multilayered story arcs that stack upon each other, each layer just far enough out of sight that you only notice its presence when the impact would be greatest. On the surface, this story appears to be your typical “rescue the girl, kill the villain” cliché, but the tension always manages to rise further. Just as you feel like you’ve reached the “big bad”, the stakes couldn’t be higher and you have the villain right where you want them, a new rug is pulled out fro under you and the next layer emerges.

On the flipside, I do have a single gripe on this topic, and sadly it ties into the plot depth I just praised – the characters themselves. Whilst The Evil Within 2 purports to be a more character-driven story, and for the most part it succeeds, the majority of the characters fail to become any more memorable than “Generic Mobius Agent #26”. Considering the multitude of agents that end up killed, often in gruesome and *ahem* artistic ways, very few manage to have an emotional impact on Sebastian or indeed the player. This is a shame as the shocking “body horror” visual style would have paid off to no end if valued allies had fallen victim to such a fate rather than an unknown drone.

The somewhat charmingly cheesy voice acting and presentation of dialogue throughout the game doesn’t help an awful lot to create believable characters either. The conversations that take place during normal gameplay is at least passable, however it contrasts sharply with dialogue with allies in “safe houses” dotted around Union. During these segments, the game drops the cinematic presentation and the camera shifts to a Fallout-esque camera-switching format, with noticeably weaker writing and a peculiar shift to choice-based dialogue options that feel tacked on. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but it makes the world and characters less believable and is a shaky shift from the cinematic style that Tango have implemented so well.

With that aside, however, the experience as a whole is absolutely excellent. The scares are expertly crafted, often playing on the unfamiliar open-world setting to catch you off-guard, the top-tier sound design enhances these scares with familiar themes cueing in-game events and foes whilst the actual enemy variety continually throws new challenges your way to up the ante. There is an improved upgrade system whereby players can enhance both Sebastian and their weapons, granting new abilities and modifiers as the game progresses.

This also lends itself to the excellent replayability of The Evil Within 2, with several difficulty modes for the hardcore fans, additional weapons and costumes, and secrets players will likely have missed on their first run. This was perhaps the most rewarding part of my second run, in my constant state of fear and self-preservation, my first run had me taking the most pragmatic routes through Union, whereas my New Game Plus run saw me discovering entire subplots and additional weapons I had missed completely.

Possibly my favourite aspect of the game is not just the overall excellence it achieves as a survival horror title, but the overall charm it holds and the level of self-awareness it demonstrates. This is a game that both achieves the experience it set out to offer, whilst injecting enough nods and references to famed horror titles and tropes, that it gives newcomers a great first dive into horror, whilst rewarding veterans for their investment into the genre with a string of nostalgia moments that do not grow tiresome. Even something as simple as the cheesy dialogue referenced earlier feels marginally intentional, as if a nod to the infamous voice acting of 1996s Resident Evil.

Functionally speaking, in my 20-30 hours across two runs I did encounter more than my average share of bugs and issues, most of which felt resultant of a lack of hardware power. The game has crashed up to 5 times (thankfully my controllers remained unthrown due to a reliable autosave system), and there are very regular incidents of frame dropping. With that said, the quality of the experience was largely unharmed by these issues, occuring as short, infrequent moments of frustration rather than a glaringly game-breaking glitch.

Overall, speaking as a veteran horror fan, The Evil Within 2 is an excellent example of how survival horror should be done. In a market where gamers’ thirst for action, adventure and Hollywood set pieces is turning games like Resident Evil 6 into Uncharted, it’s truly refreshing to find a title that truly returns to the roots of the genre. Tango has managed to create a textbook horror experience whilst injecting enough innovation and identity to establish itself as the new standard rather than an attempt to model the old. My greatest hope is that other studios look to Mikami’s new flagship series for inspiration, not just in developing horror titles but refreshing the experiences they build within other genres as well.