What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
After finishing The Evil Within 2 I was exhausted, like I’d been through an ordeal. Thinking back on my 20 hours with it, I had. The Evil Within 2 is an ambitious, genuinely tense, and at times brutally difficult experience, but one that left me exhilarated. Like the original before it, The Evil Within 2 may not know how to deliver convincing dialogue or maintain a consistent tone, but it does know that the mark of pure survival horror is to leave you feeling like you only just survived, time after time after time.
Developer Tango Gameworks has done a good job at a cleaner set-up this time around by sending protagonist Sebastian Castellanos to rescue his thought-dead daughter from The Evil Within’s version of the Matrix, called STEM – adding some vital emotional stakes that were lacking in the original. Sebastian himself, on the other hand, is somehow even more dull three years later. Despite having gone through all this once before, he still regularly quips mundanities at the weirdness of it all. Pedestrian lines like “What the hell?” and “Ugh, who comes up with this stuff?” break the horror spell, and most of the time I just wanted him to shut up and let the creepy world around him speak for itself.
The wider cast doesn’t fare much better. Aside from one interesting character you meet later on, they are merely serviceable archetypes there to push the plot forward (the psychologist’s running gag is that she is a psychologist). The awkward dialogue can occasionally lend a certain B-movie charm, but it feels like a missed opportunity to not let them have a little fun in such an eccentric setting.
This is still The Evil Within, though, and its world remains delightfully malleable and weird: mirrors take you to safehouses! Burning paintings make barbed wire disappear! A cat gives you green gel so you can upgrade your abilities! There’s a shooting range in the world through the mirror run by a nurse! The sense that the world could change the rules at any moment keeps things interesting, despite, or perhaps because of, its inherent ridiculousness.
This is still The Evil Within, and its world remains delightfully malleable and weird.
The Evil Within 2’s story travels an unusual road, as its first half is tonally very different from its second. Sebastian begins his journey preoccupied with a deranged murderer inside STEM, which is a meandering mystery punctuated by a weak boss fight (an easily dodged primary attack made this one genuinely boring) that made me miss the non-stop climactic encounters and big moments of the original. Its second half, on the other hand, travels at a breakneck pace and is deadeye focused on the broader task at hand and its personal implications for Sebastian. The latter’s strength and surety made me wonder what the first half was even there for, and left me feeling like The Evil Within 2 was telling two completely distinct stories, one much stronger than the other.
I would never accuse it of being inconsistent in its mood, however. At every turn Tango has done a great deal with lighting, and dimly lit corridors feel claustrophobic, creating a sense of inevitability; of course there’s something waiting for you around the corner! Oddly shaped shadows become crouching monsters while swathes of darkness promise either loot or death. I jumped for no reason more than once.
I jumped for no reason more than once.
It’s a much bigger mini-sandbox this time around, too, and you have more freedom in exploring it. Union – aka “Anytown, USA” – is a sprawling post-apocalyptic mess of diners, picket fences, and a main street that ends at a gaping Silent Hill-esque chasm, its other half lost to the atmosphere. Though not every building can be entered or clambered up onto, there are a welcome number of nooks and crannies that offer unique enemy encounters, side quests, and loot that feel organically baked into the world.
Once I stumbled upon a lost agent who’d found himself surrounded by enemies, and after I saved him he gave me a further two quests that took me to the far reaches of Union’s underground tunnel system. Another time I was checking out what I thought was an innocuous diner before its interior changed with the click of a jukebox track and I was suddenly being chased by a screaming ghoul. I loved the promise that such discoveries could be around any or every corner.
In every instance, exploration in The Evil Within 2 is worth it, and in the case of scavenging for loot it’s absolutely vital. Green gel (used for upgrading Sebastian’s health, athleticism, recovery and combat prowess), gunpowder, and weapon parts (used for crafting ammo and upgrading your arsenal) are scarce but necessary to stay alive, so I was frequently putting Sebastian in ridiculous amounts of danger just to find enough weapon parts to add another bullet chamber to my handgun. Blindly sprinting towards a glimmering light in the distance as the sound of enemies roaring at my heels with The Evil Within 2’s excellent score pounding in my ears was a rush each time.
If you’re caught by a mob, particularly early on before you’ve upgraded your arsenal, you’ll die more often than not. Like The Evil Within before it, enemies in The Evil Within 2 are plentiful, relentless, and delightfully gross in their attacks. The Lost are its familiar raging shamblers, but there are also monsters that vomit acid onto your face for a one-hit kill if you get too close (as I did often), monsters with burlap-sack masks who wield flamethrowers, and various composite bosses that are seemingly results of a brainstorming meeting where someone said “What if we mixed X with Y?” Though these don’t quite match the creative lunacy of those in the original – The Keeper remains the series’ highlight – there are still some brilliant encounters here. An early boss is made out of body parts held together by a backbone and a buzzsaw, while a later one is part camera.
While deranged, these monsters will still chase you if they spot you, and if they lose you they’ll search the area for a while, so it’s important to keep moving. More, they’re quite erratic in their movements, so sneak kills aren’t always the best option if you’re not close to your target. I got right behind a flamethrowing Harbringer after five minutes of stalking him before he suddenly turned around, immediately spewing flame into my face. Their credibly unpredictable behaviour made every encounter a tense one.
You don’t always have to fight. Like its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 allows for a stealthy approach, and it’s slightly more feasible this time around thanks to a bigger playground and a new stealth upgrade path that allows you to increase the ‘quietness’ of your footsteps or pace while crouching. Though I found shooting enemies in the head was a more accessible option on the whole, stealth was still a viable option depending on the circumstance.
You don’t always have to fight. Like its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 allows for a stealthy approach.
In classic survival-horror style, much of the exhilaration in The Evil Within 2 comes from being spotted and having to suddenly launch into a fight, making do with whatever sparse resources you have at hand. I was frequently forced to experiment with the lesser-used weapons in my arsenal, such as the crossbow and its variety of creative bolts, and found myself delighted as a freeze bolt stopped a rampaging lunatic in his tracks before his head was shattered by my shotgun. Other times it was a case of absolutely needing to land every single headshot with my handgun while desperately searching for respawning ammo in the near vicinity before landing that final, crunchy blow.
With scarcity of ammo in mind, though, I would have liked more visual or audio feedback from the enemies themselves to let me know when a shot was actually counted. I found one boss fight particularly frustrating as he appeared to not even register my sneaky headshots – there was no grunt of pain or step backwards that would indicate progression in the fight. When every bullet counts, you should know when your shots do, too.