2014’s The Evil Within was, in no uncertain terms, a car crash. Its story and design aesthetic were cobbled together from half-baked ideas either not given enough time to settle in or mercilessly run into the ground. Its gameplay was the poor man’s Resi 4, but hampered by rough stealth and forced battles; made infuriating with glitches and gameplay mechanics that resulted in the player often being ill-equipped and with weapons that may or may not be at all effective, depending on how the game was feeling. I didn’t like it, in summation, and the praise heaped upon it continues to baffle and irritate me. To me it was a clear sign of – to be fair to him – legitimate survival horror legend Shinji Mikami being over the hill, so it was a pleasant surprise when his name was absent from the credits of this, the game’s sequel.
After the confusing and generally unsatisfying events at Beacon Mental Hospital by way of seemingly every survival horror cliche known to humankind, Detective Sebastian Castellanos is now a sort of roaming drunk, packing heat and passing out in bars. After encountering old friend turned adversary Agent Kidman and the two most conspicuous men in black goons I’ve ever seen he finds out that his daughter didn’t die in a fire, but instead has been thrown into “STEM”, a sort of Matrix knock-off. The minutiae of the story relies on knowledge from the previous instalment and its DLC, but that can be largely ignored in favour of the broader elements, which fortunately fare much better, particularly when compared to that game. Sebastian is sent into STEM to infiltrate a sort of mentally generated small American town called Union; reminiscent of “Downpour”-era Silent Hill, complete with that series’ staple huge, progress-blocking chasms. I’m not sure why, but super-secret corporation and STEM owners Mobius put a load of people into Union for some benefit and/or profit I genuinely can’t fathom, but of course it all went wrong, and the citizens have all turned into zombie-esque monsters. Making matters worse are two villainous humans with an unfortunate case of Far Cry syndrome; a serial killing photographer named Stefano and a charismatic cult leader named Theodore, whose aforementioned charisma is apparently so strong he can talk anyone into doing anything, and so has made himself the de facto ruler of Union. Theodore comes out of nowhere about half way through the game, and while his links to the other characters and overarching plot are reasonably well established, he can’t hold a candle to Stefano. He’s a sharp-dressed Italian psychopath; a mixture of Dr Steinman, DIO and a Hannibal villain, with Sans’ glowing blue eye and complete with a bodyguard formed from multiple female heads and a large buzzsaw. He can teleport, his raison d’etre is to create horrific art installations in which he murders someone and makes them re-enact that moment on loop in slow motion, and he is easily the most interesting thing about this game. The rest of the game is still solid; its design aesthetic, plot and approach to both story progression and story telling are far stronger and more consistent than the original, and the game does a far better job of making you care about Sebastian and those with whom he interacts. Rather than cycle through a series of unconnected environments, this game focuses on two areas; Union and “The Marrow”; a sort of secret military lab tunnel system that leads to different areas of Union, accessed through computer terminals. It’s nothing especially memorable, but setting the game in one town the player has to traverse with no fast travel goes a long way to making it more consistent and enjoyable, particularly when combined with the new and improved gameplay mechanics.
Rather than be a room to room, area to area linear path through shooting galleries and stealth sections, TEW2 is open world. Not a massive open world, but to callback to a reference I made earlier; an open world akin to Silent Hill Downpour. Reasonable size, split into different areas and with a few side missions dotted around, its best feature is how it directly affects the gameplay. Simply put; sneaking or running past enemies is now a far more viable option. Enemies are dotted around the town and pose a legitimate challenge, but the options to deal with them are more numerous now, and killing them is now more easy and less susceptible to the random chance and crippling glitches that plagued the previous game. Bullets, crossbow bolts and health items can now be crafted, enemies go down far more reliably- two headshots with a handgun is generally enough, and once they’re down they no longer need to be set on fire. Stealth is now more forgiving and is handled far better, and while stamina reserves are still an issue running away is a valid tactic. Rather than force the player into combat situations where ammo drops are random and enemies may or may not agree about the fact that you’ve clearly shot them in the face, TEW2 places the player in an open area with enemies that can be dealt with using a wide range of different tactics and the player’s own skills and ingenuity, which is an infinitely better option. That’s not to say the game doesn’t force you into combat now and then, but these moments are always fairly balanced, and if you know what you’re doing you can overcome anything that’s thrown at you.
Overall The Evil Within 2 is a solid experience, if nothing outstanding. That’s not to put it down though; in terms of story, writing, characters, gameplay and emotional impact it’s head and shoulders above its predecessor. Whereas the original was a clunky, unforgiving and genuinely infuriating mess made by a man who refused to move on from the era of his greatest successes, and seemed to misinterpret what made those games so good, this vastly improved sequel understands that it’s okay to mix classic tropes with modern gameplay advances and conveniences. The result is an enjoyable and engaging horror action game confident in salvaging what few good ideas the original had and using them to make something worthwhile. If the sequel hook is acted on and The Evil Within 3 is really on the horizon, I feel like it will truly fulfil the promise and potential this series has. If the series ends here then the quality of this instalment means that’s a victory too, it’s just a shame it took Shinji Mikami vacating the director’s chair.
By James Lambert