Survival horror is a well-worn genre as aptly demonstrated by The Evil Within, a game that simply didn’t live up to its lineage. However, The Evil Within 2 offers players a fresh take on the original. This is a challenging, demanding descent into a grim and immersive world populated by hideous creatures and nightmarish visions.
The Evil Within 2 comes forth from Bethesda Softworks (of Skyrim fame) and was produced by Shinji Mikami, the creator behind the Resident Evil series. He also served as director on the original game, The Evil Within. This is a man considered by many as survival horror royalty and it is easy to see his influences all over the game.
Stepping back into the shoes of the protagonist from the first game, we find ourselves playing as Sebastian Castellanos once more, though this is a man much changed from the events of the first installment. Gone is the clean cut detective and our initial moments with Sebastian see him as a washed up drunkard, unshaven, dishevelled and apparently drowning himself in alcohol as a means to forget the death of his child in a horrific household accident. This element of Sebastian’s story is vital as it leads directly to the plot for the second instalment: Sebastian must venture back via the STEM, a very Matrix-inspired biological tech-style interface, to the Upside down-style world and rescue his daughter from the horrors within.
A series of cutscenes peppered with quick time events work as an introduction to the basics of the game and following this, full control is finally relinquished to the player. The cutscenes are beautifully realised and immersive, with well-rendered characters and camera angles taken straight from the big screen. Regrettably, the voice acting does not live up to the graphics and presentation. All too often the lines delivered seem badly written, forced, or the actors themselves simply weren’t up for it on the day. This does detract somewhat from the intended effect but, thankfully, many of the cutscenes that follow are far more intent on delivering their gruesome scenes than pithy conversations.
Once the player has been plunged into the game the enjoyment really begins. Survival horror games live and die on the creation of atmosphere and tension and The Evil Within 2 is very good at doing this. A multitude of clever lighting techniques are always present, from traditional flickering lights to different degrees of brightness and colour and well-placed objects that will obscure just enough vision for the player to keep them guessing as to what is round the corner or behind the furniture. This combines well with the rich textures to create environments that feel tangible and realistic and deliver a more immersive experience for the player.
Similarly, sound design does a fantastic job of ramping up the tension. There is generally little soundtrack and rather the game relies on sound effects. Often these are barely audible and fade into the background where they then unnervingly persist. The gentle dripping of a tap somewhere. The turn of a key in a lock. Footsteps down an unseen corridor. The creak of a rope. Every sound is carefully planned and disturbingly eerie, once more filling the player’s mind with questions and intrigue regarding what might be coming next. Action-filled moments are accompanied by a rousing orchestral score that works well as a companion to what is occurring on screen.
With The Evil Within 2 we have a game that undoubtedly looks and sounds good, creates palpable tension and a genuine feeling of dread, so the real question should be, how does it play? The initial level, which continues the gentle introduction of teaching controls and fundamentals, feels very linear. Long corridors, and doors that shut behind Sebastian direct the player down a single route and lead to open rooms that offer ample opportunities for crouching, sprinting, interacting with objects, fiddling with the torch and moving the camera. As it happens, the camera is generally good but frustrating at times as you make an attempt to focus it on a small object on a desk. Sebastian does not move quickly and there is a tendency to climb objects that you are intending to hide behind, or he will stubbornly refuse to stealthily move along furniture. This sequence therefore serves as a lacklustre introduction to what comes next:There is no opportunity for learning combat skills and it feels more like a creepy point and click than a third-person survival horror game. Sebastian’s gruff and constant utterances of ‘What the hell?’ as he enters a new area and a very clichéd dash from a mini-boss at the end of the first stage left disappointment and a reluctance to press on.
What follows next is thankfully a breath of fresh air. The game ditches the linear structure to throw the player into a sandbox area: The all-American town of Union, STEM style. This part of the game allows the player to explore the plethora of abandoned houses, diners, outhouses, garages and workplace buildings. Swarming around the area are plenty of enemies of varying forms and difficulty. In true survival genre style, the player is rewarded for the stealth kill and conserving supplies and ammunition. However, stealth kills can present a problem when the mechanics behind this can occasionally and frustratingly fail for no apparent reason. On more than one occasion Sebastian was in the ideal situation for a stealth kill only to be detected at the last moment and swiftly dispatched. This problem did not overshadow the entire experience but it was annoying given the challenging difficulty level to be forced to replay large parts of the game through a situation that appears to be no fault of the player and rather an inconsistent stealth system. Regarding the difficulty level, make no mistake that The Evil Within 2 is a very challenging game. This reviewer played through on the normal level of difficulty and lost count of the amount of player deaths that occurred. It is not a forgiving game but then, that may be part of the appeal to some players.
Outside of the main storyline, exploration is rewarded in The Evil Within 2 and the developers have ensured that players would not be short of things to do in the large area they have given you to play in. Delving into abandoned residences or derelict diners will often reward players with extra items to improve skills and equipment or throw you in at the deep end with a new kind of enemy to defeat. Doing so enables Sebastian to get his hands on some inventive weaponry which allows the player to tackle the game in different ways. There are handguns in various flavours, shotguns, rifles and many more including a satisfying crossbow-style device with explosive bolts. Ultimately, while not essential to finishing the main storyline the additional areas are more often than not rewarding experiences and thorough exploration extends the longevity of the game. Within the campaign are many collectibles and once the main story is done, the player has the opportunity to dive back in with a range of unlockable secret weapons and game modes that make an already challenging game even more so.
Without giving too much away, the storyline is a tangled and twisted affair which allows Sebastian the opportunity to engage with various NPCs who hurry things along in a satisfactory manner. There are not too many cutscenes and they tend to be short and to the point, establishing a new character and explaining their place in things. Many of the missions involve Sebastian finding items that are essential to the plot, voyaging into new and unexplored places in the town or restoring power to darkened and threatening areas. Because of the challenging difficulty and the unpredictable enemies, even missions that at first appear mundane provide a significant and satisfying challenge and offer new and unexpected ways for the player to die. The enemies grow in difficulty and the game is always keen to throw new varieties into the mix. There’s the standard zombie-like past inhabitants of the town who shamble along menacingly and these are supplemented by a menagerie of unnerving creatures with multiple heads, limbs and inventive attacks that take time to learn and repel. Along the way are a few mini-boss style encounters that require some clever decision making, optimum use of weaponry, the environment and weighing up options regarding fight or flight. Each of these creatures are genuinely creepy and up the ante in terms of the difficulty level quite substantially.
Survival horror is an interesting genre, it can feel limiting or even slow when compared to other third person games and yet these aspects of the gameplay contribute directly to the necessary feelings of dread and tension that are essential to a successful game. The Evil Within 2 delivers an involving, challenging story mode and a rich environment to explore, helped greatly by excellent lighting and graphical effects that create a believable and compelling world. Controls are generally well thought out and responsive and gameplay, whilst punishing at times, encourages the player to persevere and discover more about the world around them. Whilst there are a few problems with the main protagonist being overly clichéd and voice acting in some cutscenes leaving something to be desired, these are relatively minor indiscretions that can be overlooked in favour of the bigger picture. The Evil Within 2 is a worthy successor to the original and proves that survival horror games can inhabit a sandbox world and still maintain the necessary claustrophobic, dread-filled feeling that they require to be successful and appealing.