Resident Evil 4 was such a milestone in the industry that it was perhaps inevitable that any survival horror game following it was going to be held to its high standards. It took the Resident Evil series several games to come close to that benchmark and even that was after the franchise re-invented itself for the second time. Despite leaving Capcom and the survival horror genre, RE4 creator Shinji Makami himself attempted to outdo his landmark title with 2014’s The Evil Within.
By most accounts The Evil Within was a perfectly fine game. It was creepy as hell, unnerving to look at, and had a mix of action, suspense, and horror that fans craved. Yet there was something lost in it; it was only a spark next to Resident Evil 4‘s lightning in a bottle. Now three years later, and with Makami taking a back seat, the team at Tango Gameworks return to try again with The Evil Within 2. Does this set a new benchmark, or is this just another imitator to the throne?
The story picks up, appropriately enough, three years after the first game. Sebastian Castellanos is doing what all gruff, middle-aged gaming protagonists seem to do and is drowning his sorrows in the bottle. His battle through the twisted Beacon Hospital against the madman Ruvik in the first game has clearly scarred him and left him broken. He’s been tracking down Mobius – the shadowy group responsible for the STEM machine that was the basis of the plot for The Evil Within – with little luck. Eventually, they come to him through his ex-partner Juli Kidman.
As always there’s a catch. Throughout the first game it was revealed that Sebastian’s daughter Lilly had been killed in a fire. The truth was that she’s actually still alive, only she’s being held by Mobius and used as the Core of a second STEM machine. Like Ruvik before her things have gone wrong, although in this case the issue is that Mobius can no longer find her inside of STEM to use her to control the simulation. So they hire Sebastian to go inside with the promise that he’ll be reunited with his daughter at long last.
As expected things go south, and while the plot may be generic at times its delivery is actually fairly well done. The dialogue occasionally wanders into cheesy territory, but overall the plot itself is coherent and well delivered with some pretty commendable emotional scenes. More important are the characters, who are all larger than life caricatures that fit their roles well. It’s a massive improvement over the wandering and convoluted narrative of the first game.
Like the first title, gameplay is spent moving around and taking down enemies with limited supplies, choosing between combat and stealth as the situation demands. The change-up here is in the level structure, with the game now favoring larger, more open levels over the constrained and claustrophobic hallways and sewers of the previous title. Several times throughout the game you’re given freedom in a small open area to explore for secret supply caches, fight mini-bosses for loot, or complete sidequests for better equipment. The game is far from a proper open-world title, and through much of the second half it leans heavily into the more linear progression of the first game, usually for the best.
The fact is that open-world gameplay and survival horror gameplay simply don’t mix that well. Enemies aren’t as scary when you can see them from a kilometer away and wandering around aimlessly doesn’t make you afraid. Both the horror and the survival elements of the game work better when the walls close in and the game’s more linear sections are hands down its best. There’s no real challenge when you can just sneak past every enemy because you can see them, but slowly crawling through an unknown world with only a few rounds of ammo and the eventual promise of safety is sure to keep you scared.
Overall the horror just doesn’t land quite as well this time, and anyone looking for something as scary as Resident Evil 7 or Outlast 2 may not be drawn into this title. There’s a few reasons for that, and unfortunately some of these carry over from the last game. First is the enemy AI, which is just downright abysmal at times. Stealth in The Evil Within 2 is about the most broken stealth mechanic in a game since Alpha Protocol and is often hilariously overpowered. Weaker enemies can be killed with a single melee attack if you get them from the rear, a reward for successfully remaining hidden and pulling off what should be a difficult task. Except the enemies are often so dense that if you do get spotted avoidance is as easy as rounding a corner and crouching, at which point enemies will simply cease to look for you. This gets exponentially worse if you spend the game’s currency of green-goo into the stealth upgrade tree, which aside from making you harder to find also unlocks the insanely overpowered stealth dash, which allows you to close the gap for an instant kill even faster. There’s also the corner kill, which allows you to take down enemies while remaining in cover, and it’s totally possible to just chain enemies with these attacks until a room is cleared.
The other major reason the horror doesn’t work is because it often seems like the game doesn’t want it to. Fans may be dismayed to find that the gross-out factor has been toned down considerably from the last game, and there’s very little to unnerve you. There are attempts to be scary, like turning out the lights or enemy types meant to attack from the shadows, but the game often just seems more than happy to play like any other third person action title. The open sections of the game are way too bright and easy to see in, and there’s more than a few times where you’re forced to fight small hordes of enemies rather than avoid them or hunt them down. As if to confirm that the game has abandoned its horror roots the last two weapons you get are an assault rifle and a flamethrower, because nothing says “scary” like being able to clear a room in a matter of seconds, and ammo for these two is so easy to craft that using them feels like cheating.
That said, as an action title the game performs admirably. Gameplay, if not taken as a horror experience, is rather thrilling, especially if played on the harder difficulty modes where survival is tested. While the controls are occasionally floaty, shooting does feel satisfying, especially landing a critical hit and watching as the enemies explode like mold-covered watermelons. The enemies themselves, zombie-like Lost and various mutant creatures, are purposely difficult to hit at times, meaning lining up a perfect shot and watching them reel back is all the more satisfying. If there is one major complaint it would be that the boss fights aren’t engaging at all, and they’re all just bullet sponges with little strategy involved – just shoot till they stop moving.
Graphically this game is all over the place. Character models are fantastic, as few of them as there are. Animations for cut-scenes are fairly good with an impressive level of expression on character faces and a lot of minor details like wrinkles around the eyes and mouths. The level design is quite good, mixing supernatural elements into small-town America and going into some really weird territory in the game’s second half with some creepy and terrifying locations. Finally the lighting in the game’s linear and more tightly controlled areas often does a great job of setting the mood and creating an unnerving atmosphere.
For all the good there’s also a lot of bad. As a whole the game just doesn’t really look like a modern title, with graphics that don’t seem to be on-par with other recent games. On PC with the settings at maximum Evil Within 2 just looked OK, and it’s actually hard to tell whether it beats out its own predecessor in terms of visuals. Part of that is again due to the more open parts of the game, where the use of lighting isn’t as tightly controlled and the wider areas means more re-used textures. By far the worst offender is the enemies, with only four or five different types of the basic Lost repeated ad nauseam throughout the campaign.
Then there’s the in-game animations, which often border on hilariously bad, and are occasionally detrimental to the game. Weapon reloads and switching often send Sebastian’s limbs flying all over the place, which at times is the scariest thing in the game. The animation to jump down a ledge never once worked correctly, with the characters zipping around and levitating, and more than a few times a climbing animation would trigger out of nowhere for no reason. Worse than all of this is the awful melee attacks, which are impossible to aim and often bug out halfway through. Smashing open boxes becomes a chore, just hoping that for once the attack will actually connect properly.
What it fails on in the visuals and animations, Evil Within more than makes up for in the audio department. Voice acting is great, if a little corny at times. The new voice actor for Sebastian definitely has some groan worthy moments, but over the course of the game, especially as his patience for the situation around him begins to wane, it becomes more and more comfortable to listen to. Similarly the new Kidman is great but by far the best acting in the game is the unsettling monotone drone of Nurse Tatiana, the support character that upgrades your abilities. Overall the entire cast is decent enough with no real weak performances, which does a lot to help the story.
Similarly the use of sound effects is fantastic. All the different weapons have a lot of satisfying bass to them that makes you feel every shot fired, giving you the satisfaction of landing a hit while also subtly reminding you that your ammo counter is getting smaller and smaller. Enemies all have unique audio pallets that both creep you out while also letting you know what you’re about to go up against. Finally the music, while used sparingly, has a lot of fitting tracks for all different types of moods throughout, from pounding drones for impending danger to sweeping orchestrals for the game’s more emotional moments.
Recommending The Evil Within 2 is hard, especially based on what your experience with the first game may have been. If you’re looking for more of the last game’s creepy gross-out horror than this sequel probably isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a third-person stealth survival title then this game may also not be for you. It’s an action game trying to be a horror game, but with a side of broken stealth too. The Evil Within 2 has a lot to offer, but in a year with so many great games, and several other acclaimed horror titles like Outlast 2 and Resident Evil 7 already on shelves, this might be one title to put off for a while.