Usually when we say that a game starts off slow, that means you’ll need to stick with it before it gets good. In the case of The Evil Within 2, the slow start is both memorable and quietly intense. Walking through strange dimly lit passageways, exploring an environment shrouded in mystery and shadow, and wondering what’s real or imagined. Staring at a wall at the end of a hallway only to turn around and find an entirely new environment in its place. That’s not where you came from, but that’s where you’ll need to head next.
Being able to create tension through lighting, art direction, and sound design, is probably more important in survival horror than just about any other genre. What you do or don’t see as you walk through an environment is generally more important than the eventual jump scare that comes from being confronted with an unexpected, or delayed, burst of terror. The Evil Within 2 has a clear grasp on what it takes to create a successful survival horror experience, which can be felt during the opening moments. It also features some truly impressive sound design that is unnerving, sombre, and never confusing in where the nasty groans and effects are coming from.
And thanks to the equally stunning visuals, it’s a testament to the idea that interactive horror has been getting, well, more horrific as technology advances. But, The Evil Within 2 isn’t content with creating the sort of long scripted sequences that push you to your limits, wondering just when you’ll reach the next safehouse and be able to stock up on supplies. The sort of survival horror experience that feels familiar, but new thanks to the setting and premise of protagonist Sebastian Castellanos searching for his daughter inside a virtual world called STEM. Created by corporate interests, the fictional town of Union has now turned into a surreal nightmarish hell-scape based on the collective fears of its residents.
There’s a feeling of discovery throughout The Evil Within 2, one where the inclusion of open-world sections adds any number of emergent encounters that can play out like the scariest moments of Resident Evil by the way of Left 4 Dead. Hear the moaning of a white haired ghastly witch creature around the corner? Well, peek through the fence but don’t disturb her. Well, maybe next time. It’ll take all your ammo and running for cover to learn that lesson.
Thematically, the games of Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami share certain similarities. From the inclusion of shadowy corporations that exist purely to exploit people, to the truly frightening creations born from humanity’s deepest and darkest fears. Creatures that ooze malice. The Evil Within 2 continues this tradition, so to speak, even though Mikami has taken a step back to assume the role of producer. As a sequel it doesn’t require fist-hand knowledge of the original, and in fact it’s story is a simple one to follow. Well, initially. Like with any Mikami production, there’s a tendency to layer in conspiracy and a genuine dislike of people in power and the rise of the police state.
In that sense, The Evil Within 2 is still very much born from the same creative place that brought us Resident Evil all those years ago on the original PlayStation. And it will, in equal measure, creep you out and provide the sort of intense interactive horror experience that will shave off a few weeks from your expected shelf life. The idea of STEM, feels modern, and plays on the fear of technology replacing reality. Through the lens of one of horror gaming’s most iconic figures, that means losing control of not only your identity but having that replaced with a zombie-like representation of what you might consider your basest virtual desire. To blindly follow, no matter the cost.
It’s during these moments, especially when tracking down a serial killer who has made STEM and the town of Union his own gruesome art exhibition, where The Evil Within 2 shines. Story-wise, everything else is played quite safe. A man searching for his daughter and trying to save her not only from the clutches of a madman, but also from losing her innocence to the horrors of a corporate controlled digital existence, is as strong a narrative drive as you’d hope to find in a survival horror release. The only problem is the execution that leans heavily on clunky exposition and forced character tropes added to - well, add a bit of coherent humanity to all the insanity. Horrific insanity is The Evil Within in its purest form, so it’s a shame that the sequel doesn’t embrace this aspect of the series wholeheartedly.
The tonal shifts can at times be quite jarring. Which extends to the setup of the playable chapters, which are just about split in half over long linear sections of classic survival horror set pieces and open sandbox environments where survival and exploration go hand in hand. That’s not to say that the latter is in anyway implemented poorly, it just sends the wrong impression. When one of the early chapters features the largest slice of sandbox suburbia to explore, only to never be revisited in that state again, you get the sense that The Evil Within 2 is unsure about what direction it’s ultimately heading.
An experience built around survival, the scarcity of resources, extremely difficult combat, and just trying to make it to the next room or set of bushes to hide in, doesn’t quite work in the sense of exploring a large environment. Which then has a flow on effect to the implementation of auto-saves, which can frustratingly occur moments before an ambush in these open-world sections. But then you reach your destination, a theatre, and are then presented with a more straightforward and linear environment. As straightforward as something can be in a survival horror experience where reality twists and bends at will depending on the moment.
But, The Evil Within 2 isn’t two games in one nor does it feel like a patchwork of style over substance. The tension and intensity can be felt throughout both the open-world sections, where you can choose where to go, as well as those where you’re simply walking down a hallway filled with framed pictures highlighting truly chilling acts of violence. It’s a thrill ride quite unlike any other, and as a survival horror release it will leave you shaking or at the very least on the verge of needing a nice long vacation. Perhaps in a more pleasant digital landscape. At least, one not controlled by an evil corporation hell bent on absorbing everything that makes you, well, you. Actually, that might be hard. Experience The Evil Within 2 and then take a real vacation. Because after playing through it, going to a real park or a real beach filled with real people has never sounded better.