It was October 13th, 2014. Midnight was drawing near and I found myself wandering the electronics section of my local Wal-Mart. The Xbox One was about to celebrate its first birthday and I was looking for something new to play after a somewhat sparse first twelve months. I found myself waiting alongside a handful of other insomniacs for a box full of Shinji Mikami’s new horror franchise, The Evil Within, to come out to the floor.
The Evil Within was an interesting experiment for Bethesda. Team up with the godfather of the modern survival horror genre to create a spiritual successor to one of the biggest franchises of all time, Resident Evil. I paid for my copy that night at Walmart (call me old-fashioned, I had yet to adopt a digital only policy) and rushed home to play. I had always been a fan of the Resident Evil franchise and I was excited to give The Evil Within a shot.
I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed.
Imagine my intrigue when Bethesda announced a follow-up! The first game had its high points, an interesting premise, and creative monsters come immediately to mind – but sloppy dialogue, frustrating controls, and an uneven difficulty curve colored the experience negatively for me whenever I look back on it. So how do you create a follow-up to an interesting but ultimately flawed first game?
You kick the freakin’ doors down and give your ideas room to breathe is how.
Released almost three years to the day from the first game, The Evil Within 2 picks up fairly soon after the events of its predecessor. Sebastian Castellanos is a broken man, drinking his cares away in the wake of the horrors experienced at the hands Mobius and the STEM project in the first game. If you never played the first game, here’s what you need to know: Sebastian Castellanos is your stereotypical drunk cop with a broken family, Mobius is your stereotypical evil corporation, and STEM is basically the Matrix. Mobius is up to their old tricks again, but surprise! Stebastian’s presumed dead daughter is in fact alive and powering the new and improved STEM project. Things have gone wrong, as they do, and Sebastian is approached to mount a one-man rescue mission into the STEM to rescue a team of Mobius engineers and perhaps find his daughter along the way.
Things immediately do not go well for Sebastian, as they are wont to do in horror stories like this. Sebastian finds himself in a tense opening chapter playing a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer from the moment he steps mental foot inside the world of the STEM device. The game wastes no time in impressing players with its design. Checkerboard floors and endless red curtains draw you into an endless mansion that is slowly crumbling from the inside. This first chapter plays like an enhanced and perfected iteration of the first game, drawing you in with a linear progression to a chase sequence with the first of many monsters to be found in the game. And where this first chapter executes a similar structure to almost every chapter in the first game, its merely an appetizer for the main course.
Once free of the first encounter, you immediately find yourself in the most welcome change to the survival horror format; The Evil Within 2 becomes an open world game. Sebastian finds himself trapped in a slice of small town Americana within the STEM, the city of Union. The design of Union is impressive. As things go wrong in the STEM and its inhabitants twist into monsters, Union itself begins to crack apart and it’s here that you find yourself moving between floating islands of broken apart middle America. You’ll explore Union to find missing Mobius agents, search for your daughter, and chase well designed side quests that draw direct inspiration from horror movies like The Ring.
Survival horror as a genre relies heavily on pacing. Resident Evil stands head and shoulders above so many other games in the genre due to the careful expertise applied to every room and enemy encounter. The infamous dog scene works so well because of the control the game has over you as a player. So how does transposing the genre into an open world work out this well? It seems counter productive to the idea of pacing when you give the player control of where they go and how quickly they get there. For me, the open world meant that I couldn’t rely on my knowledge of survival horror as a genre. I couldn’t count on knowing what was being telegraphed when but instead I had to pay more attention to sounds and environmental clues as I progressed through the game. I had to be more alert as I explored Union and more careful about how I used my limited resources since I was no longer in a situation where the game designers could anticipate what I was going to be doing or what supplies I would need. Boss encounters also vary now from the typical one room encounter of other survival horror games to having a multi-faced-saws-for-arms monstrosity chase me across half of the city.
Taking the game off of its rails is the best thing that could have been done for a sequel. Instead of moving from level to level, you are free to experience the game in a more organic fashion. You can experiment more with which weapons to use in encounters. You can return to safe houses at any time to craft gear or buff your abilities. You can even take a break from all the action to visit a mini game shooting gallery where you can earn bonus materials for upgrades before returning to Union.
This isn’t all to say the The Evil Within 2 is perfect, however. Dialogue can still be laughably bad with Sebastian’s reactions ranging from, “What?” to the more expressive, “What the hell?” The controls do feel tighter this time around but aiming can still be a chore until you unlock late game upgrades for a steadier hand. Those are minor complaints though and where the game dips in quality it more than makes up for it in charm and imagination.
The Evil Within 2 is a surprisingly great follow-up to a mostly okay game. It adds new challenge to an aging genre and fulfills the craving I had when I waited until midnight at Wax-Mart three years ago. It’s a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a horror fix and is another welcome addition to Bethesda’s ever growing line-up of outstanding single player experiences.
The Evil Within 2 Review Score
(4 out of 5 Stars)