Poor old (former) Detective Sebastian Castellanos. Having survived the “motion sickness is the least of VR’s problems”-flavoured events of The Evil Within, he’s been sucked back in for another round of ghost-dodging, zombie-stabbing survival horror. Same story, different day, right Sebastian? At least John McClane had a sensible name.
The Evil Within 2 picks up with our hero in rough shape, having hit the bottle hard after his horrific experiences with the STEM virtual reality system (and its creators, the evil and shadowy Mobius organisation) in the first game. Demonstrating an admirably Umbrella-like determination to not let one little body-part-strewing massacre stop them, Mobius collars Sebastian and sends him back into the new and improved STEM system. It wants him to solve the problems that are erupting from its key “Core” mind going missing within its virtual world – and its core mind just happens to be Sebastian’s daughter, who Mobius kidnapped years before.
Sebastian was already the most generic of grizzled video game (ex-)cop protagonists, but The Evil Within 2 somehow makes him yet more trope-y. Bless ‘em; he’s such a Default Video Game Hero that it actually starts becoming hilarious. There’s simply no situation too bizarre or horrifying for him to growl “What the hell?!” at in a voice that sounds like an impersonation of your friend’s bad impersonation of Clint Eastwood.
Perhaps this is just the level of stoicism he needs to survive though; to no-one’s surprise, things have gone well and truly pear-shaped again inside STEM. Sent in after a Mobius rescue team, Sebastian soon finds himself in the town of Union, the virtual residence for the consciousness of hundreds of people Mobius has enrolled in its programme. Neat technology, but poor result; the town’s reality is literally breaking into pieces, most residents are dead, and those that aren’t have transformed into slavering murder zombies. (Always remember to take a break from the VR goggles every 15 minutes, kids.)
As in the first game, The Evil Within 2 utilises its overarching VR conceit to throw a variety of gameplay types and perspective shifts at the player, but there’s a major departure. For much of the time within the environment of Union, the sequel is a semi-open world stealth/action game. There’s a lot to like about this new open world style of gameplay, which is a bit reminiscent of State Of Decay.
Sebastian creeps (or sprints) around the darkened town, collecting the gunpowder and steel pipes the townsfolk have been kind enough to leave in their filing cabinets, and deciding to avoid or deal with the creatures roaming the streets. He’s also equipped with a radio-style communicator that buzzes to alert him to points of interest and their locations – supplies, memories, or side missions.
After each foray into Union he can head back to one of the safe houses that dot the map, where he can craft weapon improvements and ammunition, and top up with a pot of healing coffee. He can also visit his detective’s office mind-palace (via the broken mirrors familiar from the first game) to review information he’s found or unlock new skills with the green gel resource, scavenged from the world and dropped by killed enemies. There’s even a (slightly incongruous) shooting gallery where he can practice popping zombies in the head.
Because it’s a bit tough to create truly scary and unsettling stuff in a free roam environment, the game also often uses buzzy reality-blurring at certain points to drop the player into tighter situations more familiar from the first game; an undefeatable enemy within a confined space that must be avoided until an exit can be found, a dungeon-style point A to B path full of enemies, or an unsettling hall-of-mirrors type environment that advances the overall story. In these sections, the freedom of player approach that is the hallmark of the open world section is significantly curbed, but the gain is scarier, more unsettling experiences and intense boss encounters.
Sebastian pursues the culprit (who like him, is a bit disappointingly generic) behind Union’s downfall through such sections, and is himself pursued every so often by a truly creepy beastie that recalls the first game’s memorable “Laura” monster. This makes perhaps the best – and by best, I mean most terrifying – use of the PS4’s in-controller speaker I’ve think I’ve seen in a game yet. (Attempts to occasionally introduce this element into the open world are a bit of a waste though, as it’s a simple matter to simply scoot off to the side and avoid the danger entirely.)
Basic gameplay remains much the same as in The Evil Within. Sebastian has a crucially ammo-saving stealth kill to deploy, and will need to put it to good use. The stealth systems work well, with enemy awareness levels consistent and clear, cover easy to get into and out of, and distracting or luring enemies via thrown bottles a useful option. When stealth goes wrong or isn’t an option though, Sebastian has to fall back on his arsenal.
This is deployed in the methodical and deliberate over-the-shoulder manner that’s been familiar since Resident Evil, which makes it easy to panic – but crucial not to – when you’re being charged by a number of enemies at once. (One positive effect of the more open nature of much of the game is that the camera problems that can plague third-person titles are mostly absent, although some visual confusion can occur when enemies get too close.)
This is the sort of game where upgrade options to improve your reload time by half a second or expand clip capacity by one bullet can make a real difference, as even a handful of basic enemies can overwhelm Sebastian quickly – and before too long he’s up against acid-spitting mutants and three-headed corpse monsters with saw-arms.
Fortunately, what Sebastian lacks in the abilities to perform an active dodge or fill the air with vast numbers of projectiles, he makes up for with his acquisition of powerful weapons. These include exploding crossbow bolts, a sniper rifle, and one-use hand axes that turn his normally puny melee attack into an insta-kill.
Ammo resources must be carefully managed, and exploring enough find the material to upgrade abilities and weapons is important. The difficulty of the game is finely tuned here, as important resources are rarely unguarded, and an overly hasty or poorly executed approach can result in the player having to expend as many resources as they gain.
The Evil Within 2 puts a greater focus on telling a traditional story than the original game, which largely had Sebastian lurch from one horrifying encounter to the next with little idea of what was going on. In comparison, The Evil Within 2 offers a much clearer antagonist, player goals, and overall situational awareness. It’s just a shame that it’s all a bit… standard. Although there’s a tonne of visual imagination on display and some inspired and unsettling set pieces, none of the characters make much of an impact, and the hilarity of Sebastian’s constant “What the hell?!”s are the only “highlights” to be wrung out of the dialogue.
The game also throws some backtracking at you as well, which can get a bit tired. Nevertheless, its sense of mission does well at keeping you keen to see what’s going to happen next, driving you along to the next memorable and sometimes bowel-trembling encounter with a weird human camera tripod, or what can only really be described as a spunk monster.
It’s an intriguing idea to add open world gameplay to a horror game; they’ve traditionally been about tightly crafted levels designed to instill specific feelings of dread in the player. But by using its bookending VR conceit to shift the player out of its new open world approach and into more traditional survival horror sections when it wants to, The Evil Within 2 mostly manages to have its cake and eat it too. In doing so, it improves upon the original game, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes next. Maybe Sebastian will get Samuel L. Jackson as a sidekick.