I broke the golden rule of video game reviewing on a tight schedule while playing The Evil Within 2: don’t touch the sidequests. The thing is, I just couldn’t resist.
With Shinji Mikami’s latest, the devil is truly in the detail. I simply found myself unable to stay on the straight and narrow, even though protagonist Sebastian Castellanos had the proper motivations. A washed-out shell of his former self, Sebastian looks for comfort at the bottom of a bottle, yet finds none. Fair enough, really — the man’s had a truly shitty life. His daughter perished in a fire, his wife left him shortly afterwards and he finished off a once shining career in the police by botching a crazy encounter at Beacon Mental Asylum. There, he watched as his partner was murdered and his protégé turned to the dark side — the evil Corporation Mobius. Armed with limitless resources, Mobius swept their nefarious dealings under the rug and Castellanos seemingly took the blame.
While the original The Evil Within was a truly great game, it sometimes suffered from an identity crisis. Mikami, the mind behind Resident Evil and largely considered the father of the survival horror genre, seemed almost desperate to prove he still had it. Killer, horrific ideas were tenuously connected through the notion of STEM, a neural network that placed real-life individuals in the virtual construction of a core user. For reasons I still don’t fathom, STEM was supposed to help Mobius achieve its goal of world domination; instead, a psychotic took control and twisted affairs to suit his own (equally evil) needs. Castellanos came out on top, but that hardly mattered; story fell to the wayside and solid genre mechanics reigned supreme.
This time around, Castellanos isn’t just a (sort of) good guy doing the right thing – he’s back inside STEM looking for the daughter he thought he’d lost. Mobius staged her death, kidnapping and using her to form the building blocks of a new experiment: a quaint little town called Union.
This motivation gives Castellanos an anchor, and it gives us a reason to plod down darkened hallways as doors slam and haunting shrieks ring out nearby. The setup also gives Mobius a sense of identity – more than just ‘bad for bad’s sake’, the corporation has ruined the lives of a happy family for their own gain. That all said, I still have no idea what the hell STEM does for those in the outside world.
The result is a greater sense of purpose – of consequences and of loss – within The Evil Within 2. Its world feels fleshed out and its characters deep and mysterious. So there I was, abandoning my daughter to find out what happened to the poor souls Mobius dumped within Union to further its goals. And, you know, to find more pouches for my ammo, and Photographic Slides for my retro projector, and… well, you get the idea.
This core – pardon the pun – is what the first game was missing — even if we didn’t realise it at the time — and, alongside a greater emphasis on stealth, is what developer Tango tried to inject into it with post-game pieces of DLC starring Julie Kidman. That character returns, though Castellanos is (mostly) in the limelight, using stealth tactics alongside a variety of guns to keep the dark at bay. Past his prime, Castellanos has hardly any stamina and violently jerks his gun around as he aims, something that really makes the survival part of survival horror difficult in the beginning. That sense of inconsistency somehow shines through the game’s first eight or so chapters — you can destroy a boss easily one minute and fall victim to a single minion because of a botched stealth attempt the next. It’s delicious.
While you’re able to choose if you sneak or shoot, there’s a fine balance to the game’s upgrade systems. You want to level up your health or your stamina? You’re going to need all-important green goo to do it, and that only comes from the corpses of your enemies. While early sections can largely be played without kills, there are sections that force you to get acquainted with your weaponry; besides, clearing paths in a handful of The Evil Within 2’s open-world environments makes it easier to get from point A to point B. That’s importantly, because no matter how you play, supplies are scarce; you’ll consistently need to scavenge to be able to craft more ammo or healing items.
The best part of The Evil Within 2 is that you sometimes can’t tell where main quest and side quest start and finish, and the overlap is delightful. Many times I was left scratching my head after an encounter, wondering if I’d triggered a scripted event or just fell into a random roll of the dice. Like asking a magician his secrets, it’d spoil it – in the end, I don’t want to know. My takeaway is that I was always on guard as a result, eyes darting around the screen in search of new danger. And boy, was there always new danger. The game’s pacing is pristine, offering tense moments one minute and a refreshing, slow build the next.
Well, for the most part. Despite vast improvements to storytelling and structure, things do drag on near the end. One chapter servers as a Greatest Hits replay of the original, followed by a later chapter that simply felt like padding, adding to the time it took Sebastian to get to some actual resolution. I’m unclear as to why that type of gameplay presented itself – on Survival difficulty, the game’s normal mode, I took 14 hours to get through the campaign.
Storytelling also takes a bit of a hit with ‘flashbacks as ethereal real-time replays’, filling in exposition but reeking of laziness. The way they’re presented also reminded me way too much of Murdered: Soul Suspect, though other nods were welcome. Those include winks to Twin Peaks, Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 7 and many, many more, also including neat little in-house Easter eggs. While the bits that reminded my of Resident Evil could be taken as jabs by Mikami at Capcom — a random shooting gallery and a brief foray into first-person mode are good examples — I tend to see them as loving homages.
The themes of The Evil Within 2 are redemption and forgiveness, though there’s nothing this iteration of the franchise needed to do to redeem itself and certainly has nothing to be forgiven for. It’s a solid, emotional romp filled with challenge and scares alike. It’s certainly recommended.
The Evil Within 2 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.