Review: The Evil Within 2

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The Evil Within was an impressive but ultimately divisive horror jaunt, something of a victim of its own ambition. The many shifts in gameplay, from stealth survival to co-op shooter to all-out zombie rampage left some folks who showed up for just one of those things cold, and even those who enjoyed it a little confounded. It’s interesting then to see the path that The Evil Within 2 has forged from there, continuing important elements of the plot but thoroughly up-ending the gameplay in bold ways. This gamble has proven to be a solid one, as there are few horror games that can match the mix of freedom, horror, and polish that you’ll find here.

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Up front, I need to tell you that if spoilers about the first Evil Within are going to ruin your day, you’d better pack up and get out because TEW 2 picks up right from those key revelations. It’s been three years since Sebastian Castellanos escaped the STEM system at Beacon Mental Hospital, and in that time he’s managed to thoroughly disgrace himself and settle into the bottom of a bottle. His old sometimes-partner Kidman tracks him down to reveal that his daughter Lily is not actually dead, but is instead the Core of a new STEM developed by the shadowy Moebius group. Lily has gone missing and the virtual world of Union she held together is coming apart, and Seb is their best chance of squaring everything away. And of course Seb agrees to brain-dive into another STEM because of those pesky paternal instincts.

There are a lot of places we could start with here, but the most important is probably the new structure of the game. TEW 1 was a long string of disjointed, arbitrary hellscapes to slog through, creative on their own but a bit of a mess as a whole. In start contrast, this game takes place in Union, a simulated American small town complete with diners and movie theaters. It’s fractured into pieces because we can’t have nice things in STEM, but most of those pieces are large sections of cross-streets and storefronts to roam freely. You’ll always have a main objective but these areas have a wealth of side missions and secrets to uncover, some helpful and others downright terrifying.

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That was the real shocker for me as I delved deeper into the game, honestly. Open-world horror is neither common in the genre nor obvious in how it can work, but The Evil Within 2 puts forth a master-class in allowing freedom to lead to dread. The regions of Union are replete with small buildings like homes and shops that appear ripe for exploring and looting, but hold frightful surprises. They might be recurring monsters, ambushes, or innocuous hauntings, but the key is that you can never be sure what you’re going to get when you enter a location. There are few places in the game where you’ll feel entirely safe, thanks to some clever events and encounters, and that really sets the atmosphere despite allowing you to wander and skirt danger all you want.

You’ll run into plenty of danger, of course, especially in the later chapters where the design slims back up to mostly linear locales. Enemies follow some fairly standard conventions in terms of mechanics, but combine them with the environments in interesting ways and have some absolutely gnarly designs. These are easily some of the creepiest-looking monsters I’ve had to deal with in games, sinewy masses of limbs and growths ambling around at odd angles and an unnatural pace. The bosses are where the creativity peaks, offering memorable encounters that remain tense even after you pick up the mechanics.

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Battling back these beasts requires weapons, and Sebastian has a fine selection of bullet delivery systems at his disposal. Old standards like pistols and shotguns return, but with multiple and diverse entries that you can switch between freely. Crafting is in, forcing you to fill the survival horror bullet gap with home-made ordnance and allowing you to cram parts into your guns to make them shoot harder. The green brain gel upgrades are back as well, this time partitioned off into five different skill trees with a few wildly powerful ones to snatch. You’ll also come across plenty of collectibles and side scenes to enjoy when not being chased by a gangly screaming horror.

Even the story has received plenty of love here, adding some important emotional beats to an otherwise straight-forward mission. Sebastian and the rest of the cast are wonderfully expressive this time, with new voice actors providing more textured performances than the perfunctory exclamations of the first game. It’s important because this is a more emotional game, delving deep into Seb’s backstory but also tearing at your heartstrings with tragedies perpetrated by the game’s psychotic villains. This is the only place the pacing threatens to fall apart, given the number of villains in line to take their swing at Seb, but they make up for it by being so delightfully evil… within.

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I expected good things from The Evil Within 2, and what I got completely destroyed those expectations. No game has quite pulled off the open-world horror shtick this well, providing both opportunities and scares that inspire the right atmosphere of dread. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, has plenty of challenging combat, and rolls out its story more intelligently than the first did. It’s a thorough improvement on the series, taking it out of its comfort zone and making something so different and so high-quality that it can’t be ignored. Horror fans should be all over this game, assuming they can stomach all the blood sacrifices and creeping horrors and straight-up awesome gameplay.

 

 

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