The Evil Within 2 is a better game than its predecessor – in every conceivable way. From its ambitious open world design, to its gory fever-dream art, Tango Gameworks’ latest horror-fuelled adventure cements itself as one of the most unique genre pieces in the medium.
Players follow washed-up detective Sebastian Castellanos, who is still recovering from the traumatic events of the first game. But instead of chasing dangling story threads, the developer aims for a more personal tale. Sebastian finds out that his daughter – who he believed passed away in a housefire – is alive. The problem? Her consciousness has been lost inside STEM; a machine which builds worlds based on its inhabitants’ thoughts – and fears.
What were once throw-away points you’d see on the likes of a D&D character sheet, are instead explored in more detail. While much of the plot driving Sebastian’s journey borders on melodrama, the game gets incredible mileage from its cast. Some voice actors inject a lot of emotion into their performance, giving scenes more weight and humanity than a game about shooting zombies in a ghost Matrix probably deserves. Pacing in the final few hours does become an issue however, with some unnecessary padding.
One of the main criticisms of the first game was its grab-bag approach to system design. It had outdated third-person shooter mechanics, embedded in classic survival horror gameplay, with some stealth peppered throughout. Earlier parts of the game emphasised sneaky approaches, but in the space of an hour those were side-lined in favour of rote encounter design; walk into a room, shoot all the enemies, continue.
The Evil Within 2 doubles down on those three elements, but gives you the space to experiment with them. A lot of this comes down to the structure of the environments, which have seen a significant overhaul from the first game. Instead of linear treks through crumbling buildings, you’re instead given open zones to explore – meaning you can approach enemies from different angles.
Those systems have been massaged further through changes to the skill tree. Defeating enemies and exploring will reward you with Green Gel, which you can pump into different styles of play. Some of the early unlocks are conventional passive upgrades, like extending your health meter or sneaking speed. As you commit to different branches on a tree, you’ll also get active skills which fundamentally change how you play.
Unlike most games with skill trees however, those upgrades aren’t your usual power trip – a feat accomplished by how plain a lot of them are. For example, one ability lets you sprint up to unaware enemies to stealth-kill them. Keeping these grounded helps maintain that sense of tension, and dread – which horror games sorely need. Sebastian never feels completely capable, but scrappy.
Crafting has become a far more important pillar of the game’s design. At work benches in safe rooms, you can commit resources to creating ammo, crossbow bolts, and healing items. You can also do this in the field, but at the cost of additional resources. It creates an interesting risk-reward: do you create the items you need to survive the next encounter, or survive by the skin of your teeth in the hopes of crafting more in the future? It’s a clean, mechanical distillation of the type of tension only the survival horror genre can foster.
Taking down enemies with guns or melee can still be a little finnicky. Enemies are more reactive to your hits this time around, but only slightly so. When they get up-close-and personal, shots that look like they should connect end up going wide, leading to moments of frustration rather than scrambling panic. Thankfully, boss designs have seen an overhaul, with fewer instant-kill threats to worry about.
To support the change to an open world, the game has structurally been overhauled too. While you do have scripted missions interspersed throughout, sidequests have also been introduced – which is a weird concept for the horror genre. Completing these nets you some ammo, weapons, or upgrade points, but the best part about them are the scares. They’re self-contained, mini haunted-house experiences. They’re an intelligent salve for the lack of focus open worlds introduce when attempting to control player emotion.
Talking about a game’s performance is often unneeded in a review, but given that the first title was a hot mess, it’s warranted here. The PlayStation 4 version of The Evil Within 2 is leagues better. Gone are the claustrophobic black bars, strangling it into some unspeakable aspect ratio. The framerate even manages to keep up with the action, sticking to a stable 30.
But the real winner is the game’s art – which is beautifully macabre. Monsters with contorted limbs match the undulating angles of the environments, which grow and shrink to play with your perception. Areas are soaked in intimidating colour palettes, painting them in strong emotional strokes.
Point-for-point, The Evil Within 2 is a better game than its predecessor. But what defines it – and elevates it – is its ambitious design. Taking a horror game into an open world setting could have been a disaster, but Tango Gameworks pull it off with aplomb.
Keith received a digital copy of The Evil Within 2 from Bethesda for review.