A sequel showing improvement isn't new to games, but it's tricky in horror, where a once-scary premise loses power the more one is exposed to it. It's why Resident Evil went action-heavy, after mining all the scares it could out of zombies. (Ironically, Resident Evil went long enough in that direction to flip the script again with Resident Evil 7.) The Evil Within was more tense than scary, dropping players into claustrophobic spaces where survival lived on a razor's edge, ammunition always at a minimum. The Evil Within 2 is exactly the opposite, with open spaces and an emphasis on exploration, experimentation, and ample time to hide, scheme, ambush. It's shockingly good.
The Evil Within marked Shinji Mikami's return to survival horror, but it was a game that pretended little had changed since Mikami turned the genre on its head with Resident Evil 4 in 2005. The Evil Within was released nearly a decade later, but felt uncomfortably old. A frustrating trial-and-error approach, combined with a still-questionable decision to slap enormous widescreen borders on the screen "in the name of art" lead most people to pass on The Evil Within. There was reason to have lowered expectations for The Evil Within 2, but in a twist worthy of a good horror film, the sequel is the game the original could have—should have—been.
The Evil Within was full of guns, but you had to be careful about using them. They were a last resort, not your first option. In many ways, it was the first "true" survival horror game I'd played in years, but one that failed to give the player enough tools while sneaking around. From the outset, The Evil Within 2 looks like the same game: You're spending a lot of time in a crouched position, waiting to stab enemies in the head with your knife. What's different is The Evil Within 2 is much more forgiving and playful. The interface now tells you how alert enemies are to your presence, it's possible to run away and try a sequence again without loading an old save, and there's plenty of ammunition. It's a game about creativity, rather than scarcity.
The first hour doesn't communicate what The Evil Within 2 is really up to. It's your standard haunted house, with the player running through creepy hallways and wincing at noises coming around the corner. The moment you reach the game's first "safe house," where you can upgrade equipment and take a sip of coffee to refill your health, everything changes.
Outside the safe house is a sprawling environment. While a handy radio will point you in the direction of side missions, most of the area is a giant unknown, meant to be be slowly picked apart, as you poke away at the dark. Gone are the cramped spaces of the original game, replaced with an opportunity to approach enemies in a variety of ways. You could be quiet and patient, slowly stealth-killing everyone in the area. Or you could distract them with a bottle, avoiding confrontation entirely. Or eye a barrel spilling gas nearby, lighting it (and everything around it) on fire. Or draw the attention of enemies, load up your crossbow with shock arrows, and zap the horde that begins shambling towards you. Or even spend time studying the patterns of the enemies, lay proximity mines in their path, and watch the fireworks. All of that is to say that unlike its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 is a game about style, not constraint.
While many of these options were technically available in the original, the chances to exercise creativity were rare; it was usually better to sneaky by and move on. A horror game that deemphasizes combat can certainly work, but The Evil Within lacked focus. It was a collection of interesting ideas thrown into an inconsistent, frustrating framework. The Evil Within 2 has found one that works.
It's unclear how much of the game will continue to be structured that way, seven hours later. I spent more than five hours in the opening area, clearing everything out. By the time I'd left, the only reason it wasn't a ghost town was because the game came up with a way to spawn new, high-level enemies explicitly designed to encourage me to move on. (I also have way more ammunition and health items than I'll ever need to beat the game. Ah well.)
My hope is the rest of The Evil Within 2 finds a balance between the two, dropping players into constrained spaces to ratchet up the tension that's removed from being able to freely run away at any time, while allowing the game's satisfying stealth and combat mechanics to blossom in larger areas.
Don't bother looking up the plot to The Evil Within, by the way. It didn't make sense when I originally played, and while I've heard the DLC filled in some of the gaps, it's schlocky nonsense that takes itself way too seriously. An evil, Umbrella-esque company has plans for world domination, and their technology has (gasp) gone awry. Here, it's virtual worlds built by connecting minds together—or something? An individual develops weird powers and people start dying, inside the machine and out.
The Evil Within 2 takes place a few years after the original, with our reluctant hero, Sebastian Castellanos, struggling to make sense over his daughter dying in a house fire. Of course, she's not dead, and Sebastian's one chance to save her is to go inside the machine, and track down what's gone wrong.
Resident Evil's mythology became a storytelling mess after five games, but The Evil Within managed to feel that way in a single one! Fortunately, you're free to ignore what's going on. The Evil Within 2 seems to care less about the machinations of its convoluted plotting, and rightly embraces a justification to present the player with some trippy and disturbing visuals.
Early on, you meet the game's mysterious villain, a dapper, artistic-minded eccentric who's clearly ripped straight from Bryan Fuller's modern interpretation of serial killer Hannibal Lecter, part of the criminally overlooked NBC series Hannibal, which ran from 2013 to 2015. The only thing missing from The Evil Within 2 is the soothing sound of Mads Mikkelsen's voice. This villain enjoys photographing his victims, using a piece of technology that captures the precise moment of death in slow motion, playing it over and over again. Through framing and and the overlaying of pretentious orchestral music, it suddenly turns violence into art.
(It also becomes a clever gameplay mechanic. Throughout the world, the villain has left cameras lying around, and if you enable them, it'll temporarily slow down enemies.)
The Evil Within 2 ultimately feels a lot like Friday the 13th Part 2. The original Friday the 13th might get all the credit for being the origin of a famous series (and having a fantastic cliffhanger), but it's just an okay movie. Part 2 is where the series found its footing, moving beyond an empty clone of a popular horror subgenre. The pieces were all there, but the deck needed to be reshuffled to made it click. The Evil Within 2 clicks.
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