Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

The First The Evil Within was a unique and bombastic take on the horror genre. Under the direction of seasoned horror game expert Shinji Mikami, it was a hyper-violent body horror extravaganza that was heavy on difficulty and combat, but underwhelming in most other departments.

The sequel, under the direction of John Johanas with Mikami producing, was revealed to the world via an enigmatic trailer earlier this year. That trailer was as confusing as to be expected from the franchise, and for those of us who have played the first one, the fact it made no sense made perfect sense.

Now that I’ve finally got my horror-loving hands on The Evil Within 2, I was surprised by how much it has evolved from the first game. The soul is still very much alive, and the horror and ingeniously twisted ideas are still here in spades, but it’s packaged in a profoundly different and much more polished body. The Evil Within 2 is a remarkably cohesive fusion of eastern and western gameplay mechanics, and is far deeper than its predecessor in almost every respect.

You can pick up The Evil Within 2 here for $59.99. 

The gameplay within

For those who haven’t played the first TEW, here’s the deal: it was created by Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame and, more relevantly, Resident Evil 4 fame. Like that stellar title, it’s an over-the-shoulder survival horror shooter, with an emphasis on exploration, oodles of violence, and some very light puzzles.

The primary focus is environment exploration, and survival against waves of horribly transformed creatures in fairly linear environments.

The Evil Within 2 keeps this basic premise intact. You’re still navigating fevered, disjointed environments that are tied together with mind-bending transitions that defy physics, you’re still pitted against truly disturbing monsters and relentless bosses. There’s more of all of that.

Your primary defense against these terrifying creatures is still guns. Your typical arsenal mostly, consisting of handguns, shotguns, sniper rifles, and the series mainstay, the Agony Crossbow. Ammo is terribly scarce, especially on harder difficulty settings, so stealth is very much encouraged.

In fact, it’s a necessity, and that’s one of the most profound changes that TEW 2 implemented. The first game was essentially a long group of linear explorable environments, stitched together in whatever order the mostly incoherent story dictated. TEW 2 still has a huge variety of environments, it wouldn't be the same franchise if it didn’t, but it also has something very new: an explorable world.

The town of Union is an amalgamation of the consciousness of everyone connected to the STEM machine, and it’s explorable from very early on in the game. It’s fractured, both metaphorically and physically, and completely overrun with horrific zombie-like creatures that increase in number and power as the narrative progresses.

This is where stealth comes into play, especially early on. You cannot hope to kill everything, and you wouldn’t have enough ammo even if you wanted to, so sneaking up on these creatures and disposing of them through extraordinarily violent means is often the best option.

The stealth is fairly simple, Splinter Cell this is not, but it works well enough to be satisfying. Hiding in bushes and attacking creatures rarely gets old, and I found myself relying on this tactic even after obtaining significant firepower.

Upgrade your armory

When you do bring out the firepower, you’ve got options aplenty. Though you start off with a simple handgun, there is a surprisingly robust upgrade system that caught me by surprise. As with the previous entry, you can upgrade your characters attributes (vitality, stealth, stamina, etc.) via a rather terrifying contraption you might recognize from the first title. There are also workbenches that allow you to upgrade your weapons in a similar way. I ended up putting most of my weapon parts into my handgun, and by the end of the game I was popping heads with abandon. Customizing your weapon to your playstyle is always a welcome addition.  

You can also craft items like ammunition and health at these workbenches, or on the fly. It’s significantly more expensive to craft items in the field than at the workbenches, which means you have to decide whether you need that extra ammo now, or if it can wait until the next time you’re in a safe house.

There are also multiple versions of some weapons available. If you explore the town of Union diligently, you’ll often uncover side quests that reward you with new weapons (sniper rifle, woo-hoo!) or variations on the classics, like a silenced handgun for stealth fans or a decidedly un-stealthy double barrel shotgun. You don’t have to get these items, but like any good side quest, the rewards are absolutely worth it, and do have a substantial impact on how the game is played.

It’s worth exploring every nook and cranny of the environments for these upgrades.

Environmental impact

And what environments they are. The first game hit on all the basic horror cliches, while veering into action game territory near the end, but TEW 2 has much more dynamic, well-crafted spaces to explore and be disemboweled in. From the terrifyingly twisted museum, to the Silent Hill-esque decaying town, TEW 2 revels in environmental detail. These spaces ooze creativity as well; the ending sequence in particular impressed me as something I had never seen before.

The only exception to this is the rather generic connective tissue of the town, the Marrow. This is how you travel to different sections of Union, and the drab concrete corridors are a stark contrast to the creativity and detail placed in the rest of the environments. These sections were by far my least favorite, though fortunately there aren’t many of them.   

In each area there are safe locations, appropriately called safe houses. In these rooms you can refill your health via a tasty cup-of-joe, or pick up life saving ammo and health syringes. Often times you’ll find field operatives out in Union, and these useful fonts of information and narrative motivation will sometimes reside in these safe houses.

Using the mirror teleportation from the first game, you can also travel to a psychologically constructed version of the main character’s office. Here you’ll learn more about your past via collectible slides, and be able to access all of your upgrade options.

These safe locations are a welcome respite from the very unsafe world of Union.  

Graphics

The first game got some flak for not looking so hot, but that issue is rectified here. The character models are still firmly in the uncanny valley, but the rest of the game looks great. It’s not up to Uncharted standards, but it’s a vast improvement over the last game visually. And there’s no ridiculous letterboxing, which should come as a relief for console players without access to console commands.  

Narrative

Full disclosure: I did not like the story in the first game. Though the idea of a machine that allows people to experience their psychological predilections as though they were real is a compelling one, the first game squandered it with asinine dialogue, incomprehensible transitions, and a preoccupation with set pieces that steamrolled any narrative consistency.

If you’re interested in exploring the lore of the first Evil Within, which I recommend you do before beginning this sequel, you can check out our full breakdown here.

The story of both games focuses on the STEM machine, a device that allows people to construct a reality based around shared consciousness. Think a collective Matrix constructed from your thoughts and desires. As is to be expected, everything goes horribly wrong, and the horror element comes from the twisted recesses of people’s worst thoughts, made manifest and all too real.

Mikami’s strength has never been storytelling, but even by those standards the first Evil Within was lacking. I’m a fan of narrative ambiguity in horror, Silent Hill is one of my favorite franchises, but opacity cannot be a substitute for a lack of narrative cohesion.

I’m happy to report that this issue has been addressed in the sequel. Like so much of TEW 2, it took what works in the first game and refined and built upon it. You still control the eternally non-plussed detective Sebastian Castellanos, only this time he’s going back into the STEM machine to search for his daughter. It’s essentially a retread of the premise of the first game, only this time Sebastian is going in willingly, and the narrative is framed by the events happening outside of STEM even as Sebastian struggles to survive inside.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but as in the first game, the presence of certain eccentric psychopaths turns the citizens of the virtual Union into monsters, and their megalomaniacal obsession with controlling the STEM and everyone in it is the backdrop of the narrative.

When exploring the mental constructs of these monstrous people there are some truly unsettling moments, most notably in the mind of the art obsessed serial killer Stefano Valentini. You can get a taste of his insanity in this gameplay video from a gameplay event a few months back:

What starts off as a fairly straight forward video game premise of “Gotta find my daughter!” evolves into a surprisingly poignant commentary on the lengths parents will go to defend their children. The ending is particularly memorable, and the last boss fight is one of the better I’ve experienced, in terms of both gameplay and story.

I wouldn’t say the story is particularly original, but it’s told very well, with mostly strong voice acting, and excellent scene direction. Like most of TEW 2, it’s a huge improvement over the original, and proudly wears its inspiration on its sleeve.

There’s also some very cool throwbacks to the original title that I won’t spoil here, I’ll only say that they’re clever without being too self-referential.

Evil inspired

The Evil WIthin 2 feels like an unapologetic amalgamation of a few different games. If Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill, The Last of Us, and Assassin's Creed were hooked up to STEM, The Evil Within 2 is probably what you would experience.

Normally this would come off as lacking in creativity, but for the most part these disparate elements are implemented effectively enough that I can’t complain. TEW 2 has the narrative premise of Assassin's Creed, the story thrust and environmental inspiration of the first Silent Hill, (man heads into horribly transformed town to find his young daughter,) the stealth combat, item crafting, and enemy design of The Last of Us, and the light puzzle solving and overall tone of Resident Evil 4.

You could certainly take your inspiration from worse places, and this unique fusion of eastern and western games makes for a unique and compelling gameplay experience that stands out.

Challenge

That's a fair response.

The first Evil Within was rightly critiqued as quite challenging. That’s not a criticism, it is called SURVIVAL horror after all. It might have been a turn-off for some though, so The Evil Within 2 provides more options when it comes to difficulty levels. The normal difficulty (Survival) is still no walk in the park. The creatures take significant damage, and the scarcity of the ammo keeps things tense. The Casual difficulty is substantially easier as you’d imagine, and is perfect for those who want a very moderate challenge but are more focused on exploration or story.

The Nightmare mode is billed as for those who like the intensity of the first game, and it’s freakin’ hard. I’m a fan of options, and TEW 2 seems to have catered to just about every challenge level.

When you complete the game there’s also a New Game Plus mode, which allows you to play through the game again to find the collectibles and side quests you missed the first time around, while keeping some of the improvements you’ve made.  

A deliciously evil sequel

As a sequel, The Evil Within 2 is a resounding success, and is a vast improvement over the original. That being said, I suspect there might be some die-hard fans of the first game who might be unhappy with the push toward more variety and the inclusion of side-quests. They might say that this move toward complexity and the inclusion of a casual setting is a dilution of the purity of the first game. I disagree. Everything good about The Evil Within is still here; the challenge (if you want it,) the disturbing imagery, the high concept narrative, and the satisfyingly violent gameplay.

But there’s more here too. There’s a story that achieves its lofty goals, an upgrade system that contributes replay and variation, and a larger and more cohesive world to explore.

This is how sequels should be done. Take what was good about the first, build on it, take it in new directions, and trim away what was holding the first one back.

When I finished the first Evil Within I wasn’t super excited about The Evil Within 2. Now that I’ve finished the sequel, I’m very excited about a potential Evil Within 3.