With Resident Evil 7: Biohazard earlier this year, the AAA survival-horror game received a shot in the arm. The action-focused excesses of previous series entries was stripped away in favour of a more contained, unadulterated experience that followed genre trends begun with Alien: Isolation and the cancelled Silent Hills. Such titles share a design philosophy of simplicity borrowed from independently-developed horror games, but The Evil Within 2 flies a different flag. Tango Gameworks’s latest offering continues to take Resident Evil 4’s action-horror as a model, while simultaneously attempting to hook into wider industry trends towards openness and freedom. The result is a fundamentally conflicted game that reaches soaring heights, but also debilitating lows.
Three years on from the previous game, returning protagonist Sebastian Castellanos is a broken man. The traumatic events that transpired at Beacon Mental Hospital and the scepticism that his claims are met with have forced him out of his job. Worsening his woes is the death of his daughter, Lily, in a house fire and the separation from his wife. Defeated, he seeks solace and a sense of purpose in the embrace of alcohol, and finds them when his former partner, Juli Kidman, steps back into his life to divulge life-changing truths. Her revelations set Sebastian on a new mission to resolve the corporate conspiracy of Mobius and the company’s latest attempt to link human minds together in a simulated world where the populace can be controlled.
The core plotlines of a tormented protagonist looking to close the book on the past and uncover a mystery are well-worn, and the developers do little to freshen the ideas. Sebastian feels like a non-entity, his personality shaped by circumstance rather than the driving force of the narrative. Throughout the game, he is reactionary and his apparent inability to think for himself results in a character who rebuffs empathy. With the player numb to Sebastian’s plight, the central plotline needs a strong hook. Unfortunately, the age-old video-game tendency to provide obstacles for the sake of padding is evident in The Evil Within 2, and the meandering story is held back further by stilted, clichéd dialogue. Thus, the game’s directed storytelling, in general, is catastrophic. A slight saving grace comes from the environmental narratives and some of the ghostly memories spattered across the world, as the hints of human tragedy and overwhelming emotion resonate more strongly than all the wasted words of Tango Gameworks’s writing team ever could.
Indeed, the simulated environment of Union is one of the game’s strongest elements. The id-tech-based game engine shines in its ability to create an array of settings, from sprawling urban hubs to tight industrial corridors, with an equal, and sometimes stunning, level of detail and polish. The main playable locale is a semi-rural area that is meant to represent, in the words of Sebastian, “Anytown, U.S.A.” Union is a convincing interpretation of small-town America, with a would-be quiet atmosphere enforced by a careful balance of nature; industry; and rustic, wood-built homes. If not for the dusky lighting and presence of monsters, the setting would be idyllic, but those unsettling elements are necessary parts of the experience. Many of the best examples of the horror genre—from Lovecraft to Hitchcock and King—take the familiar and imbue it with disquieting qualities. The Evil Within 2 subscribes to this philosophy, creating a sense of unease that bubbles just under the surface across the course of the adventure. Unfortunately, the game is too keen on many of its terrors to use them effectively, meaning that exploring the twisted takes of homely environments and coming face-to-face with deformed foes quickly loses the initial thrill.
Tango Gameworks’s propensity to change things up with enemies that fail to fit established patterns goes some way towards mitigating the growing sense of tedium, but is not enough to overcome it entirely. Several of the most egregious issues seem to stem from the decision to make The Evil Within 2 a semi-open-world game. The large hubs (linked together by straightforward industrial corridors) are brilliantly designed, with the most interesting side objectives well-placed to incentivise exploration. However, the incessant radar pings that notify players of ammunition caches and other collectible goodies detract from the tension, a trait made more frustrating by the reality that the reward often does not match the effort required to claim it. Although stealth is frequently a wise option to conserve resources, the game’s design seems geared towards open combat. Some enemy types cannot be killed with only one of Sebastian’s stealth attacks and their awareness of the character alerts other nearby foes, yet clear evidence of the combat focus is in the arsenal. After only a handful of hours and a small amount of exploration, the player is equipped with a handgun, shotgun, sniper rifle, and crossbow. Ammunition is relatively scarce, but the raw materials required to craft more are scattered abundantly throughout Union, almost guaranteeing readiness for any fight. Therefore, opportunities for a player-directed experience are present, although the core design restricts agency in a way that most open-world titles do not while simultaneously failing to provide the thrill-ride diversity of linear games, resulting in a plodding, repetitive outing.
Despite the general monotony, The Evil Within 2 is rife with could-have-been-brilliant elements. The NPC design—particularly that of the bosses and recurring enemies—shows an inventive take on body horror and a firm awareness of those visual cues most likely to disturb. Unfortunately, the zombie-like standard enemies fail to display such imagination, being too familiar to be frightening. Meanwhile the audio (poor voicework aside) adheres to a diamond standard. The weapons have a meaty tone that convinces of their stopping power and the ambient sounds reinforce the perversion of familiarity found in the visual design. However, even the effective foley pales in comparison to the background music. Understated most of the time, the discordant instrumentation rises and falls in a perfect cadence to match the on-screen tension, whether that be peaceful exploration, stressful stealth, or all-out action. The soundscape invests the player in the game and heightens the horror, even though so much is pedestrian.
Although some of the most egregious issues of the previous game have been smoothed over (notably the restrictive camera and unimaginative bosses), the move to a semi-open-world for The Evil Within 2 creates more problems than it solves. The attempt to meld survival-horror tropes with player freedom slows the pace enough to destroy any real sense of tension or fear. Forcing the aforementioned aspects alongside a traditional, should-be-linear (and unsatisfying) story further hints at an uncertainty on the part of the developers about whether to follow their intention or the demands of the market. Despite the many disappointing factors in The Evil Within 2, the environmental and audio design can comfortably be called industry-leading. Unfortunately, the brilliance of a few areas is not enough to overcome the humdrum quality of the bulk of the game.
Reviewed on PC.