Nicole Smith ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Video Games Editor
The current landscape of high profile horror games follows the conventions of films of the same genre, with an emphasis on fast scares, heart-pounding action, and a macabre obsession with the disturbing. These patterns aren’t without their own merit, but it’s not always easy to find a scary interactive experience that doesn’t immediately reflect the trends made popular by viral titles like Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy’s. However, with the release of The Evil Within in 2014 from legendary horror game director Shinji Mikami, the industry finally seemed to have a title that somewhat broke the mold.
If jumpscare shock titles are analogous to Paranormal Activity, then The Evil Within as a series more closely resembles a Stephen King title. The action is all still there (it would be hard to imagine a video game without it) but the terror in both the first game and its sequel is more rooted in the conceptual, the aesthetic. The Evil Within introduced horror games to a mind-bending, planes-shifting world and monster designs ripped straight from the most gruesome creative minds in Japanese horror. The first game brought the player on a harrowing tour of these attractions in the way that many AAA games yearn to be cinema, but the series seems to have truly found its foothold as a stellar interactive experience in The Evil Within 2.
The plot of the sequel begins three years after the first game’s climax; Detective Sebastian Castellanos has been sent adrift by the confusion and horror following his journey through Beacon Mental Hospital when he’s tracked down by Juli Kidman, one of his former partners who turned out to be a double agent for a nebulous international organization called MOBIUS. Kidman asks for his help with investigating a series of disappearances in MOBIUS’s STEM machine, within which Sebastian was trapped and mentally tortured in The Evil Within. He’s reluctant, but she convinces him by revealing that his daughter Lily, thought dead long ago after a tragic house fire, is not only alive but trapped inside the STEM system.
The Evil Within 2’s story is notably a bit more on the nose than its predecessor, with both Sebastian and Kidman’s characters used more often as mouthpieces for exposition than the first game. However, this doesn’t detract too much from the story tonally or make it feel hokey; this information is made less vague and more readily available as Sebastian, like the player, is not flying blind this time around. The game’s renewed sense of creativity really shines in its new villain, however; whereas The Evil Within’s Ruvik was a stereotype of a psychopath—a teleporting, bloodstained young man who hunted the player at every turn—The Evil Within 2’s Stefano Valentini has a much better defined sense of flair. Following the tradition of grand second installment villains, Stefano Valentini lives and breathes in color and style to match both his horrifying backstory and the evolving world around him.
The gameplay is probably where the Western edge of the game’s new director John Johanas begins to peek through. As the AAA market steers more toward the popular open-world mechanics of recent blockbuster games, titles that simply don’t work in those parameters very often suffer. However, The Evil Within 2 sees all the more success than its predecessor by virtue of being big and fun to explore. The game expands upon and improves the first title’s RPG elements, including tight crafting mechanics and a more streamlined level progression system, and the new setting of Union, an Americana hellscape falling apart at the seams, feels vast enough to accommodate the more curious players without seeming overlarge. It’s less of an open-world as it is an open board, with each board containing its own environments and things to see, and while the game does give the player gentle pushes in one direction or another, much of the exploration and discovery on the part of the player feels perfectly natural and unique. Important plot points can be stumbled upon, enemy encounters can be personalized, and the world as a whole feels dynamic, with movement throughout never losing momentum no matter how much the player wanders.
The scares in The Evil Within 2 aren’t so much based on loud sounds and adrenaline rushes as they are through grotesque beauty. Compared to the first game, The Evil Within 2 is awash with color, each new environment flush with places to investigate and constructs to marvel at. The enemy designs are just as unsettling (the first boss is a giggling mass of heads with a buzzsaw for an arm) and Union itself is vividly realized and fascinating. The game looks amazing, and as a result, its twisted visual concepts are that much more affecting when the player unearths them. Not only that, but The Evil Within 2 allows its players learn and adapt to new scenarios. Enough time and room is given to varying enemy designs to teach the player how each encounter should be handled differently, from large enemies taken down with the shotgun to bone-white creatures that can’t be stealth killed. A notable example is a stalking enemy that takes the form an overly tall, twitchy woman. The player’s first encounter with her puts her through the barrier of a door, and allows plenty of time to realize that her position can be deduced by distortion in the walls and an eerie singing sound emitted from the controller.
What is stitched together here is a game that, while somewhat crude narratively and a bit safer mechanically, still manages to be a triumphant sequel. While the first game is more cerebral (both literally and figuratively), The Evil Within 2 still leans on the same intriguing story beats with just a slightly heavier hand. The gameplay strays more toward the conventional, but does so in such a confident and thoughtful way that the experience is fresh and fun throughout, not to mention legitimately challenging in places. For fans of the first game, or even those who thought the first game was passable, The Evil Within 2 is sure to impress.