The Evil Within II
Shinji Mikami passes the torch in this chilling horror sequel
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Shinji Mikami still has a soft spot for his opus, it seems. The director’s spiritual follow-up to the seminal Resident Evil 4, survival horror shooter The Evil Within, was riddled with Resi reference points, what with its murderous villagers, puzzle mansions and chainsaw-toting horrorshows. It did just enough to stand on its own, however. And considering a Mikami-less Capcom was struggling to make Resi matter in his absence, all was well. In a post- Resi VII world, however,
The Evil Within II must work even harder to step out from the shadows of its creator’s finest work.
Our time with its sequel shows that it’s not afraid to keep inviting comparison, if a grisly force-feeding scene at a dinner table early on is anything to go by. It’s when we step into the quasi-open world that we realise Tango Gameworks has lost none of its penchant for bold choices. Sure, it’s no longer enforcing the cinematic black bars of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that proved so divisive in the original game, and has made standardised shooter controls default – but non-linear progression is quite the change for a horror title. Detective Sebastian Castellanos’ quest to rescue daughter Lily from the depths of the Stem (a virtual ‘mind palace’) isn’t just a sprint through scenarios of increasing nastiness. Charting a path through Union is left up to the player. It’s a bold move, even a strange one: horror games, after all, are typically strictly directed, since pacing – breaking up the scares with downtime – is of vital importance.
“Some people see that as a negative; we see it as a positive because the original game didn’t have it,” game director John Johanas explains. “Even though it’s downtime, it’s not that you’re completely risk free – it just allows the pacing to change in what we feel is a good way. There’s an ebb and flow, of going to these linear areas and having these crafted horror experiences, and then sort of freeform exploration, with that little bit of risk attached. The way people play, they’re going to get a different experience each time.”
Johanas’ rise to the director’s chair – Mikami is now producer on the project – may have something to do with this stark shift in structure. Johanas headed up two of the first game’s DLC packages, which were notable for their heavy stealth focus. Moving between safe houses here is a tense crawl through a thick fog of dread, Castellanos clutching a pistol with terrified certainty that it’s about to fly away. The idea, it transpires, is not to enforce stealth like the first game’s DLC, but to empower it in areas the base game didn’t.
“[The DLC] wasn’t survival horror; it was just horror. You had no weapons and no way to defend yourself,” Johanas says. “In the first game there were areas where stealth wasn’t viable, and we wanted to make it as viable as possible in the sequel. There are almost no forced stealth elements; it’s optional.”
Though the map is small, crossing it feels like a Herculean task. It’s partially due to the fact that we’re playing on Nightmare difficulty, meaning hyper-alert monsters soak up our limited ammo and kill us in two hits. But it’s also because we spend so much time agonising between rocks and hard places. Tuning the radio to directional static with a face button reveals various opportunities: there’s the trail of the main narrative to follow, of course, but also downed Mobius operators to seek out in exchange for intel or new weapons. Heading up to a roof, for example, yields a broken sniper rifle and mention of a replacement barrel in the northwest. Monsters stagger and swarm around these spots, predictably, and decisions must be made: go after Lily fuelled by crafted medical syringes, or burn precious resources to nab the Warden Crossbow first?
In theory, there are multiple approaches to the jeep it sits in. In reality, there’s a carefully constructed line of cover leading to it, and other paths lead to failure: we’re chased out of bushes when the indistinct range of camouflage mode sabotages us, and an attempt to lob bottles at enemies from atop a truck is thwarted when the monsters climb up to join us. It’s disappointing, but we’re underequipped this early on – had we gone to fix the sniper rifle first, life might have been simpler. Once we grab our prize, a shock bolt into a puddle makes swift work of enemies:
The Evil Within II will, clearly, be a game of managing efficiency and creativity in the absence of a generous arsenal.
Headshots still splatter with aplomb – when a concerning amount of framerate stutter isn’t throwing off our aim, that is – and reanimated nightmares still scramble out of dark holes to slash at us, testing a kinder autosave. The demo opens with Sebastian being chased by a ghoulish lady brandishing a buzzsaw. There are plenty of Resi- esque parts still rattling around, but from what we’ve seen they’re used to punctuate a more flexible, unscripted take on horror, in which plenty of the worst things that happen to you are probably your own damn fault. Johanas may be director, and it may have resulted in a different take on Mikami’s brand of action horror, but The Evil Within II still bears its creator’s signature – to the point that we can’t help but wonder how involved he still is.
“Well, we always talk,” Mikami says. “I give him specific propositions, or advice on things I think could be done this way or that. He doesn’t necessarily follow my advice, though.”
Johanas adds: “In the first game, you’d make something, show it to him, then adjust it based on feedback. For the DLCs we were given the freedom to play, to take it in our own direction, and this is sort of an adapted version of that. It depends on the issue: sometimes it’s something I really want to do, and other times [Mikami] is, like, ‘John, you’ve got to do this’. This collaborative approach is challenging, but it isn’t as exhausting as you’d think. It’s fun. When you have differing opinions, you can create something that’s even better.”
“The way people play, they’re going to get a different experience each time”
Sebastian was by turns wooden and campy in the first game: this time, his inner struggles and realistic reactions make him more relatable
Nightmare AI foes can take five or six precious bullets to put down. Some situations call for a tactical retreat
The theoretical Stem world justifies some very surreal set-dressing.
Occasional scenes echo the tense, linear corridor chases of the first game
In case Sebastian wasn’t in enough trouble, he’s also being stalked by insane photographer Stefano and his tripod monster, Obscura
Despite the appearance of these fiery things, matches are no longer needed to destroy monsters: a swift curb stomp suffices instead
John Johanas, game director, and Shinji Mikami, producer