The Evil Within 2
Developer Tango Gameworks Publisher Bethesda Softworks Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The black bars are gone. For some, that’ll be good news: whether you believe it was an artistic choice or one enforced by technical limitations, the letterboxed presentation of The Evil Within left some players feeling caged. Enough demanded a fullscreen option that Bethesda subsequently patched it in, but we weren’t convinced the change was for the better, believing the 2:35:1 aspect ratio contributed to the game’s oppressively claustrophobic feel. This follow-up expands the game’s boundaries in another sense, too, incorporating large, open outdoor areas between the cramped, fright-filled corridors of its interiors. It’s a sequel that stretches out in every sense, then, but in doing so it ends up spreading itself thinner.
At least it doesn’t start so sluggishly. After his ordeal in the first game, Sebastian Castellanos is encouraged to take another dip in the VR bathtubs of the STEM machine by double-agent Juli Kidman. His daughter isn’t dead, it transpires, but needs rescuing from a world called Union, a simulation of a smalltown idyll which doesn’t exactly match the brochure. It’s less disorientating than the original’s bewildering plot, and fleshes out its universe through documents, slides and chewy dialogue. In giving us more to go on, though, it loses some of the fear factor: after all, the unknown and the inexplicable will always be scarier than the explicit. And if Sebastian’s character was thinly sketched before, turning him into a generic grizzled action dad with guilt issues isn’t much of an improvement. There’s a nice line in self-aware humour, however, notably when our hero realises his allies are mostly field technicians. “Combat isn’t my forte,” says one. “Seems to be a running theme,” is the growled response.
Fortunately, Castellanos can handle himself in a fight, though until you’ve reduced the natural sway of his aiming arm on the upgrade screen once or twice you might have your doubts. Combat has the same backed-into-a-corner tension of the first game, but for different reasons. There are no traps to disarm and put down, and no matches to burn downed corpses. Instead, the pace has been stepped up: the mutants that populate Union might seem to suffer from severe myopia, but once they do spot you they’ll close the gap with alarming speed, and they’ll often require several headshots before they drop. Once they’re grounded, you can stomp them into pulp to save precious rounds. Staggering them, oddly, seems to grant them temporary invulnerability: you’ll see bullets clearly landing but having no effect, forcing you to delay that follow-up shot for a second or so. Not a problem when you’re facing a single mutant, but they don’t tend to come in ones.
The alternative is stealth. This time you can pin yourself to objects by squeezing the right bumper, though it tends to be a bad idea, limiting an already narrow view even further, and sometimes refusing to let you manoeuvre properly around the side of an object, either flat-out resisting or suddenly clipping you through it. You’re far better staying close to cover and crouch-walking around it, like a crab with a shotgun. It’s not always wise, since AI behaviour is as unpredictable as it is dim-witted: the kind where you spend a good while isolating and stalking an opponent, until, just as the ‘sneak kill’ prompt is about to appear, it turns around suddenly. Upgrades that quicken crouched movement and quieten your footsteps help, but one which lets you rush toward unaware enemies is so expensive you’d have to neglect the other skill trees for the rest of the game, or reserve it for New Game+. There are a few others like this, and the game is more generous with the ability-boosting green goop on a second playthrough, empowering you to mop up everything you missed with fewer sticking points. On your first run, it’s as stingy with supplies as the original, which means opening every drawer and smashing every crate you see – at least when you’re out of earshot. Crafting is perfunctory, simply giving you more buttons to press before you can slide another clip into your pistol. It does, however, introduce an intriguing dilemma when you’re in a tight spot, letting you use resources on the fly, albeit at a much higher cost than at a workbench in Union’s handful of safe houses. Here you’ll find NPCs that send you on side-missions, via a walkie-talkie of sorts that can be tuned to track objective markers, hidden stashes, and residual signals from recent events. In other words, the kind of thing we’ve seen and done plenty of times elsewhere.
Still, when your communicator isn’t crackling, and Sebastian is left to face a range of horrors without any help, The Evil Within 2 hits its stride. If the sense of disease and decay isn’t quite as palpable thanks to a lack of particle effects and a brighter palette, its imagery is consistently striking. A leering photographer-cum-serial killer frames corpses at the moment of death in artfully grisly 3D stills, before sending his pet, a giant camera balanced on butchered body parts, to hunt you down. And, among the groaning monstrosities with too many heads and limbs, one of the scariest threats is something much simpler: a bald woman with a knife, whose bloodcurdling shrieks are just one way the exceptional sound design works its macabre magic.
Otherwise, it’s only fitfully successful. Even its highlights often riff on the likes of The Last Of Us and Silent Hill, and a third-act reprise of three boss fights from the original sums up the absence of anything truly new. For all its flaws, The Evil Within felt like the work of a singular voice. This feels like several shouting at once, eventually settling their differences by compromise. The black bars are gone; instead, it’s convention that keeps The Evil Within 2 constrained.
You’re far better staying close to cover and crouch-walking around it, like a crab with a shotgun