At the start of The Evil Within 2, the game’s hapless protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, relives the traumatic day that he lost his five-year-old daughter, Lily, in a house fire. Upon waking from this nightmare, he finds himself trapped in an otherworldly hotel that hosts what can only be described as an art installation from hell: Walls adorned with close-up photos of screaming murder victims appear alongside elaborately detailed creatures—comprised of women’s body parts bound together with barbed wire—that suddenly spring to life and charge at Sebastian while screaming for his flesh. It’s a spectacular and twisted opening that sets the disturbing tone for the game while evoking everything that made the original The Evil Within so striking.
The Evil Within recreated familiar locations and gameplay modes from earlier, popular survival horror series while adding contemporary third-person controls and its own unique creature designs into the mix. No two sections were beholden to the same style of gameplay, or featured the same enemy types. The game opened with a forced stealth sequence where the only escape from a demented insane asylum was to sneak by massive, unkillable butchers-cum-wardens. This led into third-person-shooter action sequences set inside Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired farmhouses in the American South where deranged cultists charged at you, a Resident Evil-style haunted mansion full of vicious traps, and so on. Players never knew where they’d end up next, nor what horrific sights they would be exposed to.
The Evil Within 2 is at its best when it retreads this path. After finding out that his daughter’s death was staged and that she’s since been trapped in a virtual nightmare, Sebastian enters the virtual town of Union, originally a utopian experiment where a group of test subjects would live in peace, now a horrific dystopia where serial killers have taken up residence inside buildings representing their twisted psyches: a psychopathic artist lives within an art gallery straight out of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal; an extremist cult leader preaches from within a medieval church furnished with barbaric torture devices. Sebastian must traverse each locale in order to free any of Union’s remaining non-sociopathic survivors and bring Lily back from the brink of hell. If players are kept invested in this ridiculous, high-concept storyline throughout, it’s because of the unusual scenarios at the game’s center and the strong characterizations of Sebastian and his family.
There’s no mystery to Union, which is grounded in exactly the way that the Beacon Mental Hospital was not.
What kept the original game from finding widespread critical and commercial success was an unfortunate combination of technical problems and daunting difficulty, and the sequel similarly struggles from a frustratingly difficult “Normal” setting. From the outset, weapons and ammunition are hard to come by, and enemies are incredibly strong; the shocking difficulty of some single-enemy skirmishes is such that your fear is liable to transform into annoyance. Worse, forced stealth sections are fraught by dreadful and unpredictable AI, where success at sneaking up behind enemies to perform kills is a gamble regardless of how careful and precise the player is, given how often enemies spin around at random and attack. Fortunately, these bumps are ironed out once The Evil Within 2 blooms into a truly action-packed extravaganza, offering up more weapons and a constant supply of ammo (through crafting) to the player, allowing you to more readily handle the threats posed by a varied bestiary of enemies that include flamethrower-wielding Cenobite rejects and long-haired ghosts reminiscent of Samara from The Ring.
The game carries on the strong visual design of its predecessor, building upon existing creations and introducing new horrors, while deviating from it via an open-world setting. The fractured town of Union, which brings to mind the foggy setting of the original Silent Hill games, can be freely traversed. And yet, story levels must still be tackled in order and few of the open-world segments or side quests are compelling, in particular the dull sequences where you’re led to a location via a radio signal to acquire a collectible. This concept might have been interesting had the town changed in interesting and unnerving ways across a playthrough, or had it utilized Sebastian’s radio equipment to mess with the player (a la P.T.). Worse, as the town and scenario are carefully explained to you from the start, the uncomfortable unpredictability and reality-questioning nature that made the original game so unsettling is entirely absent here. There’s no mystery to Union, which is grounded in exactly the way that the Beacon Mental Hospital and its experiments were not.
Because The Evil Within 2 is otherwise successful at being a potent action-horror experience, such design failures are bound to stick with the player all the way through to the final act, which inexplicably sees the game switching out its dark Silent Hill-esque rust-and-flame aesthetic for locales covered entirely in white goo, which at best alludes to the finale of Ghostbusters, and at worst brings to mind bukkake pornography. This ends with a preposterous final battle to save Sebastian’s daughter from a gigantic glazed facsimile of his wife, and while the post-battle send-off is effectively poignant, it won’t be enough for fans of the original to forgive how the game’s odd design decisions are in service of trudging one toward what’s essentially the single most ludicrous custody battle in the history of the world.