THE EVIL WITHIN 2 Game Review: Can Open-World Horror Work?

Just one review of this one, we promise.

Tango Gameworks’ The Evil Within landed a few years ago, receiving mixed reviews, which means its sequel is expected to right all the wrongs the original made. As I never played the original, I can't speak to how The Evil Within 2 succeeds in that goal, but I can speak to the game itself. Though ambitious and consistently high in production value, The Evil Within 2 is cursed by exceptionally poor writing - and by gameplay that constantly threatens to undermine its own atmosphere.

The Evil Within 2 revolves around Sebastian, a grizzled, angry, stubbly, alcoholic white male ex-cop who lost his family inzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The Evil Within 2 revolves around Sebastian, a video game protagonist. He thinks his daughter Lily is dead, but it turns out she’s just been kidnapped by a sinister corporation to form the backbone of a dystopian new technology. Whew! The technology in question: a collective consciousness network for humanity that - in this game, at least - manifests as a virtual small American town, Union, created by Lily’s subconscious. Problem is, the whole system’s gone haywire, so Sebastian is plugged into the system to locate and save his daughter.

There are some interesting ideas going on there, for sure - and more emerge as the story progresses - but boil away the sci-fi concepts, and you’ve got Grizzled Horror Dad Looking For Lost Horror Daughter, a tired trope if ever there was one. The dialogue is head-bashingly awful, a combination of poor localisation and straight-up bad writing, much of it consisting of Sebastian exclaiming “what the hell?!” at every turn. Like many horror stories, it’s all about trauma (and not particularly charitable towards mothers), and there’s a potentially touching family tragedy at the game’s heart - it’s just surrounded by opaque Japanese-style storytelling, manga-esque villains, and more “what the hell”s. For most players, though, The Evil Within 2 will be less about the big picture and more about atmosphere, moments, and the moderate novelty of open-world survival horror.

The virtual town of Union is a creepy ol’ place. Once friendly, decked out with lived-in Americana, it's begun folding in on itself (literally) and become pockmarked with zombies and other monstrosities. Exploring Union can be pretty rewarding, revealing horror tableaus, collectibles, resources, and sometimes unique enemy encounters. There's even a creepy underground, its sewers functioning as a kind of back-door accessway to various parts of the map. The subconscious-driven sci-fi conceit is a nifty way to create a horror town with no adherence to conventional logic,but it also kinda creates some inconsistency in terms of the world’s rules.

The notion of an open-world survival horror game - with sidequests, map icons, safehouses, collectibles, and everything - makes more sense when you realise that mechanically speaking, The Evil Within 2 is a stealth game. It’s really punishing stealth - ammo is scarce, zombies can kill you by gently brushing your arm, Sebastian runs about as fast as most zombies shamble - but stealth nonetheless. Take away their twisted appearance and often-hilarious growling (you’ve never been this aware of actors going “roar” in sound booths), and The Evil Within 2’s zombies behave like any other stealth game’s security guards or cops, with repeated patrol routes, predictable AI, and so on. Sometimes they’ll jump out and give you a fright, and the more-advanced models behave quicker and nastier, but at their core, these monsters are systems-driven, and evidently so. That creates some strain in a genre defined by surprise and shock, which may be why the game’s most effective sequences forgo openness in favour of entirely-scripted horror.

The Evil Within 2’s storytelling may not be great, but its most effective horror comes in its story sequences. In the sections where players are stripped of their open-world freedoms, the developers are able to create spookier atmosphere and script sharper scares, from subtle, creepy imagery to outlandish, apocalyptic fight sequences. Some sections are unbelievably intense, using oppressive sound design. claustrophobic level geometry, and relentless enemy behaviour to great effect. The bosses are phenomenally well-designed on a visual level, ranging from distorted piles of human remains to a malevolent camera tripod to a monster that appears to be made entirely from semen. (Ah, Japan.) But again, mechanically speaking, Sebastian spends much of his time pumping lead into glowing, oozing weak spots, or running down corridors to escape unkillable enemies. And a lot of the time, The Evil Within 2's gunplay doesn’t really feel right - the final boss, especially, is one that could surely be handled more effectively with kind words than with bullets. (Hilariously, Sebastian tries both. At once.)

Perhaps the biggest annoyance, though, is the one that inevitably arises from inside you, the player. There's a constant tug of war in gaming between the “correct” way to play - maximising what the developers want the player to experience - and the way we actually end up playing games. Many players end up “optimising” their gameplay for ease or efficiency, which in this case means exploiting stealth mechanics to avoid as many enemy encounters as possible. In a horror game, a genre defined by emotional reactions, that kind of optimised gameplay is a killer. Tango tries a number of tricks to get around it - randomised spawns, in-game events that teleport Sebastian to a different plane - but then they're repetitive or exploitable after a couple goes around.

I'd go so far as to say systems-driven horror is never going to be as scary as directed gameplay. Much like the alien in Alien: Isolation or the nocturnal superzombies in Dying Light (both of which are excellent games, mind), too much exposure to The Evil Within 2's systems exposes their inner workings, turning the game into one of numbers instead of emotions. It's hard to say how much of that comes from understanding how games work - a newcomer might not see the seams so much - but it's a bummer when all you want to do is be scared.

I’m probably in the minority on this, but I genuinely think Tango Gameworks made a mistake in taking The Evil Within 2 open-world. There’s some genuinely terrific, surreal, batshit weird horror design going on in here, but it represents a minority of the game’s content. Most of your time is spent roaming around, crafting upgrades, and doing sidequests - a nice change of pace from the more stressful directed sequences, perhaps, but kind of weird when (as in all open-world games) Sebastian has important things to be doing. 

Oh yeah, and there’s a cat in Sebastian’s office, but you can’t pat it. Dealbreaker.