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It took a long time to get horror right. For every Babadook there was a Bye Bye Man and for every Resident Evil there was a Layers of Fear. Movies have undergone somewhat of a course correction in the last while with the likes of Get Out and It Follows ranked highly by critics across the globe but games are still playing catch-up. Tense thrills and jump scares have their place but playing a game is different from watching a movie oriented around sudden shocks. A film is over after two hours, most games keep going including the recently released The Evil Within 2 which clocks in at an average of 15 hours.
Sebastian Castellanos is down on his luck three years after the events of The Evil Within. Still traumatised by his experiences within the crumbling mind of a disfigured and deranged scientist Sebastian has been hunting MOBIUS. MOBIUS control the technology that trapped Sebastian in the nightmare realm of serial killer Ruvik’s mind and are now using Sebastian’s daughter, Lily, to create a new simulation in order to achieve global unity. If you think that’s convoluted you should play the first game. Anyway one thing leads to another and Sebastian finds himself trapped in another disintegrating hellscape in search of his missing, presumed dead, daughter.
The Evil Within 2, like its predecessor, is a flawed game. Sebastian controls like a steamroller in first gear and the game punishes most missteps with a brutal, bloody death. The enemy AI is simple and easy to fool while the characters we’re supposed to care about never really feel truly fleshed out. With all that said it’s still miles ahead of the first game in its world, story and gameplay. Playing The Evil Within 2 feels like the low-budget B-movie it should be with heavy nods to its influences and even heavier mugging to the camera. Like any good B-movie it’s flawed but never enough to frustrate even if Sebastian still greets every grotesque and ghostly creature with the same stony resilience he did in the first game.
There’s a point near the start of The Evil Within where Sebastian is dumped into a sewer filled waist high with blood and body parts. His reaction? “There’s something wrong with this place…” It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to mute the game because of how aggressively gormless the player character is. Sebastian’s grim determination in the first game left most people cold despite the slow teasing out of his tragic backstory. Sebastian’s stoic personality has changed little in the intervening three years but at least this time he’s fighting for something which leads to moments of tenderness. Unfortunately most of the emotional weight is carried by the game’s sacrificial female characters whether it’s Sebastian’s ludicrously angelic wife Myra, his Resident Evil knock-off partner Juli Kidman or one of MOBIUS’ psychologists and the sole Japanese character Yukiko Hoffman.
The Evil Within 2 was executive produced by Shinji Mikami who directed the first game as well as Resident Evil 4 the ultimate in B-movie survival horror games. The Evil Within was very much an attempt to rehash Resident Evil 4 with a more serious, psychological slant. What The Evil Within lacked in jet ski chases, evil Spanish cultists and rescuing the fucking US President’s daughter it made up for in basically nothing. By shifting from deserted villages to collapsing ruins to abandoned hospitals with no real rhyme or reason The Evil Within lacked a sense of place. By setting the sequel in the small town of Union (yeah I know just go with it) the story felt more grounded even if the town was floating in a void. Union is a miniaturised sandbox, a Lovecraftian nightmare of a sandbox but a sandbox nonetheless.
Open world games don’t have to be big. The Evil Within 2’s publisher Bethesda Softworks is famous for making enormous games such as the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. The director of the most popular installments in these series, Todd Howard, has become quite infamous among the gaming community for saying things like “See that mountain? You can go there.” It’s all well and good to be able to trek across grassy plains and radioactive deserts to get to a mountain but what do you do once you get there? The Evil Within 2 downsizes this experience and makes it more rewarding and tangible. See that old diner? You can go there and when you do a ghost lady will attack you. If you win you get a prize. No mountaineering necessary just a chilling few minutes with Sebastian’s spectral memories.
From psychopaths to zombies to cults The Evil Within 2 has it all. The game is at its most horrifying in its quieter moments. Hidden journals and audio tapes reveal what happened to the zombified innocents of Union as well as the MOBIUS operatives they went on to kill. The main villain for the first half of the game is a powerful serial killer who freezes his victims in a perpetual state of death with his camera flash. These moments are hauntingly profane in their othered artistry. Blood blossoms from an exploded head and is slowly drawn back in slow motion. Towards the end-game mutated deacons wielding purifying flamethrowers appear while a singing woman ripped straight from Ringu stalks a side-quest. All of these moments are tonally different but they gel together in a way that makes The Evil Within 2 genuinely frightening.
Horror games are notoriously flawed creations. From the run-and-hide simulators like Outlast to the frankly batshit later Resident Evil games all have their merits as well as their glaring faults. The Evil Within 2 is no different but it represents a step forward for the medium of survival horror. The game embraces its B-movie trappings such as its style-over-substance approach as well as the literal sunset ending. Oh and Sebastian’s hometown is called Krimson City for fuck’s sake! If that doesn’t tell you what this game is all about then nothing will.