Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Evil Within 2

While the original The Evil Within developed more of a cult following, it still sold well enough to warrant a sequel, The Evil Within 2, released three years later in 2017 to generally positive reviews from critics. However, while Shinji Mikami was still involved, he stepped down to a supervisor role and let John Johanes take over as the director. Whether or not the change in director works depends on who you ask, but I personally found it a dramatic improvement over the original in several areas, especially since I played it immediately after finishing the original, though the writing still bugged me for a different reason.

Three years after the first game, Sebastian Castellanos, still traumatized by the Beacon incident, has led the Krimson City Police Department. The memory of his daughter Lily dying in a house fire and of his wife Myra, who couldn’t accept Lily’s death, abandoning him continues to haunt him as he searches in vain for his KCPD partner Judi Kidman. As Sebastian drowns his sorrows in alcohol, Kidman appears and tells him that Lily is actually still alive. Sebastian is then taken to a secret Mobius facility and learns that Lily is the Core of a new STEM project to simulate a town called Union, but something has gone wrong and they need him to dive in and locate Lily and their missing agents. Sebastian reluctantly dives in and immediately discovers that Union is now a living nightmare and suspects that a mysterious photographer has something to do with it.

Compared to its predecessor, The Evil Within 2’s story is much easier to follow, with far less left vague or incomprehensible. Sebastian’s past is also explored much further here than in the original, which gave his backstory entirely through documents with little elaboration or signs of how it affected him. In fact, you start out here by playing through the initial event from his perspective and his relationship with his wife and daughter is a core part of the story. Stefano also has an interesting concept for an antagonist, a photographer with an insatiable hunger for the perceived beauty in death. His own backstory may not be as compelling as Ruvik’s, but his consistent camera theme still helps him stand out.

New horrors await Sebastian in Union.

That said, the story does feel somewhat unfocused, as the story pivots halfway through with a new antagonist that feels more painfully generic. Another character roaming around in Union joins the fray as well, but they at least had some foreshadowing beforehand. If Stefano couldn’t be the main antagonist, then I would at least have preferred if the actual main antagonist had a more interesting theme or backstory. Despite how the story ultimately pans out, the post-credits scene sets up the possibility of a sequel, so here’s hoping that if it does happen, we’ll get a stronger story.

Fortunately, the gameplay has dramatically improved over the original in just about every single way. Just for a short list, Sebastian has a much longer sprint that doesn’t go away at low health, he can regenerate some health when at critical condition, he can now hold more than one bottle and escape grabs with them, Lost can actually drop their weapons when killed and, best of all, you don’t need to burn enemies and they’ll simply stay dead. Unlike in the original game, you can now set weapon and item shortcuts that will stay until you change them, even if you run out of the item you set. Crafting now extends beyond bolts for the Warden Crossbow and includes ammo for other guns and healing items, as long as you have enough materials. Sebastian now also has a survival knife that can both makes melee a viable option and lets him break open boxes for the chance at more ammo or crafting materials.

While there are some interesting sections with non-Euclidean level design, the biggest change to the game comes from the inclusion of open world sections within Union. I actually really liked these, since it experiments more with The Evil Within’s gameplay and lets players approach Lost in new ways. This time I didn’t get as much of the Souls vibe as with the last one, but I appreciated that the developers didn’t make Union unnecessarily large for the sake of it and instead made it so it wouldn’t take too long to run between major landmarks. While some additional mechanics aren’t exclusive to the open world segments, they are used the most often there. For instance, Sebastian can use a Communicator to track down Resonance Points, which will either lead to a Residual Memory that illuminates more of Union’s history or a downed Mobius Agent carrying a reward like extra ammo, resources or ammo pouches that expand how much ammo you can carry for each weapon. While stealth is also more viable in this game, it’s especially so in Union, where bushes can completely conceal Sebastian from enemy view.

Residual memories shed some light on the story.

The Evil Within 2 also introduces optional side missions with their own unique rewards. These rewards are usually worth the effort, offering unique weapon varieties that can really help depending on your approach. Side missions aren’t the only way to obtain new weapons, which also come with a great quality-of-life perk. If you want to switch to a different gun type and make that your default, as I did a couple times, then you won’t lose any ammo in the process, as all guns use the same ammo pool of their respective type. That means that if you switch from a Handgun with 12 bullets to a Laser-Sighted Pistol, for instance, the Laser-Sighted Pistol will now have 12 bullets loaded in the chamber.

While roaming around Union or through the Marrow, a tunnel system that helps Mobius members easily reach other parts of the town, Sebastian can also find a few Safe Houses. Here, he can speak with certain members of the Mobius team he was sent to locate, as well as save his game. However, these rooms also include some great quality of life changes. Sebastian can now refill his health with coffee makers, though they’re understandably on a cooldown; grab materials or ammo from supply boxes that replenish over time; and use workbenches to craft items or upgrade the attributes of various weapons with Weapon Parts and the rarer High-Grade Weapon Parts. Though Sebastian can craft out in the field, using a workbench consumes fewer materials.

Warden Crossbow bolts also have environmental effects.

Safe Houses aren’t the only reprieve, however. Sebastian can still use mirrors, but they will now send him to a room of his own, which he subconsciously based on the KCPD offices. Here, he can not only save his game and use a workbench, but also upgrade his own attributes with Green Gel and the rarer Red Gel across five different upgrade trees. Locker keys return, but there is now only one wall of lockers and you can select which one to open much more easily by scrolling instead of looking from the right angle. Later in the game, Sebastian also has access to a shooting gallery where he can put his aiming skills to the test and possibly earn more Green Gel and crafting materials for a good performance. Sebastian can also view photographic slides he has collected and discuss them with Kidman, which earns him additional Green Gel, or view special documents and mysterious objects, all Bethesda game references, that he has collected.

So dramatic are this game’s improvements that I don’t have many complains, but they do stick out. One that’s perhaps more minor is that certain options are locked behind having a Bethesda account. Though these options do include cheats likes infinite stamina, one-hit kills and invincibility, it also includes the AKUMU difficulty, which fans of the original game would likely find more enticing. I’ll also admit that I played on Casual for the sake of the story, but this setting did feel a bit one-sided in Sebastian’s favor, at least from my experience, as I could reliably lean on the Handgun and Shotgun while only using the Warden Crossbow when necessary and didn’t worry as much about dying. My biggest issue, however, was that the second half of the game felt far more linear than the first. As I really enjoyed how the game handled the open world segments, I wish that the liner portions were reserved more for a “point of no return”, if only to leave room for expanding on the exploration.

As with the gameplay, there are noticeable improvements with the graphics. The character models are more detailed and the enemies, both the Lost and bosses, explore body horror in a new way. While I appreciate how the original game didn’t hold back from showing very gruesome imagery, I like how some of the more unsettling designs in this installment come from more subtle details, mainly in faces. That said, I’ll admit that the final boss gave me some mild Attack on Titan vibes, so make of that what you will. I also found the subtitles of all things improved, as they now label the speaker, which really helps with accessibility.

There's also still room for horrors like the Obscura.

If I had to nitpick, however, I did notice some texture loading, though not quite as bad as the original. Balancing this, however, I did notice more clipping, like when Sebastian phased through a box while climbing into the back of a delivery truck.

Before I end, I’d also like to praise the sound design. Some sound cues carry over from the previous game, which creates a sense of continuity, but one noise that a gooey monster made sounded unsettling in how it shifted. There’s also one recurring optional encounter with a ghost lady who somehow knows Sebastian’s name, but all of her chants and noises go through the DualShock 4 controller speaker on the PS4, which surprised me the first time and kept me on edge with each appearance.

Hearing sound from the DualShock 4 speaker amplifies the tension.

From my experience, The Evil Within 2 stands out as one of the better sequels that knows what went wrong the first time and knows where to improve or even experiment with something new. The shift to more atmospheric and psychological horror is also welcome and, though it’s not the same as the first game, is very effective. However, the second half of the game, both in its writing and linear gameplay structure, doesn’t quite match the highs of the first half. Despite that, this is still a solid survival horror experience I’d recommend, even to those who haven’t played the original.

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