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This official art for The Evil Within 2 features one of the game’s main villains, Stefano Valentini. Stefani wields a knife in one hand and a camera in the other. A strange camera-esque creature is also leaning out from behind his shoulder. Both Stefano a Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

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The Evil Within 2 review

Bethesda’s horror series finds new life with more open design

Effective horror usually requires a highly directed experience — careful directorial control over each plot beat to keep the tension building, a hand guiding the camera to make sure you see whatever horrific creature lurches behind the protagonist. The Evil Within 2 turns this genre necessity on its head, allowing you to explore at your own pace but, as if by magic, without lessening the pressure necessary for horror to be scary.

2014’s The Evil Within wasn’t nearly this ambitious. Despite work from major names such as Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami, that debut effort from developer Tango Gameworks was somewhat disappointing. Though it had a great setting, it had no sense of pacing, an abundance of frustrating boss fights and boring writing that made it hard to care about the characters.

I’m currently eight hours into The Evil Within 2, and what’s most impressive so far is how this sequel addresses each individual complaint about the first game one by one, like it’s working through a checklist. And it does all of this on top of greatly expanding in scope and freedom.

October 12, 2017 - The First Eight Hours

If you skipped out on The Evil Within, don’t worry. The sequel continues the story of hard-luck now-ex-cop Sebastian Castellanos, but it doesn’t require a knowledge of the original so much as a willingness to give in to the game’s off-the-rails narrative. Three years after the first game’s murder investigation gone wrong, Castellanos is forcibly recruited by a mysterious organization called Mobius and thrust back into the “STEM” world, an alternate reality where (once again) people have begun turning into monsters that exist on the body horror continuum between the works of Raimi and Cronenberg.

While the gruff Castellanos is no more of an engaging character than last time around, he at least has a more personal motivation. His daughter Lily, who he believed died in a tragic fire years ago, is alive and trapped in the STEM world as well. It’s a small and cliché addition, but those added stakes do wonders for The Evil Within 2, providing some real momentum and a reason for Castellanos and the player to keep pushing forward.

By leaping directly into the STEM world, The Evil Within 2 is also able to immediately embrace one of the best aspects of the first game: how completely batshit weird it got in its later segments. The sequel finds Castellanos jumping between odd locales right from the start. One second he’s in a strange, slow-motion killer’s ornate art gallery, and the next he’s walking through a warped flashback of Beacon Mental Hospital, the setting of the last game. The Evil Within 2 waits for the precise moment I have my bearings in a location, then rips the rug of reality out from underneath me.

Most of my first eight hours with The Evil Within 2 has been set in a sleepy city called Union. It was built by Mobius to be the ideal alternate reality utopia, and Castellanos calls it “any town, USA.” That sort of broad evocativeness works in the game’s favor, creating much more of a sense of place than the first game ever accomplished. Tacky art hangs on walls, neon signs flicker above small-town shops, and mundane junk litters closets and office desks. Union may be a fake alternate reality where you can travel through computers to get from location to location, but Tango Gameworks puts in the effort to make it feel like a real, recognizable, lived-in place — albeit one that has sunk into devastation and terror.

This screenshot from The Evil Within 2 shows protagonist Sebastian Castellanos facing off against a mutated human. The creature is lunging at Sebastian, covered in blood and with strange worm-like creatures coming out of its head and a single glowing red Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

Beyond just being a more interesting setting, Union introduces one of the biggest departures The Evil Within 2 takes from its predecessor: large, open locations. You can spend hours exploring every inch of Union, and the game rewards that thoroughness with more of the limited resources Castellanos needs to survive. I scoured the auto shops, visitor’s centers and abandoned train yards at length, digging up ammunition and crafting material. The city is intricately designed and peppered with gifts all over in a way that really encourages taking your time.

Naturally, with a bigger area to explore come side objectives as well. The Evil Within 2 lets you find optional quests by pinpointing stray frequencies with a “communicator,” a sort of walkie-talkie that Castellanos carries with him. These extra tasks range from mundane resource drops — you’ll find many Mobius soldier corpses with a lot of ammo and pouches that increase your carrying capacity — to completely new areas and fully fleshed-out subplots. You never know what you’ll find by following a stray signal, which makes me want to hunt all of them down.

I’m astounded by the way that The Evil Within 2 takes light “open-world” gameplay and makes it work within a horror context. I’m used to horror games being strictly linear; sure, the first Evil Within had a few large rooms to mess around and try different combat strategies in, but there was always a single path forward, keeping the the pace in step. Here in Union, you can go in any direction you want, and yet the pacing doesn’t suffer.

This screenshot from The Evil Within 2 shows main character Sebastian Castellanos facing a door. Beyond the door, a strange ghostly figure can be seen lurching forward. She is wearing tattered, bloody clothes and dark black hair is completely covering her Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

I’m still not sure how Tango Gameworks accomplishes this, but even as I’ve run up and down the same street for the sixth time, it keeps throwing surprises at me. On my initial pass, I’ll clear a garden full of enemies. The next time through, a new one has spawned in a just-hidden-enough location to make me jump with surprise. Or I’ll run past a house I’ve already rummaged through, but I’ll hear a woman screaming, pulling me back to find something new and shocking.

I don’t know if The Evil Within 2 will be able to work this magic right up until the credits — which seem a lot further off than they did in the first game — but for now, I’m extremely impressed. The game just keeps tossing everything it has at me, and every time I think I’ve seen it all, it gives me some unique revelation, some dreadful apparition I’ve yet to encounter. That push and pull, between wanting to see what the game has in store next and being terrified to find out — that delightful feeling is why I play horror games, and so far this one is nailing it.

Update: October 18, 2017 — The finished game and score

As I worked through the back half of The Evil Within 2 last weekend, one question kept repeating over and over again in my head: How? How did they pull this off? How does it work so well?

The answer, as best I can discern it, is pacing. The previous The Evil Within struggled with this, jumping from scene to scene with no regard for letting the player breathe and spacing out reveals and building tension slowly. It was non-stop; it was exhausting.

The Evil Within 2 is a night-and-day difference from that muddled mess. It is, hands-down, one of the best-paced horror/action games I’ve played in years.

the protagonist of The Evil Within 2 is threatened with a large blade, pointed right above his eyebrow Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

The deeper I got into The Evil Within 2, the more it became clear precisely what the game benefits from with its handful of larger open areas. It’s not about creating a huge open world that you can get lost in for ages. Rather, these bigger zones — three in total throughout the game — serve as a tool of pacing.

It’s not that these wider open spaces are safe, exactly. They have plenty of enemies and increasingly dangerous threats as the game progresses. But those enemies are also more spread out, and the game generally is pulling less tricks related to the very state of your mental being while you’re in those levels. Where the linear sections of The Evil Within 2 are more intense, these bigger areas focus more on exploration, on taking your time to explore and carefully chart your path around or through gatherings of enemies.

These bits wouldn’t be as effective as they are if the resources in The Evil Within 2 weren’t so finely tuned. I made use of nearly every item I picked up throughout the whole of my 20-some hours in the game — every bullet, every medkit and especially every item that allowed me to improve my guns and abilities.

Beyond ammo and healing items, Sebastian also collects “weapon parts” and some weird green gel that drops from fallen enemies. The former is used to upgrade your guns, giving them more damage, more ammo capacity, faster reloads and so on; the latter upgrades Sebastian himself, with abilities ranging from the obvious (more health and stamina) to the game-changing (the ability to slow down time when aiming your weapons). These dual upgrade systems feel both well-developed and weighty. Choosing whether to spread my weapon parts around to different guns or focus them all into making my pistol a non-stop death machine, for example, had a major lasting impact on how I played the game, as did whether I centered Sebastian on combat or stealth upgrades.

The only part of The Evil Within 2 that doesn’t feel perfectly, tightly bound together is the crafting system. Crafting is essential in the game as a means of pulling together just a little more survival potential. Inevitably, though, I spent most of my gunpowder on the cheapest and most plentiful possible item: pistol bullets. Sometimes I would splurge on some shotgun shells or flamethrower ammo — especially right before a big boss encounter — but more often than not, I wanted the most bang for my buck, so to speak.

Sebastian watches as a house burns at night in a cutscene for The Evil Within 2 Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

In particular, The Evil Within 2 seems to want you to craft lots of ammo for the crossbow, but I very rarely found that weapon worth using. As such, I ended the game with dozens of metal pipes and nails in my inventory. Your inventory is unlimited as far as carrying crafting components goes, so it’s not the worst fate in the world, but it stood out in a game where everything else seems so perfectly designed.

When you’re not searching for materials in the more open areas, The Evil Within 2 pushes you into more linear, directed sequences that move the story forward. These are where you’ll find the scariest and most pulse-pounding moments of the game, and also where you’ll fight its bosses.

I want to call out the boss fights specifically, because these were another major failing of the first game. In The Evil Within, boss battles were a frustrating affair where you were provided with little sense of if you were doing real damage to an enemy or what the best method was to kill it. In the sequel, boss fights are a blast.

Both in terms of showing players that the boss is being properly injured and just visualizing elements of the environment better, The Evil Within 2 makes it really clear how to fight a boss without the need to die and restart over and over. One fight against a chainsaw-wielding monster has traps and explosive barrels set up around the environment. In another clever battle, your goal is simply to keep the unstoppable bad guy busy while a clock runs down.

There’s even a surprising boss rush that is, somehow, not awful to play.

Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

That boss rush serves as a lead-in to the final act of The Evil Within 2, and what a final act it is. If the game as a whole is an example of how to get pacing right in video games, the last few hours demonstrate the absolute ideal approach to a conclusion — the rising action, climax and denouement each applied with skill and care.

The Evil Within 2 pulls off an ending that had me buzzing with excitement, despite it not even being a particularly good story. I won’t spoil anything here, of course, but Sebastian’s search for redemption remains pretty goofy and corny throughout. Tango Gameworks embraces that cheese, however, leaning into it and continuously raising the stakes in the finale until I couldn’t help but be drawn in. It’s just silly, dumb fun, and I loved every second of it.


The same could be said for the game itself, honestly. The Evil Within 2 represents one of the starkest and most astounding turnarounds from a debut title to its sequel that I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a brilliant horror game, one that understands when to ratchet up tension and when to pull back and let you collect yourself. If the first game was a failed attempt to capture the spirit of Shinji Mikami’s classic Resident Evil 4, the sequel is a successful attempt at something much better: finding a chilling, exhilarating voice of its own.

The Evil Within was reviewed using an early final “retail” Steam download code provided by Bethesda. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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