The second coming of the second coming?
The Evil Within 2 probably shouldn't exist given its predecessor's limp reception amongst all but Shinji Mikami's most diligent fans. But, in this hypernormalised reality, here The Evil Within 2 is: slicker, less bizarre, and sporting one of those fashionable tragic dad stories that seem to be all the rage these days. In its stylish opening minutes, you don't need Jon Johanas' director credit to realise that this is not a Mikami joint. In addition to being a fun exercise in cliche-bingo, The Evil Within 2 sets itself up efficiently. The Matrix-esque virtual reality world of STEM that was kept under-wraps for most of the first game is presented without comment. The free-association hellscape of human filth and barbed wire that was The Evil Within's primary aesthetic is tossed out for the clean, anodyne features of a game from a western studio. Leading sad dad Sebestian Castellanos' Tragic Past is front and centre, the retconned into existence by the Johanas-directed DLC for the last game. There's hardly any preamble or intrigue, Mikami's habit of belabouring the point replaced with a straightforwardness that permeates every aspect of game.
At first blush, The Evil Within 2 wants to little to do with its scatterbrained predecessor, both in terms of its design and its story. But, I'm happy to report that The Evil Within 2 manages to give the events of the previous game genuine emotional heft while jettisoning the throwback quality that made both the original Evil Within's storyelling and design so inconsistent and frustrating.
Sebastian's quest to find his missing and presumed-dead daughter, a paragon of innocence whose very naivete is being used as the foundation for a new STEM, starts out predictable and ends thrilling. This may be a tragic dad story but it's a simple and effective one. Themes of guilt, PTSD and confronting the broken parts of yourself are woven into a tale where narcissistic artists create corpse art out of corporate goons and towering infernos erupt out of white america's platonic ideal of a small, north-western town. Mikami's love of cults, conspiracies and evil mega-corporations is still well-represented, but it's all in service of a tightly-paced, personal story whose final hours are manage to be both poignant and cathartic all at once. It's everything a dumb, campy video game horror story should be.
It's not, however, as scary or tense as a survival horror game should be. The Evil Within 2's closest contemporaries: Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, oozed a constant atmosphere of dread, while the best The Evil Within 2 can do is startle. Tension abounds while you're out in the constrained open worlds that make up the game's main play spaces due to the sound design, which is as much a part of the moment-to-moment play as it is the horror. Stealthy play is a necessity for most of the game and it's here that most of the scares are to be found. Rounding the corner onto a particularly nasty enemy is made even more intimidating by how deadly even the fodder enemies can be, but orchestrated scares are thin on the ground.
What the game has a welcome abundance of is style and camp. The game drips with influence from Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, and Twin Peaks, as well as some of the psycho-sexual creep of defunct counterpart Silent Hills. That being said, too much time in the Evil Within 2 is spent in concrete corridors and rust-coloured tombs and in those moments, I missed the buckets of gore and sado-masochistic monsters of the first game. It may be a more cohesive and technically-proficient look for the series, but it's less gross and quirky and it's where Mikami's creative distance is most keenly felt.
The most surprising thing The Evil Within 2 is that the linear, jarring structure of The Evil Within has made a smooth and elegant transition into the open-world format. The virtual Stepford Wives town of Union is delightfully Twin Peaksy and provides a great delivery mechanism for one of the unsung virtues of the survival horror genre: the power fantasy. As Rowan Kaiser argued, the new power fantasy is the accumulation of power. The sensation of being weak and then gradually becoming stronger. My favourite survival horror games, and also the most palatable in the genre to broader audiences, are those where you start off getting your ass kicked and then you eventually become unstoppable. The very nature of a tough game with limited resources is tailored to this specific permutation of the power fantasy.The different hubs and spokes of Union's two main areas facilitate this beautifully. By scrounging around, clearing out enemies and investigating radio signals, I found a rhythm where I would push into new territory, gather resources and maybe take a few hits, only to retreat to my safe-house to heal up and upgrade my kit and capabilities.
It's simple and satisfying, and upgrades come at such a pace that you can quickly spec to compensate for the game's turgid controls and artificial limitations it places on Sebastian's movement. No part of the moment-to-moment is on par with more combat and/or stealth-focused entries in the genre, but the whole package works better than it ought to. The basic combo of exploration, finding stuff and getting stronger was more than entertaining enough to sustain my interest in a 20 hour game.
The Evil Within 2 isn't the second coming of the second coming of the grandfather of survival horror. An alternate reality sequel to Resident Evil 4 this is not. Instead, The Evil Within 2 is a thoughtful, modernising sequel to a game that was overflowing with Mikami-isms, not all of which held up in world where two fantastic Dead Space games and The Last of Us had changed our expectations for survival horror. In throwing out all but the trimmed and retconned narrative baggage of the first game a lot of what was genuine and unique about The Evil Within - its gore-salad aesthetic, its clearing house of everything Mikami ever drew in his big book of scary nonsense - has been lost. However, Johanas' apparent moderating influence on Mikami's ridiculousness has ultimately been for the best. The Evil Within 2 is a re-invigoration for a series that probably didn't need to exist. It's here though, and now I want another one.