Some people have all the luck - but Sebastian Castellanos, the protagonist of The Evil Within 2, is not one of them. Fresh from his escapade in a mental hospital gone wrong in the first game, The Evil Within 2 opens by revealing poor old Seb's latest tragedy to beset the unfortunate detective - the death of his young, beloved daughter in a horrendous house fire.
Or at least, that's what he thought had happened. After hitting the bottle and spending most of the next two years in a depressive stupor, beating himself over the fact he couldn't save his daughter, an old friend reappears with an interesting message to share. It turns out your daughter isn't dead - she's alive. But whether she's safe or not, they aren't able to say. Having actually been kidnapped, Seb's daughter is now at the centre of STEM - a hive mind style machine that essentially lets people "live in their memories", which featured in the first game, but whose history is sadly mostly glossed over in this game. Needing an innocent mind to run, Seb's daughter was the chosen one - and now she's gone silent. A search party went into the world to check everything was OK, but no sooner had they done so than all contact was lost. And that's why they went and found you. As the person who knows Lily better than anyone else, if anyone can find her, it's you - although whether you'll actually get to have your daughter back or not is anyone's guess.
And so, as a desperate man, you enter a bizarre world of memories, where equally bizarre events have been taking place. For starters, almost the entire populace seems to have turned into zombies, or monsters - and weirder still, you start having random flashbacks and visions as you wander the artificially created world. Known as Union, and intended as a kind of paradise, the idyllic town has unravelled into nothing short of a nightmare - and it's up to you to figure out what's going on.
In terms of gameplay, this is a markedly different kind of game to the original Evil Within. Whereas the first game told a Resident Evil style story of locked doors, puzzles, and a creepy mansion, the Evil Within 2 instead spreads its story over the creepy town. With more than a hint of Alan Wake to it, perhaps because of the similarities of its sleepy town-turned-bad, you find yourself armed with a communicator device, which (thanks to some odd technology) can pick up the resonance of the memories of people within the town. Giving you all the clues you need to get started on your journey, it's your job to follow the trail of both your daughter, and the agents who went in before you.
And for the most part, this is a game that feels a lot better than what came before it. With gameplay that takes you all over the town, the "survival" part of the survival horror gameplay here comes from the materials you can scavenge. As bullets are in short supply - and health packs even more so - you'll need to keep a close eye out for the constituent parts as you wander around the town, sometimes putting off heading to the next story objective until you've had chance to craft some new healing supplies - or bullets. Encouraging you to check out every last house, garage and visitor centre you come across, you can find weapons parts, bolts, herbs, gunpowder, and everything else you'll need to keep your equipment fully stocked up as you roam the formerly idyllic town - along with a cavalcade of collectibles, notes, and hints as to where the game's bizarre plot is going.
And that's another thing that's a lot better for The Evil Within 2 - the story. Whereas the first game relied purely on gore to creep you out, the sequel does a much better job of creating a foreboding, unsettling atmosphere, using imagery that's designed to be more unsettling than grotesque to creep you out. From a horde of dangling bodies, wrapped in cloth and hung from the ceiling by their neck, which all suddenly change places as you turn around, to the little glimpses you'll catch of enemies in the mirror, and the game's many flashbacks that ask a heck of a lot more questions than they answer, it's a game designed to unnerve more than it is to make you feel physically sick. And that's a big improvement.
However, it's not all plain sailing for The Evil Within 2. One of the biggest issues with the original game - the combat - is still a problem here too, although perhaps not quite as much as it was. It's not so much the core ideas here, either, as almost everything works pretty well - you can sneak up on a zombie for a one button stealth kill; there's a handy indicator at the top of the screen that tells you if enemies can see or hear you, and whether you've been spotted; and there's a generous (optional) auto aim that snaps your aim straight to the zombie's head, which makes pulling off those tricky (and all important) headshots a lot easier. The only problem is, the balancing here is still that bit too much off, giving the game too many random difficulty spikes.
It's all plain sailing to begin with - but when you start meeting some of the game's more varied enemies, things rapidly start to get a lot harder. First up are some creepy double ended body type things, which crawl on all fours, and have three heads at the one end, and another (fake) head where their butt should be. Fast moving, and able to come at you either way up, they hide their vulnerable heads until it's too late, attack in packs, and do a lot of damage, making them really hard to take out. Then there's the irritating glowing green woman, who screeches the house down should she spot you, causing dozens of enemies to come running. And as you can't fire from the hip - and can rarely outrun these oddly speedy zombies - that causes you a lot of problems when it comes to taking them out.
While you'll only really come across bog standard zombies for the first three chapters, it doesn't take too long for the game to start peppering more and more of these more advanced enemies around the map - and as soon as it does, the game's difficulty starts to rocket. With the tougher enemies having fewer weak spots, and with each taking many more hits than a regular zombie, The Evil Within 2 still hasn't quite got its difficulty settings in the right place, and that leads to some rock solid sections.
One particular scene saw us get set upon by three of the aforementioned double-enders. After being completely devoured within seconds the first four or five times, we eventually, eventually, managed to luck our way through it - but only after using every single health pack we had, and almost every last bullet. With the game having saved a checkpoint just before this encounter (and with us having to sit through a far-too-long reload time, plus the same cutscene again every time we retried), we can't help but wonder what on earth we'd have done if we had slightly less ammo, or one health pack fewer, as we were pushed to the very limit to get by. With no way to get any more health packs or items (as we were trapped in a building we'd already looted), and no other way to get past the stupidly hard enemies (because you'd never outrun them), we'd likely still be stuck there now...
All this is compounded by the fact that you can't change difficulty half way through the game. We're still not entirely sure why games do this, but while The Evil Within 2 is definitely well worth a look, anyone who does buy it should bear in mind that they could well find themselves getting 75% of the way through the game, only to hit a brick wall when it's too late to start over on easy. More worryingly, this is the third Bethesda game in a row (after Prey and Dishonoured 2) that's made itself too hard on normal - and while this is arguably the least prolific offender, it's still a bit of a concerning trend. It's all well and good selling your game based on its punishing difficulty level if you only hope to sell it a small hardcore, but if you want a mass appeal for your single player game, you need to make it so the mass market can manage it.
Despite its odd difficulty level, though, there's a lot the Evil Within 2 gets right. With a much better story, less of an emphasis on stomach churning gore, more mystery, more spookiness, and a great setting that's ripe for exploration (and packed with collectibles), this is a game that outshines its predecessor in almost every single way. We just wish they'd spent that little bit more time getting the difficulty level right, as difficulty spikes aren't scary - they're just frustrating.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4