“The Evil Within 2," the sequel to the first game from “Resident Evil” director Shinji Mikami’s Tango Gameworks studio, is superior to its predecessor for the same reason “Resident Evil 2” was: scale.
Like that 1998 classic, Mikami’s latest survival horror game sees him switch from director to producer. Coincidence or no, “The Evil Within 2” succeeds by telling a more personal story through more open play. That story may be just as silly, and that play may be just as punishingly difficult, but each adjustment in scale adds up to more scary threats — and more thrills when you gut them out.
Three years after the gory trip that was Beacon Mental Hospital, now ex-Detective Sebastian Castellanos struggles with guilt over the death of his daughter, Lily, in a house fire. However, he learns she may still be alive from ex-partner Kidman, who's also a double agent for all-purpose diabolical organization Mobius. So Sebastian agrees to help Mobius rescue Lily from the reason it faked her death: a new STEM mind network. Recruited to serve as the core mind connecting all the others in a simulated town called Union, Lily has since gone missing. And Union, as a result, has gone to hell.
Somehow, this “The Matrix”-meets-"Silent Hill" story is even clumsier than its synopsis sounds. Confusing plot aside — Sebastian’s marriage sure is complicated — “The Evil Within 2” is written and voice-acted with the weapons-grade earnestness of a bad action movie. That slices both ways, though, from the cringey (“There’s nothing like the corruption of innocence to spark the fire of creation!”) to the unintentionally sublime (“Join or die? Well there’s a third option, and that’s fuck you!”). As if there weren’t already enough parallels between this series and “Resident Evil.”
Where “The Evil Within 2” strikes out on its own, apart from Mikami’s former survival horror series and even its own predecessor, is its central theme: fatherhood. The problem, however, is that the “anguished dad” trope has been done to death by seemingly every other mainstream game series. And it’s certainly been done with more subtlety and insight into the subject.
As he scrapes through Union in search of Lily, Sebastian alternates between obtuse and angry, and almost nothing else. His despondent grunts stop only when he finds something in his simulated hell world to shoot. A late-game antagonist suggests that maybe Sebastian has himself to blame for Lily’s fate — that maybe burying himself in his police work both deprived his family of his attention and just made him an asshole. But “The Evil Within 2” abruptly, and disappointingly, abandons what could have been a thoughtful thematic turn in favor of more messy backstory and dad vengeance.
And yet the game’s few affecting moments between Sebastian and his close ones are more than the first “Evil Within” could find amid its wall-to-wall nightmare fuel. Some of those moments occur while you play, creating simple but palpable stakes. By giving Sebastian's guilt such unsettling form in Union, form that you must survive and conquer, "The Evil Within 2" leverages its horror into pathos. The game doesn't try to disguise this Lynchian ambition, either: It even stages one of its major confrontations in a dream space with red curtains and a black-and-white chevron floor.
Still, the drama of those story-driven interactions takes some damage from "The Evil Within 2's" B-movie writing and voice acting. Thankfully, though, its main survival horror action is unscathed.
In the biggest change from "The Evil Within," the sequel drops Sebastian into a series of hub worlds he can navigate at will. Using a radio transmitter that functions like a compass, he can either hunt for Lily or explore for side quests and collectibles that deepen his arsenal and Union's lore. At safe houses, you can save, craft and upgrade Sebastian and his weapons with what you collect.
"The Evil Within" was a slow seduction.
The most common enemy Sebastian encounters in Union is The Lost, its feral citizenry. They're formidable enough on their own — just one can erase Sebastian's health bar with a few swipes — but they're most commonly found in packs at the simulated world's intersections and parking lots. Some patrol, convulsively looking all around them, while others crouch over their latest prey, feeding.
Sebastian's equalizer against The Lost is stealth, which Tango has significantly improved. The enemies' movement is just predictable enough, and the places to hide just scarce enough, that sneaking up on them is a more reasonable challenge. Less reasonable is sneaking up on one without alerting the rest, but as that situation arises more often, you can unlock stealth abilities that compensate.
Stealth also factors into a few boss fights and side quests, and to similarly pulse-pounding effect. One series of encounters makes extra creepy use of the PlayStation 4 controller's speaker. But the other boss fights, the ones that begin and end with Sebastian unloading bullets on his tormentors, feel a little more by-the-numbers. The most exhilarating enemy mixes the two approaches: A tall, cloaked religious zealot with a flamethrower you fight a few times toward the end of "The Evil Within 2." You can sneak up on him as he torches his surroundings, or risk getting burned in a firefight.
The Lost are the same way. It's tense as hell to crouch-walk from one to the other, plunging Sebastian's knife into their liquescent heads and hoping the others don't hear you. Or you'll wrench your controller trying to stop them with a pistol, shotgun or crossbow as they aggressively close the distance to you. But "The Evil Within 2" is at its best when your stealth goes awry and you try to land shots as you backpedal through the game's dreary urban sprawl. On that grand, chaotic scale, it's the best kind of survival horror game: the one whose fun and frights meet in the middle.
If you play
GAME: "The Evil Within 2"
TL;DR: The sequel to the first game by Shinji Mikami's Tango Gameworks studio is another silly mess of a horror story, but its introduction of open-world environments and its greater emphasis on stealth add up to a far more thrilling and engaging survival experience.
GENRE: Third-person survival horror
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity and strong language
DEVELOPER: Tango Gameworks
PUBLISHER: Bethesda Softworks
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Windows and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player
DISCLOSURE: I received a review copy of this game from Bethesda Softworks and completed it on "Survivor" difficulty in about 12 hours.