Hands-on: The Evil Within 2 offers surreal and gory horror

The first Evil Within was a tense survival horror game that made effective use of disturbing imagery, body horror, and occasionally brutal difficulty, and at its best felt like a combination of classic Resident Evil gameplay with the more psychological aspects of the Silent Hill series. Up until the game's final hours, which devolved into extended and often frustrating action sequences, The Evil Within delivered some of the most interesting and genuinely frightening moments we've ever seen from a Shinji Mikami game. 

This time around Mikami is taking more of a supervisory role as executive producer, with John Johanas in the director seat. The Evil Within 2 releases on October 13, and from what we've seen so far of the game it looks to be focusing more on the disturbing horror elements of the original and less on the large-scale action gameplay. At a recent preview event I had a chance to go hands-on with a portion of the game's fifth chapter, and found it challenging, stressful, and unsettling in all the ways you want a horror game to be. 

Two bosses, no grunts

You can watch my full playthrough in the video below.

My demo took about an hour, and I was given a chance to decide right at the start if I wanted to drop the game's difficulty down from the "Nightmare" setting (described as being similar to the challenge offered by the first game) to "Survival" or "Casual." In my interview with Shinji Mikami and John Johanas they let me know that the developers felt the first game was a bit too punishing for its own good sometimes, so the default Survival difficulty setting might be a bit easier than what the first Evil Within had to offer. That said, after just barely squeaking by the boss at the end of my playthrough (and dying repeatedly in the process) it's hard for me to imagine most gamers finding Survival too easy.  

What stood out to me right away after I was done with my hands-on time was that I had fought against two very challenging bosses and no other enemies at all. There were some sequences like this in the first Evil Within, sure, where the focus was more on atmosphere and climactic fights than hordes of enemies, but those sequences were the exception, not the rule. You kill a lot of the murderous Haunted enemies in the first Evil Within, to the point where it becomes a drag near the end and is mostly lacking in any scares. To play The Evil Within 2 for an hour without encountering even a single enemy grunt was surprising and refreshing. 

The first boss battle, against an amalgamation of dead body parts and a giant sawblade (isn't that always how it goes in these games?), places an emphasis on searching your environment and taking advantage of your surroundings. The lumbering creature had a hard time moving around obstacles and boxes, allowing me a chance to get off some shots with my pistol or, much more effectively, a specialized crossbow bolt. Trying to run away across open ground always ended in pain, but once I focused on using the environment around me the battle became more manageable. Placing an explosive bolt as a trap right in a pool of gasoline proved especially effective, even if I did it by accident. 

The boss battle that ended my demo was more challenging and less focused on environmental interaction, and was centered around an interesting ticking clock mechanic. I had to battle the monstrous "Obscura," a disturbing combination of graceful limbs and an old-fashioned camera, to keep it (or maybe "her"?) from disabling a critical piece of machinery. As long as the clock is ticking down you're making progress, but if Obscura gets a chance to attack the machine the clock will stop until you successfully damage the monster.

As you can see in my gameplay video, I died a lot during this fight. I had low health and only one healing syringe, and it's clear that when you are actually playing The Evil Within 2 you might want to keep multiple active save files in case you end up in a tough spot like this (I would have gladly re-loaded and tried to do the earlier boss fight without wasting so much healing if I had had the time). Once I learned that standing still for a bit would restore a small amount of health, that was just enough to keep me alive long enough to score a victory, but I was sweating it to the very end. 

Between the two boss fights I found the gameplay of the first to be more interesting, while the disturbing visual design of the second felt more striking and memorable. Both were challenging and satisfying to beat, and if they are typical of the boss battles throughout Evil Within 2 that's a good sign for the game as a whole. 

Upgrades

Upgrading your items and abilities was a big part of the first Evil Within and will continue to be a focus in the sequel, though now upgrades are split into separate systems. You'll be able to use toolbenches and mechanical resources to increase the ammo capacity, damage, and other traits of your weapons, which so far look to include a pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, and crossbow. Strapping on a sinister-looking helmet will allow you to access the game's second upgrade tree, in which you'll use mysterious "green gel" resource to improve Sebastian's health, athleticism, aim, and other physical traits. 

We were encouraged to spend our upgrade points right away in our demo, which I did, but after spending an hour with the game I have a much better idea of how I should have spent those points to have an easier time with the game. 

As was the case with the first Evil Within, your crossbow is far and away your best weapon, even without spending upgrade points on it, but you'll be limited in terms of the number of special bolts you are able to find or craft. The shotgun was too slow to be used effectively against the demo's first boss without any reload speed upgrades, while the sniper rifle seemed ill-suited to either of the boss battles (but is probably great in other parts of the game). 

Sebastian's lack of running stamina was a big issue in both boss fights for me, and once I'm actually playing the game for real I'll be sure to upgrade his athleticism early. By default he can barely run a few paces without getting winded, and that was never enough to get him out of harm's way. 

Upgrade trees are usually interesting in survival horror games, as they allow for some replay value and character customization. I didn't have a problem with the single upgrade tree in the first Evil Within, but the developers told me they felt it confused some players who weren't sure how to spend their points. The new system seems like a fine way to go, though there's nothing particularly interesting or surpising about it from what I've seen. 

Atmospheric horror

The Evil Within was at its best when it focused on psychological or gross-out scares, but fell flat when it came to its confusing narrative and bogged down action sequences. The hour I spent with The Evil Within 2 seems to indicate the development team has learned from the mistakes of the original title. 

The middle portion of my hour with the game, between the two big boss fights, was an enemy-free exploration and puzzle sequence that gradually dialed up the tension but never resorted to jump scares. As was the case with the first game it's clear that physical laws don't really apply for most of The Evil Within 2, as it will likely largely take place in some kind of shared psychological hallucination (or something like that. It's been a long time since I played the first game, and I didn't have a really clear idea of what was going on in it even back in 2014).

This unreality worked well in my demo, since it meant that spooky stuff could happen all the time, even if it didn't always make logical sense. Doors appeared and disappeared as they needed to. Bloody bodies remained in suspended animation, perpetually falling through the air. At times the game was less about exploration or combat than it was a case of moving from one unsettling thing to the next, something that can work well in small doses but can feel limiting if done too often. For my hour with the game, at least, The Evil Within 2 balanced its different elements well. 

What sets The Evil Within apart? 

The Evil Within, as a horror franchise, has a long way to go before its as fondly regarded as Resident Evil. The first game served up some great scares and memorable moments, but failed to tell a coherent story and struggled to maintain a satisfying level of challenge throughout (too often falling over the edge into frustration). As with many survival horror games, it struggled with the question of how to give the player increasing power without abandoning the helplessness and fear that makes the "horror" side of the game work in the first place. 

So what kind of game will The Evil Within 2 be? We'll find out the full story in a few weeks when the game releases. Without any Silent Hill games on the horizon, it seems like there is room in the survival horror genre for a game that focuses on the psychological aspects of fear, and The Evil Within 2 could fill that void if the developers want to take it in that direction.

I like what I've seen of The Evil Within 2 so far. I'll keep my fingers crossed that we avoid a third-act collapse into endless, frustrating combat.