The Evil Within 2 | Passing On The Torch

Some directors operate with a single axiom: once you get onto the chair, don’t ever let them take it from you. Others aren’t keen on staying where they are though, they want to move forward. Shinji Mikami - having directed smash hits like the first Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe, God Hand, Vanquish and The Evil Within rarely touches let alone directs sequels. Instead he seems more interested in laying down the ground work with one title so that the team can live on without him and continue making quality games by his standards.

So when Tango Games announced it would be making a sequel to the critically divided The Evil Within, it was to be expected to see a new name in the director seat. Like Hideki Kamiya took the reigns of Resident Evil 2 after Mikami, so does John Johanas carry on the torch here. Having served as visual effects designer on the original game, as well as directing its expansions The Assignment and The Consequence, Mikami noted he had shown a lot of talent and saw their next product as a good way to train him further, so that the studio might truly become independent, and so that Mikami could once again move on. This game, was The Evil Within 2.

Releasing on the infamous Friday the 13th, October 2017, the game sees protagonist Sebastian Castellanos return, albeit with a new voice actor behind the scenes. While the original title was one with a mysterious plot, where the ‘what’s going on’ was a recurring thought throughout the adventure, here everything immediately is set in stone. There’s a new digital world called STEM, existing out of connected brains, your daughter is in there and you have to save her. It is a tale of redemption and also revenge, the latter being more and more a rarity these days. Just like the confusion about the story has vanished, so does the style of horror that comes with it. Part of the originals appeal was the gore in combination with the unknown, not knowing the rules of the world and what could happen. You were on the edge of your seat and often triggered by jump scares. The sequel plays it differently, offering a more artistic visual tone. Levels are drenched in color, especially blue and white - with detailed ornaments and bright lights. Dark areas are rare, instead The Evil Within 2 wants you to see and understand what is going on. As a result, the fear can fully come from the tension of survival and exploration. Fear, not what it is that’s around the corner, but what is around the corner.

And once you turn that corner and face one of the Lost, its eyes go from a dull bordeaux to fiery red and a roar and change in music alerts you: combat is now. As a starting player you’ll feel hopelessly incapable, with a full pistol clip barely slowing them down. One shot manages to blow of an arm, good...you think - it quickly regenerates, and you retreat through foliage in hopes of escape. You wait and see its eyes go from bright to dull again, he’s lost you. One step out of the bushes and the Lost dies with a knife sneaked in his sternum. You look at your ammo, two shots left, you wasted four good rounds in an enemy you ended up killing with a stealth-kill anyway. But it doesn’t matter, you are alive and ready to open the next unknown door, turn the next corner. You pull up your pistol, hold down the aim button, and gently watch as Sebastian opens the door pistol drawn, ready for more.

The combat on your first playthrough is about survival, living from one fight to the next. Ammo is scarce, you never know when you might find it or one of the many ammo crafting components, where the enemies are or when the next boss will appear. That one zombie lying dead on the street, will he ever come to life? Should you deal with him now? You don’t know. The second run is about revenge, no more surprises, you know what’s going on. The third and there after, it becomes a math-problem. You know which groups of enemies to avoid, when to grab and swing that one axe for that single instant-kill stroke and when to pick up and use certain items since you can only carry so much. It becomes a run of perfection, not survival. That feeling of exploring an unknown house, will never return.

Outside of the trinity of stealth, shooting and axes for quick chopping, there’s a few other systems at work. First there’s the Warden’s Crossbow which has all sorts of toys to play with. Besides harpoons for sticking it to the man, you’ve got explosive, smoke, freezing and stun bolts - which work wonders with water for a prolonged knockdown. If foes get knocked down, even briefly, Sebastian can do a stomp for a fully invincible instant kill with even some area of effect splash to it. There’s even a kick which can be unlocked, allowing Sebastian to really channel his inner Leon Scott Kennedy for a brutal step kick to the face to create some space between you and your foes. Aside from that there is a stamina meter to keep in mind for dashes which allow for proper spacing in battle; which drains and recovers twice as fast in combat. Should you want to avoid combat, there’s always a cover system in place that allows Sebastian to stick to a wall with a press of a button. A small mark on screen also shows you if where you’re aiming at can be used as cover, while pressing the cover button at that time will have Sebastian run to that piece of cover without draining stamina.

Killed enemies drop Green Gel for upgrading your persona and found Scrap is used to upgrade weapons further, with certain upgrades being locked by requiring one of the finite High Upgrade Parts. These upgrades can range from an increased chance of shooting of a limb, to increased stamina, to the more surreal upgrades like being able to slow down time or an ability that lets your bullets deal more damage with each consecutive hit.  Enemies that once liked to duck and weave in hopes of avoiding your headshot now bow before your bullet time - the upgrades, sadly, feel like an afterthought and break the game.

The difference between a beginning player and a end-game player as a result of these mechanics is more in the details, and not really visible to the naked eye. Stomps are the key factor in their game-plan should combat arise, a quick shotgun shell to the chest to knock a horde down and then to stomp them dead - no headshots for the pros. In their movement they emphasis the dash to cover for stamina-free movement, and when dashing use short breaks to save stamina but keep the momentum going.



The combat is done facing a small selection of enemies, mostly the Lost which are your not so typical zombie. Later variants can catch fire at will, negating stealth attacks. They are switched up with Spawn - dog like enemies - and large towering foes called Laments which alert all nearby enemies with a scream if they spot you, which also drains your stamina. To top it off there’s a hysterical woman with a knife, who runs like the wind and is one of the few enemies capable of surviving that stealthy stab to the neck. As a whole, enemy designs and attacks aren’t too varied, but they serve a purpose. Every combination of foes is explored and they are put in different types of scenarios and locations. The Spawn are fought in open spaces, alone, together and with other foes, but also in tight spaces like trains or rooms with moving doors while other scenarios are random, determined by the players actions in the more open chapters. The combat scenarios are varied, and the enemies - while aggressive - fair. It is within the possibilities of the player to beat the whole game using just the knife, which goes a long way to showing how player skill is the most important determining factor. Instead of flooding the game with a plethora of foes to fight, those available are put to great use.

As a break from the combat, puzzles make a return. From time to time, usually before or after a major event, these enter the fray to slow the tempo of the game down. Sadly, a puzzle concept is introduced, completed, and then never seen again. They are also devoid of combat, always taking place in a calm environment.

The level design fares better thankfully. While originally linear, there are branching paths and even a few that display a case of ‘open world’ as the term is so aptly named. A small American town simulated in STEM allows for few set pieces, but more for own adventures and discoveries. In the original game, John Johanas made his designs based on Mikami’s direction. Here he didn’t necessarily follow his advice and grabbed that freedom tightly and never let go - and it shows. The openness of the world extends beyond just the streets and the doors that can be opened, they reach into the doors of combat as well. Everything can be dealt with on your own terms. Enemies can be avoided, killed, stealthed, set aflame, lured into traps and more. But this also goes for the bosses, once again a rarity. Bosses can be killed, lured into traps - some of your own making, others laid out for you by the developers - or downright avoided entirely. Whether to turn a boss-encounter into a action affair is strictly up to you. This also goes for difficulty, with the three major ones already being unlocked from the start. Casual for the story-driven player, Survivor for the normal player and Nightmare for those that want the survival experience, while also switching up enemy locations and adding a few extra in for good measure. As a term ‘open world’ does the game short, ‘open’ alone is much more apt.
The ‘world’ term is supported with a unique visual theming. The Evil Within 2, when booted, starts with a disclaiming designed with a beige background and fitting red letters, each in a font that is painstakingly chosen to not clash with the rest - the tone is set before the game even shows its title. Once started it has a balance of tones and juxtaposition. One gory set-piece after another does nothing, but a surreal zigzagged mansion stands out after being in a pretty normal town for a while - showing strong notes taken from films like The Cell and television shows like Twin Peaks. Sadly the white visual theme present in the trailers and the cover barely has a presence in the game. Instead the second half of the game borrows more from nostalgia by throwing Sebastian in dungeons, rivers of blood and even a few enemies from the past in the hopes of scoring some easy points.

But this re-usage of elements can’t be blamed on the team. The Evil Within 1 sold below expectations and didn’t reach a profitable mark until nearly half a year after its initial release. As a result the budget for the sequel was obviously lowered. Yet how then does the game run so smooth, why are the enemies so well designed and the world so vast? The obvious answer is prioritization. Many things were lifted from the original game, but only those that would save cost and weren’t too obvious or could be painted off as nostalgia. Angel statues return as a collectible as well as a few bosses on the path to Sebastian’s redemption, but his voice actor does not make a return - instead choosing a less expensive one. The enemies that are in the game are well designed, but they are nearly halved in variation. The costumes that can be unlocked are all from cutscenes, so they were already made. The Evil Within 2 smartly reuses assets in parts where it is not too important, and focuses the money and time left into where it is: its gameplay. And it is made to last as a result. The game showers you with unlockables, another rarity these days, after beating the game as well as a new difficulty called “Classic”, in which you can only save 7 times and upgrades are not available - a nice nod to the series origin in Resident Evil which had a similar save-system.

As a result, the game rewards replay and re-exploration. To evolve from that once frightened washed-up cop to a professional who is scared of no one corner. One who runs, not sneaks, just like the developer. No longer should they sneak around the office, hoping not to catch a stern look from their director Mikami, who can now move on to new pastures. They can stand on their own two feet now knowing they made a master class of a game under the harshest of conditions and succeeded. The sale numbers might not reflect this, as it rarely ever does, but if there’s anything this game and its design have shown us it’s that rarity can be excellent. 



opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.


The first Evil Within is not a game I remember fondly. Being a big fan of Resident Evil 4 growing up, I had hoped it would be the true Resident Evil 5 that I never got but searched for in each game by Mikami since then, including Shadows of the Damned. I bought it and...it did nothing to me. I remember being really annoyed near the end, going as far as to look up guides - a first for me - just so I could beat it as fast as possible and sell it back. Years later on the Stinger Magazine forums I started a talk with user Birdman in anticipation for The Evil Within 2 and decided to re-buy the original game. I ended up quite liking it with a change of mindset, instead of expecting a spiritual follow up of my dreams I played the game as it wanted to be played and had a lot more fun as a result. On a whim I bought the sequel, finding myself without plans all of a sudden in the weekend. My first playthrough was a joy, I played it really slow, carefully checking each and every corner with my handgun and flashlight, and pulling out my shotgun within houses; getting fully immersed. Once beaten, instead of what most games do to me, I was energized to play again and dove in my first handicap run, and another, and another, and another. While writing this article I’m already looking forward to playing it again, and I probably will keep doing so for years to come.
I have described it time and again to friends as a Playstation 2 game released 10 years too late, but the truth of the matter is, it arrived just in time for us to see just how many things we've lost in the medium since then. While it is still held back by some AAA tropes like a few unskippable cutscenes and slow walking scenes, the markings of an older style of game are there. You can unlock costumes by beating the game, when was the last time you saw that? I don't remember, and it's good that for all its focus on memories, the brain, and connections it shows us to remember the past. 

wishful thinking
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With this little section, I'll explore what small things could easily be added in a patch that would improve the game.

  • Fix the frequent crashes in Chapter 7;
  • Add an ink-ribbon styled save system to Classic Mode;
  • Add a randomized mode, where items and enemies are randomized;
  • Increase the time it takes for enemies to lose sight of you;
  • Add additional options to the later big bosses, which are more linear;
  • Add damage values to weapons and abilities;
  • Allow players, after having beaten the game, to also skip Chapter 1 and 2 and all conversations;
  • Recover stamina during cutscenes;
  • Make it more clear what can, and cannot be taken cover behind;
  • Remove the stumble-animation if seen by an enemy, but already in combat.

postscript notes
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  • While I note that Mikami rarely, if ever, directs a sequel this of course does not include the ever famous Resident Evil 4. To be fair, he was brought back on board to save the series and team and was given full creative freedom - something he rarely sees in sequels which generally play it very safe, and are one of the reasons why he generally does not care to do them.
  • This article is the first of a game that isn’t truly action, but due to the creator and nature of the game I decided to give it a pass.
  • John Johanas apparently prefers to play on Nightmare, stating: “I'm personally a Nightmare type of person, I like that tension that I get from playing a game like that”.
  • Despite working like crazy, Johanas thanks every twitter user personally with a message if they send him a message about how they enjoyed the game. A good man, he is.

sources
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Release-date:  13 october 2017 | Director: John Johanas | Producer: Shinji Mikami, Shinsaku Ohara | Platform: PS4, X1, PC

 

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