Crossfader’s Week of Horror: How THE EVIL WITHIN 2 Gets Survival Horror Right
I think one of my biggest pet peeves in talking about video games is how flippantly the term “survival horror” is thrown around. The subgenre, as the name would suggest, typically revolves around the player surviving an onslaught of monstrosities by carefully managing and employing the scarce resources scattered across the environment. RESIDENT EVIL popularized this genre in 1996, and its harsh economization of healing items and ammunition became the model to follow for years.
In the mid 2000s, horror games began to branch out from this formula. Titles began to eschew the “survival” aspect of horror, primarily “stealth horror” games that obviated items by implementing foes who could instantly kill the player, or “action horror” experiences that were essentially first-person shooters with a spooky facade. The thing is, neither of these newly coined genres had the same ring to them as “survival horror,” and it was this terminology that was (and still is) used as an umbrella label for many disparate games that have little to do with each other outside of an unsettling atmosphere.
F3AR realized that nothing says “horror” quite like akimbo miniguns and attack helicopters
This may seem like a frivolous nitpick, but it’s a distinction that has mattered a great deal on several occasions. Case in point: 2014’s THE EVIL WITHIN. At the time of its announcement, director Shinji Mikami, who also created the Resident Evil franchise, said what a lot of gamers were already thinking: the survival horror genre was dead, and it needed a revival. While you could make a case for games like THE LAST OF US and ALAN WAKE toeing the line of “horror,” the last significant entry in the genre was the first DEAD SPACE back in 2008. The more casual stealth and action horror genres had stolen the show, and many fans of the classics were left high and dry in terms of a good survival horror. THE EVIL WITHIN sought to fix that.
The game was initially well-received, but it wasn’t long until it left the limelight. Many, myself included, agreed after thinking it over a bit more that THE EVIL WITHIN was in fact a rather unremarkable repetition of Mikami’s earlier work. Some of the criticism was warranted, particularly the weak story, the bizarre letterboxing, and a third act that devolves into the exact kind of shooting gallery that Mikami promised to avoid. Yet in retrospect, I think many more of the popular digs at THE EVIL WITHIN weren’t all that fair. After such a drought in survival horror, THE EVIL WITHIN was expected to reinvent the wheel. Not only was this the genre’s big return, it was also the last directorial role for Mikami, the man who already revolutionized horror, nay, gaming, twice with RESIDENT EVIL and RESIDENT EVIL 4. For the game to be anything other than mindblowing would have been considered a failure.
Hey, at least one mind was blown
In reality, THE EVIL WITHIN only sought to put the bar back on the rack for the genre, not to raise it, and to this end it was a success. Since its release and subsequent fade into obscurity, the survival genre has received a much needed shot in the arm. Titles like ALIEN: ISOLATION and RESIDENT EVIL 7 have proven that horror can remain marketable while still retaining its hardcore roots, while many smaller projects like DARKWOOD and the WHITE DAY remake have more than quenched the thirst of more niche fans. Now THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is here, trying to eek out its own place in the genre it helped revive, and while the game isn’t without it’s share of faults, it should go on record that there hasn’t been such an effective blend of tension and triumph since the original RESIDENT EVIL.
I’ll be frank: I didn’t have high expectations for this game. After getting stung by the inflated hype for THE EVIL WITHIN, I couldn’t work myself up to get excited for the sequel. The transfer of the director’s credit from gaming god Mikami to a relative unknown, John Johanas, didn’t get me any more stoked. So the fact that THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is not only a worthy sequel, but a better game than the original as well completely threw me for a loop. By all means, this shouldn’t be the case. First of all, there’s no more mystery; the first game’s finale let the cat out of the bag on the “science” behind the scares, so the horror element here is completely neutered. Secondly, the open world design makes this an epic of survival horror, taking 20+ hours to beat in a genre that generally wraps things up in half that time. And yes, the story is still as dumb as bricks. So what’s left to like? Fortunately, THE EVIL WITHIN 2 doubles down on what really matters in a horror game: making it hard as hell.
Critics, am I right?
At first glance, there are many apparent caveats to THE EVIL WITHIN 2’s ramped up difficulty. The shift in location from grimy, claustrophobic slaughterhouses to verdant suburbs not only alleviates the original’s oppressive aesthetic, it also provides far more opportunities for player character Sebastian to flee or hide from enemies. And you’ll often want to run; Sebastian is much more gung-ho than his previous iteration, from his expanded arsenal to his new action hero getup, but he’ll still drop faster than shit down the drain if he’s cornered by a group of enemies.
Logic would tell you that avoiding conflict is the best solution to completing the game, but THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is insidiously two steps ahead of you there. As one might expect, resources like health and ammo are scarce, yet to an even further degree than most will be familiar with. Boxes of bullets and jars of “green gel” that Sebastian uses to upgrade his abilities are still present and collectable, but only in exceedingly rare quantities. Instead, most of the gel and gunpowder components found in the game can only be collected from the corpses of enemies. This is doubly true for minibosses, fearsome creatures that are all but impossible to escape once you’re engaged by them. The player instinctively wants to avoid violence against these near-insurmountable foes, but is all but forced to pursue them if they’re to stand any chance in one of the many ambushes or boss battles down the road.
“Haha, wrong address! I’ll just be on my way.”
It’s the Sophie’s Choice of zombie-slaying: I need to kill these enemies to gather the materials necessary for later fights, but will I have enough tools left over afterwards for the skirmish to even be worth it? This constant struggle to just tread water is what drives the tempest that is THE EVIL WITHIN 2’s horror. No matter how prepared I thought I was before a climactic showdown, I was only ever able to just barely scrape by with my life. The game isn’t totally without mercy: weaker enemies can be instantly stealth killed with a knife if you’re careful, and you’re given a brief recovery period after most bosses to swim towards the surface. Yet there was never a moment in the game where I could say I felt assured of my success. The pacing can’t be called anything other than masterful, and is even more so when you consider there were so few false notes in my 29-hour playthrough compared to games that are only a fraction as long.
Even with the current revival of survival horror, there is still a tendency for the best contemporary examples to stray too far to either end of the challenge spectrum. ALIEN: ISOLATION’s titular monster cannot be killed, so the weapons in that game are distractions at best. RESIDENT EVIL 7’s later stages were almost too cathartic with your newfound power to pop zombies left and right. THE EVIL WITHIN 2 does what too few games seem capable of doing, which is to encourage multiple styles of play throughout its runtime. More impressively, it’s consistently able to convince the player to act against their better judgement, taking extreme risks just to stay alive. It’s because of this that THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is even able to be uttered in the same breath as the classics of horror; Mikami should be proud of the product that Johanas was able to deliver.
GRAVITY RUSH 3 sure took a turn for the dark
Before I rave too much about the merits of THE EVIL WITHIN 2, it’s important to take a step back and remember this is a video game before a survival horror game. As I mentioned earlier, the rest of the elements making up the package are a mixed bag. The sequel’s story sees Sebastian return to the virtual dreamscape of STEM to rescue his daughter Lily, whose special mind is being used by the sinister organization Mobius to power the artificial reality. The plot is boilerplate conspiracy fare, and none of the three villains get enough screentime to leave any lasting impression, but at least it knows how to cook up an intriguing scenario. This action-oriented sequel is best summed up as “INCEPTION with zombies,” and what it lacks in mystery it makes up for in impressive set pieces involving Sebastian delving into even deeper layers of the crumbling nightmare in pursuit of Lily’s captors.
Visually, the game looks great, but the framerate has a tendency to stutter when trying to render some of the larger open world environments. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call the enemy designs “weak” here, they are certainly a step down from the original’s more inventive characters (a difference made all the more apparent during several throwback cameos). As for how the open world affects a traditionally linear genre, that’s up to your personal taste regarding those concepts. I personally felt there was a commendable amount of restraint demonstrated by avoiding the busy work common in open world titles, but in all probability many others will be fatigued by a game as long as this one.
Take a picture, maybe it’ll last longer
THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is an ingenious approach to horror wrapped up in a flawed package. Though it cultivates fear in ways that few other titles have thought to attempt, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is as refined as any of the other AAA games I’ve compared it to. Horror’s sphere of appeal is admittedly as small in gaming as it is in film, yet I’m not ready to write THE EVIL WITHIN 2 off as a game that will only appeal to fans of the genre. The game successfully merges elements of previously disparate niches and creates a truly singular experience. I still have trouble deciding whether it is great or just good, but what I can guarantee is that you’ll not play anything else like it this year.
THE EVIL WITHIN 2 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC