Horror movie aficionados will tell you that, over the decades, Japanese film-makers have developed a fearsome reputation for making some of the most out-there, unconventional and bizarre fright-fests imaginable.
If you had to characterise a Japanese horror-film, you would count a convoluted and incomprehensible plot, dodgy dialogue and a constant, nagging sense of disquiet rising at key points to a crescendo of fear as its key ingredients. Working on such criteria, The Evil Within 2 certainly counts as a classic example of the genre – in the form of a videogame.
A master of horror
Incomprehensible plot? The Evil Within 2 has that in spades. With the second game in the franchise, the legend that is Shinji Mikami – proprietor of The Evil Within 2's developer Tango Gameworks – has moved from director to producer, and that appears to have freed up the game's writers to indulge the wider recesses of their twisted imaginations. To such an extent that protagonist Sebastian Castellanos – returning after the same role in the first game – spends most of the first half of the game exclaiming "what the hell?" or words to that effect.
Ok, let's have a go at explaining what is going on. The action starts with Castellanos undergoing a booze-induced dream-sequence in which he is attempting to rescue his daughter, Lily, from the burning Castellanos residence. When he wakes up, Juli Kidman, an agent for Mobius (the first game's baddies) tells him that not only is Lily alive, but she has been used by Mobius as the key component of something called STEM – a sort of proto-Matrix virtual world which takes the form of a US everytown called Union City.
So Castellanos must descend into the virtual world of Union City in order to rescue Lily (and thereby stop the whole place from collapsing), as well as various Mobius operatives who were sent in previously. On entering STEM, he is allocated a safe-room of his own, which he can access, as in the first game, via any mirror he comes across.
On descending fully into Union City, he encounters a mysterious baddie who appears to be a photography-obsessed serial-killer with artistic delusions. And, naturally, Union City itself teems with zombies, and is in the process of disintegrating into chunks. Luckily, there is an underground network of passages called The Marrow, which allows you to get to all parts of town, even if they happen to be floating in mid-air. Does that clarify proceedings?
Probably not, but all you really need to know is that the whole ridiculously elaborate setup (come on: if you demand realism, then you aren't a true horror fan, and The Evil Within 2 is very much a game for horror fans) allows Tango Gameworks to build a sort of fantasy horror-game setting.
So there are open-world areas which you must stealth around; morphing, creepy interiors where the serial killer-photographer holds sway; fetid sewers in which you must don a gas-mask; a crumbling, ancient cathedral with accompanying dungeon; a dilapidated theatre, part of which has been fragmented into gravity-defying chunks; and so on.
How does it play?
Gameplay-wise, The Evil Within 2 is all about proper, first-principles survival-horror – think early Resident Evil, or Resident Evil 7 with the third-person viewpoint restored. Unless you crank the difficulty level down to the lowest level – entitled Casual – it's fearsomely hard, as survival-horror should be.
You're given the smallest amount of ammo imaginable, although there's a great on-the-fly crafting system, so you're forced to think your way through encounters with the zombies – even three or so of the basic ones will swiftly kill you, and it isn't long before you begin to encounter more exotic ones, often amalgamated from several dead bodies, Human Centipede-style, which can do things like spit giant gobs of acid at you. So you must make maximum use of the environment, such as kicking over oil-drums, enticing zombies into their vicinity and setting them alight.
You can also get a crossbow with different types of bolts which operate as mines, send out an immobilising electrical charge or create smokescreens. Although The Evil Within 2 demonstrates its rigour by not giving you that crossbow – instead you must complete a side-mission which shows where the dead Mobius operative who had the crossbow lies. And then negotiate a mini-boss-battle when you find it.
It's a mad world
There are plenty of boss-battles, which are pretty memorable, and some surprisingly decent puzzles, too. Those contribute to a pleasing flow within the game – intense passages are followed by more sedate ones, allowing you to recapture your breath before embarking on another episode of harrowing weirdness. And that's what The Evil Within 2 provides in spades: the harrowing weirdness of maybe ten Japanese horror-films spun into one long living nightmare.
As the storyline unfolds, it never makes any form of conventional sense, but it does develop a twisted logic of its own, and it, too, ebbs and flows cleverly, with a change-up half-way through in which a load of new characters suddenly emerge and a previously absent element of treachery and intrigue unfolds.
The gameplay morphs, too, once you begin to upgrade your weapons as well as Castellanos' basic skills. Most of the zombies you kill yield green goo, which you can collect, take back to his room and, via the wheelchair there (and the sinister nurse from the first game), use it to provide more health, improve weapon-handling and so on.
So the latter stages of the game relax sufficiently to allow you to take a more gung-ho, rather than stealth-based approach. The stealth engine itself is OK, once you abandon any attempts to use the annoyingly clunky cover-system and just put Castellanos into crouch-mode whenever he encounters any enemies.
There is one glaring downside: the dialogue. It's mind-bogglingly stilted and clichéd, all the way through. Castellanos is an incredibly tortured character – the poor fellow's life has pretty much consisted of having one indignity heaped on him after another – so he's not easy to warm to, although the one thing he does have is an incredible will to survive, which admittedly plays nicely into the genre. But when you encounter one character who attempts a few wisecracks, it almost seems incongruous.
The Evil Within 2 is by no means a mainstream game: it's squarely aimed at survival-horror purists. As such, it's a triumph: intense, truly chilling and great fun to play.
The sequel feels much more modern than its predecessor, and has great fun exploring the more out-there reaches of the horror genre – the sort of territory occupied by those experimental Japanese film-makers.
If that sounds up your street, you will love it with a passion. But if you wouldn't describe yourself as a hardcore horror-nut, you'll probably find it all a bit much.