Preview: The Evil Within 2 literally gave me nightmares

It was 4 a.m. in my Gamescom hotel with fellow Windows Central Xbox writer Matt Brown, when I awoke to hear him mumbling in his sleep. He did that quite a lot throughout the event, but it was only when he rolled over and I saw his face crushed with skin twisted around his skull, eyes bloodied and rolled back into his head, did I awake in a cold sweat, realizing I was having a nightmare.

You see, earlier that day, I went hands-on with The Evil Within 2, and it was bloody terrifying.

The Evil Background

Shinji Mikami is known as the godfather of the survival horror genre, having worked on Resident Evil back in the 90s, which remains one of my favorite franchises of all time. As such, I was overjoyed to learn he'd teamed up with Bethesda to create The Evil Within, which at the time, looked set to continue the survival horror torch in a world where Resident Evil 7 didn't exist.

The Evil Within was by no means a perfect horror game, with its arcade-style upgrade system and its notoriously obscuring cinematic black bars, but it remains one of the best attempts at classic survival horror in this generation. Catch up with the story by hitting this link.

As noted, Resident Evil 7 emerged like a whirlwind of death and fear earlier in 2017, showing that Capcom still "gets" how to make a horror game. There has also been some solid offerings on the indie side of things, including the recently launched >Observer_ from Bloober Team, and the intriguing 4v1 title Dead By Daylight. The Evil Within 2 probably won't be held up as the survival horror savior its predecessor was, particularly perhaps because Shinji Mikami isn't leading the project.

Aiming for a Friday the 13th launch this October (my birthday!), The Evil Within 2 will shamble out of the gate and drag us back into STEM for another stint of twisted madness and panicked shooting. Be warned, though, The Evil Within 2 appears to have altered its formula quite extensively for its sequel, and I'm honestly not sure how to feel about it.

An inconsistent, immersive world breeds paranoia

In the first part of my demo, the series' main protagonist Detective Castellanos is shown to have been losing his mind as a result of the events of the first game, which I shan't spoil for those who haven't played. If you've seen any of the trailers, though, you probably understand why. In a spiral of depression, Castellanos receives word that his daughter, thought to have been killed, is actually still alive, having been kidnapped by the antagonistic Mobius corporation responsible for the events of the first game.

With a desperate new purpose, Castellanos heads back into a STEM mindscape to hunt for his lost daughter. As you might expect, things go south pretty quickly.

The Evil Within at 4K resolution with HDR and 60 frames per second is a vivid, immersive experience. The first sequences have you getting chased by what can only be described as a horse-sized human head monster, comprised of screaming faces and wielding a giant buzzsaw arm for good measure.

Reality is not what it seems inside STEM, and Detective Castellanos' mind is fractured as a result of the first game. It's hard to tell what's real, and what is a delusion. The Evil Within is very much like Silent Hill in that regard, where the lack of consistency in the world itself drip-feeds anxiety and paranoia into proceedings.

After emerging into what Mobius describes as a "peaceful town," Castellanos encounters something horrifying.

A horror playground

The Evil Within 2 casts off the linearity of the previous game, opting for a much larger, much more open format. It is by no means fully "open world," of course. Instead, players will travel between linear sequences and more open hubs, perhaps similar to games like Deus Ex.

Creeping along the road into the town to meet up with a Mobius strike team, Castellanos encounters a citizen who runs into a nearby house, hunched over and chattering jibberish. Closer inspection reveals what seems to be a young mother gone mad, force feeding a young boy pieces of human flesh. She then proceeds to smash his face into the table for refusing to eat, until the boy is dead, his face twisted and crushed inwards. It's a truly horrifying scene, perhaps particularly due to the apparent relationship between the two characters, and the 4K resolution revealing the grim, near-life like details of the gory scene as it plays out.

After shooting the psycho to death, it becomes apparent that this "quiet town" is anything but, and is now swarming with crazed, zombie-like creatures that hunt down and kill anything that's still living.

The Evil Within 2 casts off the linearity of the previous game, opting for a much larger, much more open format.

Once you're in the town, you're given access to a crafting bench, an upgrade screen not unlike the first game, and a coffee machine, which replenishes health on a lengthy cool down. You're also given a radio signal tracking device, which lets you lock on to different frequencies for investigation. In the town hub, several signals popped up for investigation, in addition to a main one, which seems to follow the main quest / side quest RPG format you might expect of a more open game.

One radio frequency hinted at the location of one of the Mobius Strike team members, who was carrying a sniper rifle. Another sounded like random jibberish, and another sounded like a doctor conversing with a patient.

Stealth mechanics return in The Evil Within 2, and opting to hunt down the doctor, I began creeping my way over to the house where the signal seemed to be coming from, stealth killing strange shamblers on the way.

There seems to be tons of opportunities to explore in The Evil Within 2.

In addition to regular zombies, there are also more unique types of monsters and ghosts that will have to be dealt with in other ways. One I attempted to stealth kill practically shrugged off my attack, and proceeded to one-shot me. Sometimes throwing a bottle to distract an enemy is the smarter option.

There seems to be tons of opportunities to explore in The Evil Within 2, which isn't completely unlike the first game. A quick perusal of a garage revealed crafting materials to build ammo and health syringes, but it also came with a jump scare and an additional enemy to deal with. I passed several other houses that looked ripe for looting on the way to the signal, probably jam packed with narrative items and other gear.

Once I reached the house, I didn't receive any reward or tangible item. Instead, I was treated to a horror side show, hinting at the game's over-arching plot. The patient the doctor was talking to was Castellanos himself, and the house shifted to represent an insane asylum instead, different furnishings appearing as I turned the camera. It was an impressive scene, and added further intrigue to the game's plot.

As my play session grew to a close, I lamented the fact that I didn't have time to search any other buildings, but I was also a little relieved. As a pure horror game, I'm wondering how many people will brave every corner of the haunted house Bethesda has created, and how many will simply dart to the story objective.

Worthy sacrifices?

The Evil Within 2 certainly needed to evolve the formula set out by its predecessor, but switching to an explorative, semi-open hub structure with a bigger emphasis on scavenging, crafting, and upgrades seems like a risky move. Of course, horror games like Silent Hill have utilized a more open format to some degree, giving you opportunities to explore for additional loot and maybe secret weapons off the beaten path, but I'm still unsure how well it will work out for The Evil Within 2.

The design direction for The Evil Within 2 remains firmly nailed. The enemies look grotesque and horrifying, and it seems The Evil Within 2 isn't going to shy away from controversy when it comes to depicting some of its more gruesome scenes. The stealth gameplay is fraught and anxiety inducing, and the plot is suitably intriguing. Indeed, it's the only horror game in recent memory that has literally given me nightmares, and I only played it for around 30 minutes.

I'm in no position to pass any sort of final judgement on the game's shift to a more open-format, but it could be what the franchise needed to evolve. If they pull it off, The Evil Within 2 looks set to become a top horror purchase for this holiday season, particularly in the run up to Halloween.

The Evil Within 2 is aiming for an October 13, 2017 launch on Xbox One and Windows PC.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!