When The Evil Within released back in 2014, we were introduced to the STEM world for the first time, a virtual space tainted by an evil mind, and as Detective Sebastian Castellanos we were tasked with entering this hellhole and facing all the horrific monsters that it had created. Now developer Tango Gameworks is back to put us in Castellanos' shoes once more, and go on another trip into STEM. This time, however, it's personal.
The premise of the game is that Castellanos has been hitting the bottle hard after the events of the first game, haunted by his past experiences as well as the earlier loss of his daughter, Lily, believed to be dead. Then his old partner Juli Kidman shows up, and tells him his daughter is alive, but there's a catch; Lily is the mind behind another STEM world, and things have gone awry, meaning Castellanos is the man that has to go into the world yet again and find out what's going on.
In terms of format, there are some big changes here, notably with structure. While the first game was a wild ride that saw you switch between different horror-themed set pieces regularly (hospital, sewers, haunted house etc.) with a very varied if not disorganised feel as a result, here we have a far more structured approach. The sequel is split into three distinct sections over 17 chapters, each with their own style and character to set them apart.
That's not to say this is definitely an improvement, though. Some may appreciate the slightly more logical course that events follow here, but part of the appeal of the first was that it was so crazy and you never knew what was coming. There seems to be less of that here, and the plot is a lot more conventional than you'd expect from a STEM world, some might even say predictable.
In terms of setting, Castellanos' second foray into Mobius' virtual horror show takes him to Union, a town with a distinct Americana about it, complete with everything from diners to movie theaters. All is not normal in this town - when is it ever in The Evil Within? - as the very fibre of Union is tearing apart, reducing what was once this community of harmonious virtual residents into a fractured mess of floating concrete populated with creepy-crawly monsters.
Union serves as the wider backdrop, but throughout the game you'll actually split your time behind this little town and a number of other areas, including a series of passages known as the Marrow, which is important as this serves as the 'backstage' for the simulation of Union. Just as Mobius workers used it before the world got bent out of shape, Castellanos can travel to different areas that might be suspended in the sky or otherwise out of reach.
Most of the areas you see don't vary too much, comprising of dark corridors and buildings (Union, for instance, is particularly uninteresting in terms of looks), but there are definitely standout gems in the game. For example, your interactions with photographer Stefano Valentini sees you explore a number of lavish interiors populated with dead bodies in a variety of positions as 'art' (Sander Cohen, anyone?). Later on, though, you'll be faced with a trial by fire as you navigate burning ruins, and it's a pretty dramatic change of pace.
Something that's undoubtedly changed from the first game, however, is how everything handles, from the combat to navigation. Castellanos isn't so much of a tank to control anymore, and although the third person angle can make things a bit tricky sometimes (like when bad guys are all up in your face) for the most part he behaves a bit less frustratingly than before.
A deeper RPG-esque upgrade system bolsters this, as by collecting both green and red gel from throughout the world, the former obtained by defeating enemies and the latter by exploring, you can make Castellanos better by purchasing skills in five different categories: Combat, Stealth, Recovery, Athleticism, and Health. We, for instance, chose to upgrade our stamina bar so we could run longer, but different players with alternate play styles can adjust these abilities to suit their needs. This also gives an incentive to battle enemies for the gel rather than run past everyone, as the upgrades significantly improve your chances of survival.