Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Evil within The Evil Within

It's the Wednesday before my week's vacation, so I need a little bit of active engagement to get me through the day.  Let's talk about The Evil Within 2.  Below there will be spoilers for both it and its predecessor, so be warned!

When I first heard that there was going to be a sequel to this franchise, I was surprised.  The game was directed by the creator of the first Resident Evil game, and it leaned heavily on this fact in order to promote the game.  It was marketed as a return to true survival horror, rather than the "action horror" games that have been more prevalent over the last several years, such as the Dead Space franchise or more recent incarnations of Resident Evil before the reboot with Biohazard.  This was all fine, and the game was certainly rooted deeply within the survival horror genre.  Aside from this, though, I found most of the game to be rather forgettable. 

The problem isn't that the game contains more bad pieces than good.  The entire campaign for me lands somewhere in the dreaded middle, neither great or terrible.  This is what leads to it becoming a rather forgettable experience for me.  The weakest element of the game is certainly its story, where your character, Sebastian Castellanos, feels very detached from the world he inhabits and ends up being rather dull.  I never got a sense of connection with him, nor did it feel like he had any connections with the characters around him.  The Evil Within was a lonely game, and perhaps this is just one of the drawbacks of the survival horror genre.  Both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Resident Evil 7, which I consider to be two the best survival horror games that I have ever played, are also lonely experiences.  So, why does that work in those two games, but not for The Evil Within? 

A lot of it comes down to goals.  From the outset of Amnesia, you know what's up.  Get to Alexander and kill him.  The entire story is driven by this, so the player has direction and anchor.  Similarly with RE:7, you are searching for Mia.  In addition to accomplishing these goals, you also need to survive.  In having these clear goals, the player never feels like they're just being placed into a hopeless, unwinnable situation, thus making the experience horrifically thrilling rather than just horrific.  This is where The Evil Within falters. 

From the start of the game, the player has no idea what the hell is going on.  Sebastian arrives at Beacon Hospital to investigate a mass murder, and things start to just go crazy.  The world tuns upside-down, literally, and then there are monsters and traps.  The player has no clear goal, other than to survive.  This lack of direction hurts the game and the experience, and the addition of these sadistic traps makes things worse.  The player doesn't know why they exist, who created them, or why you're being forced to survive them.  There's no motive for your torture.  It makes the game feel either dull, or pointless. 

Eventually, the story starts to take shape, and it's interesting at times.  You discover that you're in sort of a sadistic version of The Matrix, and there's a maniac running the show.  However, the stakes are never high enough for your character, Sebastian.  He has nothing to lose or to gain by navigating through this nightmare, aside from his own survival and the desire to stop the evil.  That's really not enough to carry it.  It makes him feel detached and unimportant, like he's just the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That works for John McClane because he's actually entertaining to watch with his attitude and ability to be a down-on-his-luck badass.  Sebastian is just not interesting.  His dialogue feels wooden and forced, and his animations don't express him as anything more than Generic Video Game Protagonist #20755. 

On top of these shortcomings, the game frustrated me.  It liked to put you into situations where you weren't sure if the correct answer was to fight or run, and I didn't appreciate having to figure these out.  Instead of being thrilled after those experiences were over, I was either irritated because I was horribly murdered due to trying to kill something I wasn't supposed to kill, or irritated because I wasted half of my precious ammunition reserved on something I wasn't supposed to kill.  Also, too many of the traps relied on "gotcha" moments where in order to figure out how they work and how to get through them, you have to die a few times first.  I don't find these to be enjoyable experiences.  When I finished the game, I was relieved to be done with it, and have since forgotten most everything about it. 

So, yes, I was surprised when a sequel was announced.   

If you've read any reviews for the sequel, you'll see most of them stating that it improves upon the first game in almost every way.  I find this to be correct.  I can take each of my complaints above and clearly tell you why EW2 is better. 

From the start of the game, Sebastian has a clear goal.  His daughter Lily, who he thought burned to death in a house fire, is alive and being held by Mobius, the company who created the Evil Matrix from the first game.  Kidman shows up and wants you to get her back, which Sebastian doesn't need much convincing to do, because it's his *daughter*.  Already this is an improvement from the first game, because it gives Sebastian a reason to be involved, and something to drive him through what's to come.  It makes the game about him and his journey that you're going to go through with him, rather than just moving from horrible experience to the next aimlessly. 

The story itself is serviceable, especially if you don't think a lot about the character's backstories.  It's also a lot easier to follow than the first game, which was convoluted in an attempt to keep it frightening and unpredictable.  Sebastian's wife Myra, Kidman, a demolitions expert named Torres, and a motivational speaker named Theodore hatch a plot to take Lily back from Mobius and destroy the company from within.  It goes badly, and Kidman goes to Sebasian for help.  This is very clear-cut and simple, and I like it.  It adds a level of reality to anchor the more far-fetched aspects of the narrative.  Like Ruvik, Stefano is a rather generic maniac and his presence doesn't feel like it has any deeper connection to the story or to Sebastian.  He's a great serial killer for sure, but I felt the game was making the same mistake as the first with him.  To my surprise, however, it turns out that Stefano isn't the Ruvik of this game.  He was working with Theodore, who's gone batshit crazy and betrayed the others in their plan to take down Mobius by taking Lily for himself.  This was a very welcome development, and it finally gave us an antagonist who shared something with Sebastian.  He wasn't just there to do evil things. 

Sebastian himself is still a bit dull, but he's been improved.  Giving him the driving goal of finding his daughter certainly helps, even if the idea is terribly cliched and overused.  It does get a bit tiring to hear him demand his to have his daughter back so much, like watching one of those video edits of Harrison Ford wanting his family back.  Sebastian also has a tendency to say exactly what he's feeling all the time, but this, I think, is less bad writing and more because of Japanese influence.  (One of the writers is Japanese, and although Shinji Mikami gave up directing duties, he still oversaw the project.)  What I'm trying to say here is that sometimes Sebastian sounded like Solid Snake or Leon Kennedy. 

Though Sebastian is still a bit dull, he's elevated by the characters around him.  While his interactions with Kidman are a bit melodramatic or cheesy at the start, later revelations in the story make them much more interesting and believable.  Additionally, his relationships with the other Mobius operatives inside Evil Matrix do a better job of making Sebastian a bit more likable and less like a cardboard cutout.  This is especially true with Torres, who is a character who would undoubtedly be portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez if this were a movie.  My only complaint about their interactions is that there weren't enough of them. 

The most noticeable improvements for me, though, are certainly the game mechanics.  The things that I disliked the most about the first game were either entirely removed or drastically reduced.  Completely absent from the sequel are the diabolical and sometimes unfair traps.  This makes the world feel more realistic and believable, rather than just a game world where someone did everything they could to make sure you killed yourself on something.  Greatly reduced are the number of times where you're faced with a choice to fight or run.  It does happen sometimes, but with a few very important and improving differences.  The game does a better job at telling you it's time to run, such as the time I entered a room with a door that can only be opened by a microchip.  When I was in the room without a microchip, there were only a few enemies and I was able to dispatch them easily.  Once I had the chip, though, and could pass through the door any time I watched to do so, enemies started to swarm into the room.  It was clear that it was time to get the fuck out. 

When it's not obvious that it's time to run away, it's likely that you'll succeed by doing either, which is a welcome change.  If there's a large monster that you're not sure is killable, it probably is.  I haven't run into any monsters that are invincible.  It's just a matter of deciding if you have enough ammo to pull it off.  I was also very happy to see they mostly removed those annoying sequences where all you can do is run for your life down a hallway while something terrible chases you.  This happened only twice to me so far, and with the traps from the first game removed it ended up being much more tolerable than before. 

The biggest surprise for me, I think, was the discovery that parts of the game take place in a semi-open world.  It's not huge by any stretch of the imagination, which I think really works in setting the tone while offering a bit of variety in having different paths that you can follow to get to a destination.  You can also take a few moments away from being horrified to sneak around and gather supplies.  Unlike the first game, I found myself enjoying being in this world, and I want to especially compliment the seamless transitions between the different areas.  There are so few loading screens to take you out of the world.  In fact, some of the loading screens are baked into the game more than I have seen in any other game.  When using the Mobius hubs to travel through The Marrow to different parts of Union, you can control and move Sebastian around while you're on the loading screen.  It was incredibly well done. 

One thing I wondered about was the survival horror aspect.  Would it do the same thing that Dead Space 2 did, and become more of an action horror game instead?  The answer to that, I think, is "not really".  More action was added to this game when compared to its predecessor, but no where near as much as there was between Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2.  The Evil Within 2 is still a survival horror game.  Ammunition and supplies are NOT plentiful.  I run out of resources all the time, and do as much scrounging around and crafting as I possibly can.  I focused on upgrading my weapon damage output first so that I would use less ammunition.  There have been times where I've had to resort to slashing frantically with my knife because it's all I had left.  It is definitely a survival horror game. 

The weapons are superb.  I cannot begin to explain how satisfying it is to aim a harpoon bolt at a zombie's head and make it go splat.  It takes careful aim, which adds to the survival horror aspect.  Missing the head means you won't one-shot it, and then it will likely rush you and start munching on your face.  The shotgun sounds like "God slamming his car door", according to my husband, but it also reliant on headshots.  The sniper rifle is the same way.  I think the most unfortunate weapon is the pistol.  I find it SO incredibly difficult to aim with that damned thing.  It feels like a headshot with the pistol should be more effective than it is.  I have the damage on it almost fully upgraded, and it still takes two headshots to down a normal zombie.  With how difficult it is to line those up with that weapon, even with the laser sight, I feel like I should be greatly rewarded for landing a hit.  Whoever added the upgrade to automatically smash a zombie with a bottle when you're grabbed is a gift from the gaming gods and I wish to buy them a box of cookies. 

The game isn't without some problems, of course.  I noticed a little bit of texture popping, which makes me wonder if the game utilizes id's last generation engine.  It looks great despite this, though.  Some of the transitions between cut-scene and in-game models is a bit jarring and noticeable.  This next one might just be me being terrible, but sometimes it feels like enemies are too quick to spot me.  I feel like approaching them from behind is too slow without upgrades, and they seem to know exactly when to turn around on me.  Also, as someone who reloads weapons constantly on instinct after firing even a single shot, I think it was a mistake to set the "switch ammo" button for the crossbow as the same key as the "reload".  I can't tell you how many times I've lined up a harpoon shot at a zombie's head only to hit them with a puff of smoke instead.  I don't believe this can be re-bound, but I need to double-check.  There are also a few cut-scenes where I was left wishing the game would have let me do the thing myself, such as the killing blow on Stefano. 

None of these issues detract from enjoying the game.  I went into this game with tempered expectations and was surprised at every turn.  It's good.  I always go into single-player, story driven games with an optimistic hope that they'll be great.  This optimism has really been rewarded in the last couple of years with games like Wolfenstein, Resident Evil 7, Dishonored 2, and yes, even Doom.  Sure, it can be argued there's really no story in Doom, but somehow that just doesn't matter.  It's still a superb single-player experience.  My only concern is that The Evil Within 2 won't perform as well as it should.  I haven't really seen many people talking about it.  Perhaps it just wasn't marketed as hard as the first game.  Or, perhaps the shortcomings of the first game are hurting this one.  Like me, I'm sure many people didn't expect them to improve upon it so effectively.  That would be a shame, because I feel like the franchise could really hit its stride now that they've got this one out of the gate.  The only saving grace is that Bethesda has proven time and again that they are quite loyal to their IPs.  I hope they're willing to give this one another chance, because another installment could be fantastic. 

Either way, The Evil Within 2 has been a blast to play.  If you're a survival horror fan, this game is required play.  And even if you're not, you'll find a damned fun game to enjoy.  


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Chris said...

Did you ever see my comment on your February blog post about cels? I tried contacting you, my email is


Holy smokes.  The last post I wrote for this blog was on October 18, 2017.  Through the little more than  two years since, this blog has be...