My first few minutes of The Evil Within 2 play out exactly as I expect them to: once again I’m playing as detective Sebastian Castellanos, I’ve got a flashlight, and I’m slowly crossing a room full of hanging corpses. Each one is covered with a pristine white sheet - exposed and bloodied ankles confirming their fate - they’re spread around the room in haphazard fashion, some within toe-touching distance from the ground, others up high; one is swinging violently, convulsing even, as if only recently dead.
Related: check out our The Evil Within 2 guide for details on weapons, upgrades, and crafting.
A symbol is painted on the wall at the other end of the room, which I go to investigate, but as I reach it I hear the unmistakable sound of rustling sheets. I turn around and the bodies seem to have moved to form a parting that guides me through the middle of the room, there’s also no sign of the chainlink fence I crept through to get into the room - instead, there’s another wall, and in front of it there’s a camera set up on a tripod. I don’t like any of this. It makes my tummy hurt.
As I reach the camera I hear the rustling sound again. I spin around and immediately notice the symbol has been replaced by a door. The bodies are now perfectly arranged, two neat rows of dead meat lining the path to the door - both sides facing inwards, watching my every step. I open the door only to be blinded by the flash of a camera. My vision returns and I’m in a new room with a monolithic, antique mirror at the opposite end. Stuck to the mirror is a photo of Sebastian’s surprised face. Next thing I know I’m being chased through a hallway by a cackling behemoth made of viscera and buzzsaws. The subsequent chase sequence is tense, claustrophobic, and distressing; a perfect medley of emotions when it comes to survival horror games.
It’s no coincidence that the scariest part of an hour-long hands-on session was also its most scripted sequence. A close second for most disturbing scene involved a deranged mother force-feeding her paralysed son a plate of skin and bones before repeatedly smashing his head into the table. Then I reach Union, the sleepy settlement where the rest of the demo takes place, and more importantly where The Evil Within 2 moves away from the claustrophobic confines of horror and into the recently popularised but notably unscary realm of open-world survival games. Once in Union you get choices: which buildings you want to enter (not the church), how far you want to venture into them (turn back at the first sight of blood), and which enemies you want to avoid (all of them).
The first foray into The Evil Within 2’s open-world areas serves as a stark reminder of what made the preceding ten minutes so unnerving. There’s no ceiling, for starters, nor are there any pitch-black rooms to skulk through. Unlike when you’re sifting through the remains of an abandoned building, in the well-lit suburban section of Union you can see every enemy long before they’re aware of your existence. Here, you become the hunter, and being in a position of power quickly eradicates any remnants of stress or vulnerability that are left over from the feverish chase sequence or dinner scene gone awry.
Having so much freedom and control is certainly fun, and Tango Gameworks have outfitted Sebastian with a suite of tools for stalking and stealthing your way through open areas. For the most part, you’ll be sneaking up on feasting enemies and silently sliding a knife into their temples. Larger groups require a change of tack - unless you’ve got enough ammo for everyone - bottles can be lobbed to lead single foes away from the pack, which is the kind of tactic you’ll want to employ as often as possible. Alternatively, you can find the Warden Crossbow, which comes with a couple of shock bolts that can be used to electrify pools of water from a distance. All that’s left to do is run up to the spasming enemies and stamp their heads into the tarmac before they regain control of their bodies.
If that sounds like too much hard work you can always head into a quiet alley and ignore the dangers of the main street entirely. You might run into some other foes or miss out on a useful crafting component, but you get to choose the path that scares you least.
That is a huge departure from edging through corridors, feverishly scanning for threats with your flashlight. Horror games work because they put you in the driving seat and send you down a single, scare-laden path. Effectively, they force you to be the idiotic teen from the movies who decides to investigate the strange noises coming from the basement; the same teen that cinema audiences have been yelling at to turn around since the dawn of time. The Evil Within 2 is at its palm-sweating best when it is funneling you through one nerve-racking encounter after the next. As the level opens up you become very aware of how little immediate danger you are in - something Alien: Isolation dealt with in nightmarish fashion by making sure the Xenomorph can turn up at any given moment.
Some scripted scares await as you venture into buildings for crafting components and information, but these don’t tap into the same veins of body and psychological horror that the intro does. The few buildings I venture into offer little in terms of thrills: one shameless jump-scare as I board an abandoned train carriage, and a sinister-looking lamp on the floor of Union Visitor Center are all I counted. Out in the streets, the mass of gurgling infected stick to predictable patrol routes, making it easy to stealth kill my way through the lot of them - when I do slip up it only takes a few Handgun shots to remedy the situation.
Union’s open-world residential area is where The Evil Within 2 loses its fear factor. It isn’t devoid of creeps, but it is worlds apart from the taut and gruesome set-pieces that open the demo. Crafting and resource gathering take over as priorities, where before your only goal is to survive. Scavenging for supplies provides some welcome respite at first, but then you pull up your map and realise you could spend hours clearing every building on the street, and that could quickly turn into a slog.
It is early doors yet, and, given how effectively the image of a rigid mouth stuffed with skin and bones has burrowed its way into my subconscious, I have no doubt that Mikami’s latest will have some considerable staying power when it releases on October 13. But whether any of that horror muscle will be exhibited in The Evil Within 2’s open-world areas remains to be seen.