Poor Sebastian. Tango Gameworks weren’t content with letting the tortured protagonist from the first Evil Within drink the days away in his favorite bar. Far from it. Instead, Seb is lured by the shadowy Mobius organization into the STEM world, another metaphysical realm full of grotesqueries and mind-binding landscapes. But this time, rather than simply traipsing around with no clear goal in mind (like in the first game), his motivation is very personal: to find his daughter Lily. Even this slither of narrative thread hones the experience (albeit marginally), elevating the second title over the first. And there are a host of other improvements: horrific imagery depicted excellently by delicious art and graphical style, a new and more involved dimension to stealth, and boss fights that aren’t just really awful. But what The Evil Within 2 gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.

The biggest offender: the town of Union. In the context of the game, it’s an alternate reality created by Mobius to be like the perfect version of a little American utopia. This is where Seb presumes his daughter can be found. To get an idea of what to expect, think to the latest iteration of Tomb Raider – you’ll explore a series of hub-like areas with various tasks to complete and a massive assortment of loot to collect. In all honesty, Union can be enjoyable to explore; all the trappings of life typical to semi-rural towns are yours to rifle through. But in this grand opening-up of the game’s progression, much of what makes The Evil Within 2 a survival horror is stripped away.

Survival horror is all about loss of control. The games that belonging to the genre, or at least the good ones, pen you in and hamper your progress, almost making you feel like you’re being hard done by. This kind of design easily lends itself to a growing sense of claustrophobia. Look to the greats of survival horror, titles like Resident Evil and Dead Space. Sprawling environments, but you still feel isolated and constrained. Now, open up those worlds, and that feeling dissipates utterly, so all that’s left is walking from place to place with the occasional interruption from one of Union’s shambling inhabitants. Admittedly, The Evil Within 2 gets back to what it does best in the latter portions of the game, but I feel that considering so long was spent roaming the streets (until I got bored and moved on), the pacing of the game took a major hit. And survival horror is all about pacing. Tango Gameworks took a shot on something new, but it didn’t quite work out. The first Evil Within had its flaws, but the linear gameplay was by no means the biggest, so I’m not sure it should have been changed.

Although, to their credit, a lot has been done to raise The Evil Within 2 above its predecessor. The controls, for one. No longer will floppy and loose movements send you just a tad too close to a trap, flinging bits of your body into oblivion. This means that combat is also a lot more fun. Each weapon is a joy to fire off. Enemies react with some flair to being shot and exploded … staggering backwards or just gradually falling to pieces. Although, there were times at which shots just failed to register, most noticeably at point blank range. Environmental hazards can be utilized to your advantage also. If you find yourself in a tight spot, being followed by a group of enemies, just look for an oil spill to set alight or a puddle of water to electrify with a shock bolt – that’ll solve your problem! Again though, combat is made a tad less thrilling when you can just run away in big open areas.

When you do choose to engage enemies, the tools at your disposal have also received some tweaking. In the first Evil Within, stealth was almost an afterthought, and I always found that the zombie-like wanderers were incredibly good at spotting you. Especially considering they were mindless drones with rotting faces. Stealth in The Evil Within 2 is significantly more rewarding. The most basic inclusion is the option to hide in long grass, but you can also pour some of the green brain juice you use for upgrading your abilities into making Seb a ninja! Well not quite, but you’ll be able to stealth kill from cover, sneak around quietly, and move faster while crouched. This all makes for a more rounded combat experience, and gives you as a player more options on how to address each new situation as you progress through the game. A very welcome improvement.

You can now also upgrade your arsenal of guns with ‘weapon parts’ that you can find scattered about. They improve damage, fire rate,  reload time; all the usual gun-related attributes. Unlike in the original game, where you would just use the green brain juice for both Seb’s ability upgrades and the weapons, ‘weapon parts’ are an additional collectible you need to keep an eye out for as you’re progressing. Not to mention the variety of other bits and pieces you can pick up to craft ammo (oh yes, there’s also a crafting system now), and the usual assortment of story-related collectibles for you to search for – it’s all a bit much really. I found myself staring at the ground for a lot of the time in search of all this litter.

Of course there has to be a certain amount of scavenging in Survival Horror games. But it needs to be more of a mad dash back to that room where you saw those shotgun shells so you can turn around and blast the face off the horrible entity that’s following you, rather than a leisurely collectathon. Even the inclusion of side quests in The Evil Within 2 grates on me a little. You have the choice on your way to a main objective to answer calls on your radio from some of the remaining sane inhabitants of Union. Some of these tasks will take a fair amount of time to complete, but will allow you to flesh out the story, while some are very simple, and will lead you to more loot. I enjoyed learning a little more about what was going on, but the focus was again shifted from the core experience. The Evil Within 2 ends up feeling like it’s trying to do too much at once.

But, when The Evil Within 2 returns to doing what it does best in the more linear sections (that is, being 100% loopy), the game truly shines. In particular, sequences involving the the twisted photographer character Stefano Valentini stood out. He reminded me somewhat of Sander Cohen in Bioshock, but on a heavy dose of acid. He messes with you in the most cerebral of ways: twisting the environment around to confuse your sense of direction, setting up “artistic” scenes of bodies contorted in disturbing ways, and throwing legions of his twisted minions at you to deal with. This mental torment is backed up by lashings of deliciously rendered viscera. Sometimes you just have to stop and marvel at the gore. Which often isn’t the greatest idea when some mass of corpses it’s hurtling towards you, intent on your demise. The audio design is also suitably horrifying. Screams, wails and growls keep you on your toes, and the occasional jump-scares complete the formula (though they’re not actually that scary).

Overall, The Evil Within 2 is a definite improvement on the original. But there are some additions that really break the flow of would have otherwise been an excellent Survival Horror. As it stands, this game will definitely scratch an itch, but don’t expect to be blown away. If you’re looking for a good story to get your teeth into, again, this isn’t the game for you. But what you will find are moments of greatness spattered throughout, and they go a fair distance in compensating the flaws. My advice: whack in the disk, turn out the lights, and explore what lies within … spoiler alert: it’s evil.