There’s a certain genius to madness. That’s especially true for crafting superb survival horror that balances the irrational and bizarre with careful consideration. The Evil Within, which put players in a psychopath’s mind-made reality, was one such example. There was tension-inducing enemy encounters amid erratic pacing. Calling it a diamond in the rough is more than apt, but after a few years of polishing and cutting, the gem takes the form of a sequel. The Evil Within 2 is more refined with its changes in more ways than one – for better and for worse.

Sebastian Castellanos and his fellow cast had a lingering ambiguity about them throughout their previous outing, but in this respect, the follow-up tonally sets itself apart from the start. Our detective is a broken drunkard after giving up his attempts to expose MOBIUS, who were not only behind the Beacon Hospital event but also the kidnapping of his daughter for use with a secret STEM project. Using her mind to create an imagined world that others can inhabit, something has gone wrong inside. Now the corporation needs him to enter it and save his daughter. Their goals may align, but Sebastian is purely involved to help his daughter escape and stop MOBIUS if possible.

Motives and personalities take front and centre with each character’s introduction, and depending on their importance, others have loads of dialogue. A couple of major villains are deeply fleshed out and several allies can be optionally engaged in conversation. Instead of being a gruff conduit for random horrors, the story latches onto Sebastian’s troubled past to truly develop him. As a result, the plot is more focused and easy to follow, which largely contributes to the game’s heavy reliance on psychological horror through writing, which is delivered through some spotty voice acting and repetitive lines here and there. This can be perfectly seen with one villain, Stefano, who bears an equally unnerving story to Layers of Fear's, er, protagonist.

The stronger emphasis on characters, while much appreciated, is not only a bit overkill, but also has diminished the personality behind boss fights and level design. With the exception of the last one, the former left us exceptionally disappointed in their ease and banality. The most offending example being the build-up to confronting Father Theodore, which culminates in a series of stripped down bosses from the first game. How about some originality? Overall, a lot more time is spent on visually disturbing players with wonderfully disgusting environmental tours leading up to these encounters, but sacrificing a good amount of tense action for walking simulator spookiness isn't optimal.

On that note, we should say that the game looks and performs leagues ahead of its predecessor. We feel like there could have been more enemy types and grotesque bosses, but the environments are expertly lit and set up to unsettle players in all their decrepit, unsettling glory. The Evil Within was a bit sore on the eyes with all of its grey and sepia tones, but the sequel has a richer palette with solid displays of physics and volumetric lighting. It’s clearly more polished and grand this time around, and despite some drops upon loading up a save and roaming the open world areas, the framerate is a steady 30 frames-per-second on the standard PS4. It’s just too bad that the PS4 Pro isn’t optimised to improve upon the game at all.

Getting back on track with level design, it forgoes much of the verticality and diversity we remember in forced combat scenarios that were peppered well throughout the original title. Unfortunately, most of the combat here takes place in three, massive open world-like levels, meaning that they spoil the scariness since you can easily retreat. But we don’t mean to imply that exploring these unknown areas isn’t thrilling. On the contrary, supplies and side quests are everywhere: you can stumble upon fallen MOBIUS agents with upgrades, statues that contain keys to unlock goodies, buildings that hide new weapons and involved side missions, and more. These things necessitate exploration, and thankfully, you’ll have fun doing so.

We wish Tango Gameworks had more fully committed to this with a couple more open areas along with extra side-missions and even boss fights. We were simply left wanting more to surprise us on the open and linear fronts, but we can say that the gameplay is stellar in itself. Sebastian’s abilities and the mechanics are largely the same with notable improvements to movement. The only major addition to point out is how you can craft supplies, which speaks for how much inventory and resource management has been tweaked under the hood.

You’ll barely find as many bullets, syringes, and whatnot strewn around as before. You’ll need to rely on collecting gunpowder, herbs, and more to have enough of what you need, and since it costs more ingredients to craft away from the tables located in safehouses, that brings a bit more emphasis to the survival in survival horror. It’s also a great way to put you in control over what ammo you get instead of picking up loads for a weapon you don’t like. In addition, the inherent and passive abilities of Sebastian that you level up with Green Gel have been greatly expanded to include more nuanced improvements you can make to health recovery, stealth, and the like.

Besides all the main missions and exploring on the side, you can try your hand at two minigames that show up in your safehouse: a shooting range and a Bejeweled-esque shooting game. They feel out of place given the game’s tone, but they’re decent distractions to practice your aim and win some extra supplies. Other than that, it sounds strange for us to admit that the sequel feels shorter than the original game despite being nearly the same length. The latter packed more environments and surprises up its sleeve for every chapter at a brisk pace, whereas these chapters feel dragged out with pursuits of one villain that take up to four to six chapters.

Conclusion

The Evil Within 2 has fine-tuned its solid mechanical base and visuals, and even crafted some big improvements to areas such as exploration and character direction. Yet it lacks creativity and diversity with its level design and bosses. The game may be more presentable and refined than its predecessor, but it's also lost some substance in the process.