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The Evil Within 2 Review

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 03:24

Innovating within the bounds of horror's familiar tropes and rules is a difficult task, but one that The Evil Within 2 handles with grace. Developer Tango Gameworks cleverly introduces old-school horror design within the confines of a semi-open world that ultimately makes for a refreshing trip into a world of nightmares.

Picking up several years after the first game, we find the former detective Sebastian Castellanos in dire straits, still wracked with guilt over the loss of his family and haunted by his last visit into a nightmare version of reality. When a shadowy organization gives him the chance to set things right with his past and rescue his daughter from the dangerous and unstable world of Union, he willingly re-enters the haunting realm despite his residual trauma.

Right from the beginning, there's a sense of deja vu as Sebastian wanders the eerie and unreal locations in Union. Despite being one of the few survivors from the first game, he oddly finds himself falling for the same tricks and set-ups that the world and its inhabitants lay out for him. While this could be chalked up to a simple retread, much of these instances make a point of illustrating some key differences from this game and the last.

There's generally more of an adventurous feel compared to the original's isolated levels. With more side characters to interact with--opening up moments of dialogue that flesh out the story--and optional events scattered around the world, there's a level of freedom and variety in The Evil Within 2 that was largely absent from the first game. However, there are a few notable sections where backtracking is required, which slows the pacing and sense of progression to a crawl.

Despite this, exploration is consistently enjoyable, rewarding treks to the places tucked away, where you can find details about Union's history and meet other characters looking to survive the nightmare. With so many little details that add a lot to atmosphere, there's a clear respect for The Evil Within's world. The many nods to original game feel more impactful for it, giving a renewed appreciation for Sebastian's previous adventure.

Compared to its predecessor's singular levels in unique chapters, The Evil Within 2 possesses a more organic and interconnected set of places to explore--focusing on several large maps with multiple points of interest. While there's still plenty of mind-bending and perspective-skewing set pieces, such as a tentacle creature with a large camera for an eye, the explorable spaces are the real standout. In many ways, it's like traversing through a demented amusement park filled with hideous creations, forcing yourself to face past horrors. Adventuring to places not marked on the map often yields valuable resources, and also leads to some surprising encounters with obsessive ghosts and multiple unnerving, fourth-wall breaking events.

It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.

Over time, environments descend into chaos when Union inevitably grows unstable, turning a small town into a horrifying and unnerving shell of its former self. Streets vertically upend, and fire and blood exude from places they shouldn't. The visual design of The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While Sebastian felt more like a mere sketch of a hardened and weary protagonist in his first outing, he feels better realized and more grounded in this sequel, giving a certain gravitas to his struggle. Showing bewilderment and confusion throughout the first game, he's more confident and determined this time, even throwing in some fitting one-liners that poke fun at some of the dangers in the last game. The supporting cast of villains also feel more active in the ongoing events, and have a greater sense of place this time around--particularly with the eccentric serial killer artist who photographs his victims upon their deaths.

The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While there's occasional moments of cheese and humor throughout--such as the inclusion of a goofy shooting range and collectible toys related to other Bethesda games--the levity never feels out of place, which is an accomplishment considering the game's pervasive macabre atmosphere.

Putting a greater emphasis on the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within 2 demands resource management and bravery in its relatively spacious world. While common enemies are fewer in number compared to the original game, they're far more threatening alone and can easily manhandle Sebastian. There's a thoughtful approach to engagement and progression this time around, which means you'll have to think twice about whether or not to engage a group of enemies. With that said, you have a sizable arsenal of weapons and gear--including the return of the Crossbow with six different ammo types--to take on the enemies as you see fit.

Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.

Throughout his journey, Sebastian carries a communication device, allowing him to keep track of main objectives, along with points of interest and intel on the fates of side characters in the area. How you go about dealing with these characters and exploring is up to you. Similarly, whether you avoid conflict with enemies or take out as many as possible along the way is down to your preferred playstyle. The Evil Within 2 accommodates those that prefer action as much as those that like to be stealthy. Combat is robust, thanks to improved weapon handling and character upgrading that allows you to focus on the specific areas of Sebastian's skillset to enhance stealth, combat, and athleticism.

Sebastian can return to the safe haven of his mind to upgrade weapons and skills, and review case files and intel on various characters. With the Green Gel collected from fallen enemies--and the new Red Gel that unlocks upper tier upgrades--the core upgrading system has been greatly improved. Going beyond simply increasing damage of melee strikes and stamina length, new special perks can be unlocked such as the ever-useful Bottle Break skill that uses bottles as self-defense items when grabbed by enemies. Along with the expanded weapon upgrade system, using only weapon parts, the systems of progression feel far more nuanced and open.

Sebastian will have to scavenge for supplies and other materials to make up for the lack of ammo boxes and health items. While this may seem like it can make things easy, efficient crafting can only be done at dedicated workbenches, whereas crafting in the field via the radial inventory menu should be done a last resort as it costs twice as many materials. This crafting element adds a bit of a survivalist feel to The Evil Within 2, where you're scrounging around corners to find materials, all while avoiding packs of enemies looking to pummel you.

Though the game is challenging even on its standard difficulty level, it's not unfair, and there are options for multiple playstyles. The standard Survival difficulty mode is manageable, and you won't find yourself hitting a way due to lack of resources. However, the Nightmare mode raises the stakes, featuring slightly altered combat encounters, harder enemies, and fewer resources to find. If you're up for a challenge of a different kind, the unlockable Classic mode will disable auto-saves, upgrades, and limit you to a finite amount of saves. In addition to extra unlockables for completing the tougher difficulties, the experiences they offer is more in keeping with the true survival horror experience, where resources are hard to come by, and the enemies are deadlier than before.

There's a clear respect for the horror genre in The Evil Within 2, with a number of references to classic films and games. The game channels that style and tone into combat that feels brutal and raw, stealth that has an air of suspense, and unsettling confrontations with dangerous, otherworldly creatures. The Evil Within 2 doubles down on the core of what makes survival horror games great: the focus on disempowerment and obstacles, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes with surviving a harrowing assault.

Though there's some occasional technical hiccups that result in some particularly frustrating moments and weird pacing issues, this horror sequel elevates the tense and impactful survival horror experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting. What this cerebral horror game does isn't totally new, but it rarely feels routine, and offers plenty of surprises. Coming in at a lengthy and surprisingly packed 15-hour campaign, the sequel does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension and scares when it needs to, while also giving you the freedom to explore and proceed how you want. It's a tough thing to balance, but The Evil Within 2 does it remarkably well, and in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression after its touching conclusion.

The Flame in the Flood Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 10/12/2017 - 23:00

Survival games challenge you to gain control of treacherous worlds. You typically start with very little, and need to scavenge for supplies and resources in order to craft the tools needed to help you avoid death. Success usually means having enough power to establish yourself in a higher place on the food chain, or hunkering down and building a fortified space strong enough to keep the rest of the food chain out. The Flame in the Flood doesn’t allow you to achieve either of those goals and is a consistently gripping experience as a result.

Set in a rural post-societal America, The Flame in the Flood is a procedurally-generated survival game that focuses on constant movement and improvisation. The entirety of the game’s world consists of a large, overflowing river that has engulfed the countryside, destroyed man-made infrastructure, and isolated parts of the geography, turning them into islands.

The Flame in the Flood’s audiovisual presentation is integral to establishing its strong sense of place. The art direction invokes the aesthetic of a gothic storybook. The atmospheric sound design is ever-present. The rush of the flowing river is refreshing, and the heaviness of the thunderstorms is frightening. The musical score is an excellent array of Americana, ranging from mournful blues harmonica, cheerful acoustic guitar fingerpicking, wistful mandolins, and rough alt-country vocals. Together, they give The Flame in the Flood an aura of both despair and quiet beauty.

Your protagonists are a seemingly immortal dog and a survivor whose main concerns are keeping her hunger, thirst, body temperature, exhaustion, and any major injuries under control. Because the survivor can die from neglecting any of these concerns, players must keep them at bay by either scavenging or by crafting a variety of items using resources obtained from the land. But because of the game’s narrative conceit, you’re only able to scavenge on small islands with severely limited offerings. Finding the right components to create items you need often means exploring multiple islands as you traverse the river on your makeshift raft.

Your raft can be upgraded at marinas, provided you have the right components.

There are two major constraints that make this task both interesting and difficult. The protagonist can initially carry only a dozen items in her backpack, and you’ll only be able to dock at one or two islands in a cluster of many before the current pulls you further downriver. This design is frustrating at first--the impulse to grab every item and explore every area will cause you to waste far too much time and energy rearranging your backpack and paddling against the current. But once you embrace the idea of “going with the flow” so to speak, The Flame in the Flood becomes an engaging exercise of short-term prioritization and impulsive decision-making.

Though it will take a number of failures to understand the ecosystem, learning which items are universally useful and avoiding long-term hoarding are the key to staying alive. For example, keeping uncommon fire-starting materials in order to have a method of staying warm, dry, and being able to build a safe place to sleep is more vital than hoarding food--food eventually spoils, and edible flora is common enough in certain ecosystems to snack on as you come across it. Working out your priorities and having the courage to leave valuable things behind is a stimulating challenge. The Flame in the Flood keeps you on your back foot at all times. This feels like true survival.

Unfortunately, the user interface can prove to be a source of frustration. Essential tasks, like sorting your inventory and getting a broad idea of your current crafting options feel unnecessarily taxing because of the number of steps required. All pertinent information is kept within multiple subcategories accessed from a single screen. Inventory management and crafting existing in separate subcategories, and the recipes for different kinds of craftable items are separated into subcategories under that. Finding out what components are missing for a particular tool can be tedious because of the need to flip between menus and scroll through multiple entries to reach the information. Even after hours of play, I was still wrestling with the menu system, especially when using a controller. In fact, I began switching to mouse and keyboard exclusively for menus to make navigation a little easier.

Sure. I'm cold, wet, starving, exhausted, and lacerated all over. But man, what a view.

But switching to mouse and keyboard is not something I want to do because movement, especially piloting your raft, is far more precise and satisfying with a controller. Travelling to new locations via raft requires deft avoidance of rock formations, remnants of human infrastructure and floating debris. Lightly flowing waters regularly turn into violent rapids, which are as treacherous as they are fun to navigate--impacts are devastating on both your raft’s integrity and your own vitals. Using the last of your stamina bar to push your raft just shy of a large, jagged outcrop is consistently thrilling, and when things quiet down, gently steering your raft through the remains of drowned towns at sunset while a haunting lap-steel melody plays is a sublime experience.

The Flame in the Flood encourages you to put long-term goals aside and live in the moment, to make choices and overcome short-term problems with risky but satisfying spontaneity. Despite the awkward menu system, it’s an absorbing game that lets you experience a journey in the present, and fully appreciate the sights, sounds, and joys of floating down the river in its alluring world.

Update: The Flame In The Flood’s arrival on Nintendo Switch as a “Complete Edition” comes with the mechanical refinements and feature upgrades that have been added since the game’s initial release. These include quality-of-life tweaks to crafting, an insightful developer’s commentary, and more importantly, an alternate dog companion to choose from. While the visual fidelity noticeably lower on the Switch and there are some minor hiccups in performance that aren’t present on other platforms, The Flame In The Flood still remains a unique and absorbing survival game. We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Switch version. - Edmond Tran, Fri. October 13, 2017, 9:00 AM AEST

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