The Evil Within (Video Game Review)



With every new survival horror game comes a familiar song and dance as developers promise a return to the fright-filled, puzzle-driven, atmospheric gameplay that fans have been clamouring for since the genre largely jettisoned scares and smarts in favour of action. It’s a promise that carries less weight with every new Resident Evil title featuring burly dudes suplexing the undead, but The Evil Within’s potential is certainly matched by its gaming pedigree: If anyone can usher in a return to the golden age of third-person survival horror, it’s Shinji Mikami, the man who defined the genre with Resident Evil and Dino Crisis. But for all the excellent, challenging combat that The Evil Within offers, it’s more content to play superficial lip service to genre classics rather than embrace the creepy, narrative-focused gameplay that made them great.

Right off the bat, there’s no hiding that its the brainchild of Resident Evil 4 architect Shinji Mikami: Mechanically, The Evil Within is near identical to the last great Resident Evil game. Adopting the same over-the-shoulder, third-person-shooter perspective and ‘every bullet counts’ mentality, the core gameplay handles like a dream. There’s a solid selection of weapons, with the game’s gadget-assisted crossbow offering up its own variety of bolt ammo that you can craft on the fly with collected scrap. Combat is a delight and, like the best survival horror games, The Evil Within does a wonderful job at enforcing challenge and limiting resources without completely depriving you of that fun and satisfying gunplay. Using your stash of items conservatively and hoarding them for bigger enemies will make things easier for you in the long run throughout the 15-20 hour campaign, but while you’re never flush with ammo, you’re always given enough to allow you to shoot your way out of a situation if you like flying by the seat of your pants.
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It’s a tactical balance echoed in the upgrade tree: There’s plenty of green goo (the game’s odd choice for upgrade currency) to be found as you progress to beef up particular skills and weapons, but you won’t be able to unlock everything in one playthrough. Instead, you’ll have to strategically juggle the essential stuff along with boosting criteria that suits your play style – dumping all your points into making your shotgun an overpowered killing machine won’t get you too far if you haven’t dropped a little into boosting your stamina to help you haul ass when your ammo runs dry. It’s a well-balanced system, and if there’s anything to encourage replayability, it’s that the incredibly fun combat gets progressively more enjoyable the more you enhance your load-out, with all your unlocked abilities carrying over into a ‘New Game +’ mode for your second playthrough.

Less smoothly implemented are the game’s simplistic The Last of Us-inspired stealth mechanics. While that emphasis on sneaking around worked well in Naughty Dog’s stealth-horror game, it’s a clumsy, half-baked system at best in The Evil Within. There’s no locking to cover, so you’re haphazardly hovering near walls rather than hugging tight to them to avoid being spotted, while throwing bottles for distraction triggers a tossing animation that awkwardly lurches Sebastian a good foot out of cover. If you look at it as a clunky modern approximation of Resident Evil’s tank controls, you might be able to overlook how cumbersome it is, but after a couple of early sections where you’re forced to use those poorly-realised stealth mechanics as a realistic option to progress, it’s forgotten about almost entirely for the rest of the game. Sure, you can sneak about as an optional way to take out the odd small fry enemy here and there, but it’s never really enforced or significantly rewarded and creeping by under the radar is almost never an option in tougher moments when you’d really appreciate another tactic to get by more intimidating major monsters.
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Stealth caveats aside, the core combat itself is superb, but the game’s story, which sees cop protagonist Sebastian Castellanos called to a mass murder at a mental hospital only to find himself pulled into a nightmarish world of monsters and stalked by a ghostly, hooded killer named Ruvik, does very little to keep players engaged. Evil Within runs with familiar gaming narrative tropes – you’ll find more than a few police logs, audio recordings, newspapers and missing persons reports in tried-and-true survival horror fashion – but they do nothing to flesh out the flimsy, often incoherent story.

The narrative largely feels like a cobbled together afterthought, too surreal, nonsensical and light on actual plot from the get-go to really rope you in as a mystery, taking far too long to start moving forward (even Sebastian’s quick to brush off any attempts to question the abstract weirdness going on for most of the game) and never managing to be all that engrossing or satisfying once it all comes to an end. Not doing the unengaging story any favours is the disappointing voice acting – Sebastian’s stilted, matter-of-fact comments as weird crap happens left and right inspire more than a little of the unintentional laughs and cheesy B-Movie charm of Resident Evil, but mostly the cast’s performances just come off as wooden whether by direction or out of boredom with the material.
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Still, at least the scattered plot leads to a decent amount of variety in the levels themselves. Sebastian’s surreal journey takes him through a mix of creepy locations that (in what becomes a recurring trend throughout the game) feel like a kitchen sink collection of all the go-to settings for any horror game throughout history: Run-down mental hospitals, creepy labs, spooky mansions, trap-filled caverns and ominous, dilapidated villages, amongst others. All of it looks great and there’s some fantastic level design, especially Chapter 10, which kicks off with you skillfully using the environment against enemies while ducking under a fairground carousel adorned with massive spinning knives and boasts some memorable boss encounters. Those chapters are a little too few and far between, though, and it’s a shame so many earlier chapters are comprised of comparatively by-the-numbers gameplay and uninspired locations.

Much like the levels themselves, character design-wise, the game plays things disgusting and well-rendered but all too familiar. Minor enemies look and act awfully similar to the parasite-infected Los Ganados villagers in Resident Evil 4 while the game’s marquee bad guy (a giant butcher named The Keeper, who wears a barbed wire-wrapped safe on his head) looks suspiciously like an alternate version of The Butcher from that game. Toss in a few troll mutants, the doll-faced murderers from The Strangers and a recurring boss modeled after Sadako from the Ring movies (and by extension, Alma from the F.E.A.R. franchise) and The Evil Within’s bad guy roster feels eclectic, but disappointingly like a lazy grab bag of familiar villains from other notable properties with no unique or imaginative ones of its own.
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Visually, the game fosters an impressive style and the use of film grain, muted colours, faux screen grime and the occasional monochrome section lends The Evil Within an impressive horror movie aesthetic. In game, it looks fantastic and performs smoothly right up until you get to cutscenes, where every change of camera angle is met with heavy texture pop-in. It’s a noticeable and frequent hiccup, but far from a monumental one. A little harder to overlook is the ultra-widescreen aspect ratio that the game adopts. Obscuring a good third of the screen, the developers claim the oversized black bars on the screen are to lend the game a more “cinematic” look, but it never compliment’s the game in that sense.

The aspect ratio and tight field of view result is an often cramped gameplay experience that does have an effective impact on dissuading close quarters combat, making shooting and melee fighting a fool’s errand and forcing you to use speed and tactics during action sections, which fits well with the challenging emphasis on resource management. But for what little it adds, it also forces far too much awkwardly jimmying the camera around to get something resembling a decent view in certain areas and boss encounters. And if you need or want subtitles enabling, you’ll be extra dismayed as those cut even further into visual real estate rather than being positioned in the centre of the already intrusive lower black bar.
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Those looking for a return to the scares and dread-filled atmosphere of horror genre classics will quickly find out that The Evil Within is just too goofy in its over-the-top approach to gore to ever be scary and rarely musters up much tension. One part of the game pits you against a giant dog monster. If it bumps into you at a steady jog, you’ll be met with a death animation that sees your head and limbs all explode out of their sockets like you’re a defective, ketchup-covered action figure. That’s a pretty good signifier of the game’s approach to horror, emphasizing comically blood-soaked grue that, while often hilariously fun (landing explosive headshots never gets old), is far from the tension and scares you might have wanted or expected.

In fact, the only regular source of tension comes from slogging it through an especially difficult section by the skin of your teeth and barrelling towards another as you notice that there hasn’t been a checkpoint in an uncomfortably long time. The Evil Within ditches the old school fixed save point system of classic survival horror (a design choice that Alien: Isolation embraces to wonderfully tense effect) and opts for a mixture of old and new: There’s a magic mirror in each chapter that transports you to a save room, but if or when you can backtrack to it or even use it more than once varies wildly from level to level, so you’re largely reliant on checkpoints to record your progress. The problem is that there’s often no rhyme or reason to how they’re spaced out in relation to gameplay – you won’t often be rewarded with a checkpoint during incredibly lengthy and challenging sections, while other times the game is incredibly generous at dishing out frequent checkpoints in quick and easy chapters.
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The lopsided checkpoint locations become a problem when the games starts to pile more than a few cheap, instant death situations on you. One level has you exploring a mansion, solving a simple trio of puzzles hidden away around opposite ends of the building. At any point during this chapter, an invincible enemy can randomly spawn, killing you instantly if he catches you. It’s also during this section that you’ll get snatched up in a scripted trap, dragging you off down a hallway towards giant, spinning blades and an untimely demise unless you shoot the trap’s mechanism in time. The problem is that the aforementioned one-hit-killing invincible bad guy can randomly spawn while you’re caught in the trap, giving you no time or opportunity to escape from both. The result is a situation of unavoidable death through no fault of your own, followed by a substantial load time and a large chunk of lost progress. It’s a frustrating occurrence that happens a few too many times throughout the game.

Challenge is a welcome thing, especially in a game with a storied ‘old school’ lineage like this one, but the harder moments in The Evil Within too often come as a result of that unbalanced, underhanded design and too rarely from intelligent gameplay or well-constructed puzzles. There are puzzles sprinkled throughout, but while they’re potentially clever, the game puts zero faith in your ability to use brainpower and essentially solves each puzzle for you, telling you the solution pretty much outright the second you encounter them. The way The Evil Within mollycoddles you when it comes to its puzzles is a bizarre approach considering it doesn’t pull its punches elsewhere and that even some basic gameplay mechanics are thrown at you without much explanation. Whatever the reason, it robs you of the more memorable, rewarding moments you’d get from classic survival games where you’d be piecing things together yourself, scribbling notes and mulling over potential solutions before it all clicks satisfyingly.

It’s a game that leans on familiar survival horror tropes and designs like a comforting, nostalgic crutch. Shinji Mikami pulls out all the stops to make sure that every familiar design, mechanic and location from the genre he helped define are all crammed in there in hopes of conjuring some instinctive, Pavlovian scares and entertainment. But for all the superficial similarities that The Evil Within has to the hallmark horror classics, it rarely takes inspiration where it counts. The resulting lack of challenging puzzles, occasionally clunky design and the absence of an engaging, coherent story all keep this from being a return to survival horror greatness, but it’s still a solid, tough and enjoyable action game and the incredibly fun combat coupled with some occasionally great level design mean it’s definitely worth checking out.

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The Evil Within is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Click here to buy the game from Amazon.co.uk.