The Evil Within is a lot like a Greatest Hits album -- a paean, if you will, to the ways in which Shinji Mikami has shaped the face of survival horror of the years he's been working in the genre. It's also something of an old-school indictment of where the genre currently resides, although it must be said that playing this almost directly after having my nerves shredded by Alien: Isolation has left me with a feeling of ambivalence towards this spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4.
The setup for The Evil Within is rather lacking -- our lead, the gruff and gravelly Detective Sebastian Castellanos, is a template of a character rather than one in his own right. It doesn't help that he's backed up an equally forgettable, cardboard cutout partner, and a rookie-in-training who could have been interesting if she'd be given more do actually do. It wouldn't be so bad if the game didn't feel it necessary to force-feed players big eyefuls of unimaginative, by-the-numbers exposition.
Even then, it's a bit of a mess in terms of structure. It's a shame really, because some of the conflict-stuffed narrative beats to The Evil Within are really rather good. The bosses and sub-bosses that pop up here and there are brilliantly, disgustingly designed, but they rather come and go without any particular rhythm or pacing to the wider experience, and they often present hideously nasty difficulty spikes. It's impossible to shake the feeling that this could all have been planned a little bit better, and the game lurches from chapter to chapter with little satisfaction in terms of smaller pacing arcs, with creepy scenes cobbled together in a disorienting and disappointing fashion. Occasionally, there'll be a fairly effective cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, only for the game to squander that tension at the start of the next.
That's the thing, The Evil Within works well to create moments of tension and a chilling atmosphere at times, bombarding the player with utterly grotesque imagery, but then it doesn't really know what to do with you once it has your attention.
It's doubly disappointing in that regard because on a moment-to-moment basis, the game feels excellent. Controlling Seb is tight and responsive, with combat leaning towards the smoothness of a dedicated, third-person action title more than you'd perhaps associate with this particular genre. It reminds me a little of Dead Space 2 mixed with Resi 4 (we'll keep coming back to Resi 4), and Castellanos actually has a pretty meaty arsenal at his disposal, with one small issue -- ammo is scarce as hell. It's a classic survival horror technique, and one used to great effect here, and I adore the fact that you can't turn your back on a corpse unless you've burned it to a crisp. And you can only carry four matches at a time. Brilliant.
There's a distinct emphasis on stealth to help you work around the lack of ammunition, but make no mistake about it, this game can be brutally challenging at times. You start out with Seb's measly revolver and a laughing number of bullets, but sharp objects can often be used to take down enemies from behind with a single strike. Larger melee weapons such as axes will do significant face-up damage, but they'll disintegrate quickly. You'll get bigger guns later on -- including an incredibly pleasing, use-only-in-emergencies shotgun that pops heads like gory water balloons -- but Seb also ends up with a rather nifty bow at his disposal, one that lets you deconstruct the many booby traps the game sets for you, and craft various different types of bolts which can freeze or shock enemies, or even produce ranged sticky bombs.
You're constantly shifting your approach to combat (yes, running away screaming is a pat of that), and your methods are nearly always influenced by how much ammo you have left. Checkpoints are few and far between, which makes every victory all the sweeter, but can lead to frustration in certain parts of the game. Some of the bosses can be an absolute nightmare to face, efforts in trial and error that tend to follow the same pattern as you die over and over working out the proper way to defeat each one. The Keeper (the chap with a safe on his head seen in the promo screens) nearly drove me to doing to some serious harm to my hardware.
In quieter moments, though, the game shines. My favourite bit of the game is still the mansion level that I played in preview. For all of Sebastian's faults as a character, the main antagonist is rather brilliant. Ruvik the mad doctor is a great creation, and diving into his backstory and motives and purpose is actually fairly fascinating. Moreover, his random appearances in the aforementioned level mark the points where the game comes closest to engineering some sense of dynamic fear because you're yet to work out why he's there and how to stop him, and he pops up in different places each time. The house shifts and alters too, enemy placements move and change, and it's one of the few moments where the narrative and the presentation and the atmosphere and mechanics all align to create something rather special. It just doesn't happen often enough. Quite why there's an on-rails turret section later on is absolutely beyond me.
I think the upgrade system is quite brilliant, though. The game encourages exploration and rooting out every nook and cranny, not just for the slight possibility of a few extra rounds of ammunition, but also for the game's upgrade currency, which comes in the form of jars of green goo. True to form, Seb upgrades his abilities in this waking nightmare by strapping himself into a chair in the game's hub area -- fittingly, a mental asylum -- and injecting the viridian gunk into his brain. The goo can be used to up basic stats such as health and melee damage, but you'll also be able to improve your individual weapons in a variety of different ways too. I have to say, I'm halfway through my second playthrough (completion unlocks New Game Plus), and I'm having a lot more fun treating The Evil Within as an OTT blood-soaked romp than anything pertaining to survival horror now that Seb is pretty overpowered.
However, I can't shake this feeling of dissatisfaction. It could just be me, and the relatively unique state I've found myself having reviewed Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within in relatively quick succession, only a few months, let us not forget, after P.T. gave me a heart condition. I read back through my Evil Within preview from May and realised that things have changed. In bitesized portions, as a trip down memory lane into the heyday of classic, Japanese survival horror, The Evil Within works pretty damn well. But I might just be done with third-person horror games -- they're just not nearly as effective any more. In some respects, I almost feel like the games upon which The Evil Within is based (and I say that because it really doesn't add anything new to the genre, providing a nostalgic memorial rather than a meaningful step forwards) did things better the first time around.
There's plenty here that's grotesque -- The Evil Within is stuffed with gore and viscera and visual homages to torture porn. Some of the enemy designs, such as the scuttling, arachnid woman that appear relatively early on is rather reminiscent of Silent Hill, as are the environments and corridors that shift and warp, not to mention the plentiful camera tricks. But this is a game with none of the psychologically interesting background materials of a game like Silent Hill 2, for example. The Evil Within has some imaginative art direction, sure, and it does a good job of creating a tense atmosphere, but the end result is more mild disgust at another room filled with body horror rather than anything particularly unique.
The Evil Within nails the survival aspect of things. As with most games like this, you'll want to find the difficulty setting that's right for you personally -- it should feel like a thunderous achievement when you locate two measly shotgun shells. It really feels like a win when the final credits roll, and there's a sense of elation in that, but I didn't finish this game breathless fit to burst like I did with Alien. The Evil Within feels like a masterful monument at times, but there are others when it seems more like a museum of the horror of days gone by.
- The more expansive levels cater towards the game's well-worked combat and stealth
- Upgrade system is great
- Some inventive enemy design and bosses
- Art direction and grotesque detail is cracking
- Sound design is excellent
- Grotesque rather than scary
- Occasional frustrating difficulty spikes
- Risible, shallow storytelling
- A few technical bugs, visual glitches etc
The Short Version: The Evil Within is a good game, an assembly of Mikami's best work and a rather pointed lesson in classic survival horror that Capcom would do well to note, but it's also unashamedly rooted in bygone years. As such, it'll pleases nostalgic fans yearning for a shinier, bloodied love letter to the creepy classics of yesteryear, but it doesn't really deliver anything particularly new. Greatest Hits albums are usually stuffed with goodness, and The Evil Within certainly has its moments, but they're also usually put out by bands with nothing more to say, I can only desperately hope that's not true of Shinji Mikami and Tango Gameworks.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat. Frequently the domain of the well-made-if-rather-conventional brigade.
Platforms: PC | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
Developers: Tango Gameworks
Publishers: Bethesda Softworks