(N.B. I have played and completed The Evil Within twice, once on Survival and once on Casual. This review is based on the PS4 version.)
One of my favourite video games of all time is Resident Evil 4. Not a very original pick, I will grant you, but nonetheless I still enjoy a good old playthrough of the game that redefined survival horror. It is a masterpiece of suspense, action and impending dread that still holds up to this day. I must have completed Resident Evil 4 more than 10 times across a variety of platforms (the Gamecube, the Wii and now the PS3 HD re-release). When I was younger, it scared the hell out of me. Nowadays, it can still get me from time to time, but it is more about appreciating the scares more than actually being scared by them.
Resident Evil 4 was directed by the legendary Shinji Mikami, of previous Capcom fame. Now Mikami is back with an all-new survival horror and my excitement was pretty much through the roof. I was all geared up for a new favourite game, an absolute dream of a title that would keep me coming back time and time again. It is probably an understatement that I gave The Evil Within some rather unreasonable expectations. But when you attach a name like Mikami to a project, a lot of people are going to have these expectations. So, for better or worse, I came into The Evil Within expecting something legendary.
It has to be said that I kept rather quiet on all of The Evil Within news. I didn’t watch any demos, I didn’t read any articles, and I didn’t look at E3 coverage. I don’t think survival horror games demo particularly well. How are you going to convey a sense of dread and horror in a 10 minute fumble around a level. So I went into The Evil Within not really knowing what the story was, who the characters were, or anything which turned out to be in the game’s favour.
The Evil Within is, for the most part, a tense and exciting action survival horror, which at it’s best reignites feelings of RE4’s greatness, and at it’s worst, doesn’t harm the genre in any way. You play as Sebastian Castellanos, a cool police guy who is called to the Beacon Mental Hospital to find out just what the flip is going on there. As he arrives, he and his partners find everyone dead, killed by some malevolent teleporting anorak. From then on, Sebastian is stuck in a nightmare world, which changes and grows around him as he ventures further into the subconscious of others to escape.
The Evil Within is undoubtedly at it’s best when it lays all it’s cards on the table. My second playthrough of the game was much more enjoyable than the first, as I actually knew what was going on. Sebastian gets thrown about inside a nightmare with all the horror of a spooky washing machine. He’s in a hospital, now he’s in a village, now he’s in a basement. It doesn’t make sense for a long time, and through your first trip, you will come to expect a string of survival horror vignettes that seem to have nothing to do with one another.
However, never fear, as things do start to make a lick of sense, and it is unfortunate that most players won’t saddle up for a second outing. This is mainly due to the fact that The Evil Within doesn’t particularly encourage multiple playthroughs (except getting sick new weapons for NG+ a la RE4) and the unlockable difficulties seem a little extreme. Don’t worry though, I will brave the AKUMA difficulty mode, where you get hit once and you die, most likely on stream for everyone to revel in.
The Evil Within is hardly endearing which is a real shame. You have to work to care, and although I have found myself invested, it is hard to see that the casual player will give a chuff about Sebastian and co. Characterisation is undoubtedly one of the worst parts of the game. Sebastian is about as interesting as a migraine, giving out gruff, vaguely concerned dialogue at every abject horror he sees. I can only assume they were going for a Leon-type character again, but they missed the mark entirely. Sebastian is supposed to be ‘fleshed out’ through diaries you find scattered throughout the game world, but unfortunately they paint a worse picture than the guy you see depicted on screen. Other characters like the eternally stupid Joseph and the bizarrely odd Kidman aren’t even really worth a mention, which is odd seeing as they’re a rather big part of the game.
It doesn’t help that The Evil Within has some absolutely disgusting technical issues. In this day and age when everyone is giving weight to things like resolution and frame rate, I couldn’t really care as long as the game runs and is fun. However, The Evil Within is so downright ugly in places, your immersion gets absolutely torn to shreds. The opening cut scene looks high-end PS2, with Kidman’s face in particular looking so poorly modeled it’s almost funny. And what is with the absolute abhorrent texture load-in? And why does no character have a hit box? You can literally walk through any character. You can walk through Joseph, Kidman, the nurse at the save station, anyone but the enemies. It’s incredibly lazy and is just startling that this got through to final release.
I’ve painted a rather negative picture of The Evil Within so far, so let’s just turn that on it’s head. I really like The Evil Within. Through all these issues, the gameplay really shines. The game just has a great feeling about it. Sebastian has a weight to him as he slugs around the nightmare worlds, killing zombies and battling the fantastically-necessary chainsaw dudes. The gameplay is where The Evil Within comes into it’s own and it really does invoke the most wonderful feelings of RE4.
Of course The Evil Within is a great game in it’s own right. You get a crossbow early on, called the Agony Crossbow, which is a dangerous and deadly weapon. You can construct all manner of crossbow bolts for it, such as freeze, shock and explosive, which really add to the gameplay, and makes you approach situations in different ways. There is also a fantastic mechanic to do with matches. If you knock an enemy down (even if he is not dead) and you have a match, you can light him on fire, instantly killing him and any enemies in close proximity. It really is great, and made me think back to burning all the zombies in RE.
Resource management is a big part of The Evil Within of course and while my Casual play through (which I embarked up the second time through) had ample ammo and healing items, Survival was where the game truly ramped up the tension. Ammo is scattered across the world in short supply and you need boxes of scrap to make bolts, which you can harvest from mechanical traps. It’s survival horror to a tee and Mikami does it best.
The Evil Within is for people like me, and I think that is why I love it. It harkens back to a time when survival horror was not always a term for disappointment. This can work in The Evil Within’s favour but can also be a burden. The clunky technical issues aside, The Evil Within can seem, at times, impossibly dated, with maybe a few too many recycled horror tropes.
The Evil Within is a worthy addition to any survival horror fan’s library. Though the technical issues are rather unforgivable, the gameplay shines. While The Evil Within never truly scared me, it did make me appreciate the craft. For a casual gamer, this might not be enough, but for a lifelong fan of the genre, I found a lot to love.
The Evil Within gets a 3/5