Shinji Mikami is back from the undead with a game that aims to revive the genre he helped to invent. Where does the true horror lie in The Evil Within?
I have a confession to make: When I created this blog I swore to only write about games that I had finished completely. The Evil Within is the first game, that I didn’t finish and yet still feel compelled to write about. I will explain this more later.
The Evil Within is heavily advertised as a true survival horror game, especially with such a big name attached. Shinji Mikami was the mastermind behind Resident Evil and successfully reimagined the game play of the series with Resident Evil 4, a game that was a success critically and commercially. I myself am a fan of the Resident Evil series and even played the admittedly worse newer entries to the series.
The Evil Within was introduced as a new hope to players who were disappointed with the direction Resident Evil has taken on. I was one of those believers and was eager to dive into it. Horror games in general have gotten more and more mainstream and players have way more experiences now than they used to. While in the “good old days” there was basically only Silent Hill and Resident Evil, over the years I was exposed to a ton of new horror games who brought fresh meat onto the playing field: F.E.A.R. combined excellent shooter mechanics with first person shocks, Dead Space combined my love of sci-fi with horror par excellance and Amnesia taught me that it is okay to hide in a closet. In short: I was exposed to a lot of good scary games, and I couldn’t wait to start another one.
The Evil Within puts you in the shoes of detective Sebastian Castellanos, who gets called to a Mental Hospital to investigate a mass murder with his team. Soon after Castellanos arrives he gets ambushed by a mysterious man and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, the hospital and the world around him seem desolate and roamed by hostile creatures. Pretty standard beginning for a survival horror game.
The game isn’t exactly heavy on exposition and leaves you wondering about what exactly is going on. Most of the time I was just as confused as Castellanos, who is apparently very prone to headaches.
On your way through this desolate world you usually go from what i call set-piece to set-piece. The Evil Within sets up scenes that would fit very well in movies like Saw or Hostel, torture chambers, limbs and corpses, generous amount of blood. Stuff like old rusty wheelchairs, flickering lights and creaking doors are nothing that any horror veteran would flinch at. Yet playing through scenes like this is truly unsettling and uncomfortable.
Unfortunately the game is not the best at chaining those together. You find yourself in Hospital interiors, small old-looking villages, ocean sides, caves, graveyards, day and night appear randomly, the game takes away a sense of time and place. It is possible that this was intentional to make the whole experience more disorienting, surreal and unsettling, but I just got a bad flashback to Call of Duty or Battlefield campaigns.
To be fair though it is not all bad: The game is at it’s best when the areas open up and gives you options. That’s when it also feels the most like Resident Evil 4, which is not a bad thing. The general game play of The Evil Within is built upon the mechanics that Resident Evil 4 coined and expands on them. Stealth is more important than ever and due to limited weapons and actually dangerous enemies, you have to be more careful and tactical in your approach. Luring enemies with noise, setting up traps or just avoiding enemies is fun. The game is moderate in difficulty and you quickly learn to not rush into things. Your weapons and some abilities are upgradeable, giving you more options down the road. These are traditional mechanics that have withstood the test of time and The Evil Within uses them well. The problems are all the parts when The Evil Within is not like that – and that’s about 50% of the game from what I’ve played so far.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t back down from a difficult segment, a boss fight or a specific chase/flight scene. But in The Evil Within I get frustrated when a creature shows up for the third or fourth time and I’m unsure if I should try to fight it or flee. There are a lot of moments where it is not clear at all what you are supposed to do and if it will save you or not. There is only trial and error and even then, the margin can be so thin that you don’t even know if you are supposed to do it in a certain way – one way or the other you are always punished with death. And those aren’t even quick time events (the game is thankfully quite sparse with them, even though I don’t mind them).
The horror in The Evil Within is good, scary and gory, the set pieces are great and the visual style is strong. I really don’t want to call a final judgement on a game that I haven’t finished – it wouldn’t be fair. I tried to play more and get further, but I just got frustrated over scenes and moments that I feel add nothing to the game play or the story. The plot tries too hard to be mysterious, while its only confusing and losing my interest. The moments when The Evil Within is great are the moments when it’s like Resident Evil 4, but all those parts in between are like stepping on the brakes of a rollercoaster. If I ever get back to it, I’ll update my review.