November 15, 2014 by Paul Curtin
Calling out other recent survival horror games for their focus on action above horror, legendary game director and producer Shinji Mikami has made some bold statements that The Evil Within would be the game to bring survival horror back to its roots. Mikami, who created the Resident Evil franchise and knows a thing or two about said terrifying roots, has been echoing the very same complaints of genre purists over the years and has been promising fans that his latest will be a “true” survival horror game. Having left the franchise after the revolutionary fourth Resident Evil game, with The Evil Within Mikami picks up right where he left off almost a decade ago.
Starting off strong with the same shocking opening that we were shown at E3 two years ago, The Evil Within feels old and new all at the same time. The visionary developer has gone with the controversial choice to add black bars above and below the screen throughout the entire game along with a strong film grain filter for cinematic effect. This decision may upset some, but within time becomes fitting producing a unique experience that blurs the lines between cutscenes and gameplay.
As Detective Sebastian Castellanos and his partners rush to the scene of a very gruesome mass murder inside an insane asylum, they’re greeted and attacked by an unstoppable supernatural force. Next thing he knows, Castellanos is waking up helplessly hanging upside-down from a hook in the meat locker of an abomination that looks like the ugly love child of Leatherface and the Incredible Hulk.
With his field of vision partially blocked, we’re able to catch glimpses of the monster hacking away at something hanging beside Castellanos… until the gut-slashing sounds stop… and the hulking monster slowly walks away to reveal that he’s dragging the top half of a bloody corpse to a nearby chopping block. There’s no explanation given as to what the hell is going on, and the only thing you can gather here as the detective is that you’re going to be next unless you do something quick.
It’s obvious why Bethesda chose to show this part when debuting the game, because it’s easily the best part and perfectly embodies everything that survival horror gamers have been dying to play for years. Just as Mikami described to us in person, these opening moments give the player that feeling of helplessness that defines survival horror. Switching back and forth between having to sneak around quietly and frantically running away from the chainsaw-wielding freak in an effort to escape — the pacing, lightning, and just about everything throughout the first 15 minutes is done perfectly.
Unfortunately, The Evil Within never surpasses this disturbing and brilliantly twisted introduction. Rather than continue forward in the same direction as the intro and take its time to deliver fully fleshed out ideas, the story takes constant detours and feels more like Mikami using every idea he’s wanted to do since making Resident Evil 4. The only big difference between Resident Evil and The Evil Within is that Mikami has thrown a fresh coat of bright red blood over everything after being heavily inspired by his competition from Silent Hill and ultra-violent movies like Hellraiser and Saw. Without a doubt, The Evil Within is one of the bloodiest games ever.
With Castellanos’ mind under control of the supernatural force known as Ruvik, Mikami uses this plot device to constantly jump around to each one of his disturbing new ideas rather than take time exploring each character and developing them. This creates an issue in narration as there’s just too many things going on, and even the developers themselves can’t seem to keep track of everything. The combination of all things survival horror is admirable, but ultimately it hurts the story with the order of the chapters not seeming to matter at all. Multiple chapters in the story could be rearranged in any number of different ways for no better or worse.
Progression through The Evil Within seems more like Mikami’s own personal checklist of things a survival horror game needs to have. There’s the creepy old mansion filled with puzzles that brings back fond memories of the original Resident Evil. Crazy and warped villagers you’ll fight in forests and rundown villages that are reminiscent of Resident Evil 4. An insane asylum with the ability to sneak around and hide in lockers and under beds like in Outlast. A constantly recurring hallway like in P.T. where sometimes things will be different each time you enter and if you focus on said things long enough, a few jump scares can catch you off guard. Hell, there’s even part of a stealth level that takes place in an apartment complex that feels ripped straight from The Last of Us.
For the most part, the throwbacks to the golden age of survival horror are interesting to see reintroduced in a twisted new way for a new generation that has been greatly desensitized to violence over the years. But then there’s also the odd use of random action sequences that feel taken straight from games like Resident Evil 5 and 6… moments that survival horror fans hate and Mikami himself has criticized, yet strangely is still doing himself. The feeling of being helpless is completely destroyed when at one point in the game the player can jump into the back of a military Humvee and mow down an endless wave of generic zombies with a mounted machine gun in bright daylight. It’s these points that alienate the genre and hold The Evil Within back with a tone more attune to Rambo than Resident Evil.
To counter the few action-heavy sequences, stealth has been added, but in most cases you’ll still end up just shooting your way out of tight jams. There isn’t a grid inventory management system, but ammo is scarce and can make certain showdowns an exhilarating matter of life and death as enemies swarm you. I can’t count how many times I found myself with my back up against the wall and frantically cycling through my inventory to find whatever weapon I could use that still had a bullet or two left.
Controls are also a throwback to classic survival horror games, which feel dated and unnecessary now. Poor movement and aiming mechanics shouldn’t be a requirement for a survival horror game anymore, and it’s even more of an odd choice when the main character is supposed to be a detective trained in how to use firearms and in good shape… yet, he can’t sprint further than 20 feet without getting exhausted and having to completely stop for a breather with a swarm of zombies on his back? Come on.
This hindrance on running of course plays into the game’s upgrade system. By exploring every pathway on the map and breaking every container you come across, you can find glass jars filled with glowing green brain “gel” that can be used to buy upgrades, such as the ability to sprint longer or increase ammo capacity and firepower for weapons. Upgrading Castellanos involves returning back to an eerie hospital hallway checkpoint hub over and over again, sitting down in an electric chair, and frying yourself. It’s not as good as P.T., but it’s still one of the most enjoyable and terrifying parts of the game as creepy occurrences randomly pop up each time you return.
Staying true to the Resident Evil format, The Evil Within also features numerous memorable boss battles and one of the freakiest recurring monsters of any survival horror game. There are a few frustrating invisible enemies, who thankfully only occur a couple times, and some cheap traps that require multiple deaths through trial and error to solve, but for the most part, the gameplay is rewarding. Combat is just challenging enough to be enjoyable and feels like an updated version of Resident Evil 4, which any fan of Mikami’s previous work will enjoy from start to finish.
Sadly, the use of the id Tech 5 engine has produced hit or miss visuals and makes a strong case that it’s time for id Tech 6. Two years ago when we saw the game for the first time, the visuals looked great, but now, they’re a bit underwhelming. 30fps on PC is unacceptable and forcing players to use the cinematic black bars seems pointless. The same texture pop-in technical issues that ruined Bethesda’s other shooter, Rage, are still present here, and worst of all, almost every object in the game clips through other objects.
Weeks ago, we criticized Alien: Isolation for the alien sometimes clipping through lockers while the player was hiding in them, but that was nothing compared to this. Almost every time that Castellanos dies, his limp lifeless body will be thrown around like a ragdoll through objects, creating comical deaths that will have you crying in laughter instead of fear. Still, the look of each level is superb and Mikami has clearly taken notes from Dead Space on how to perfectly light a room to give off a sense of dread around each corner. There’s no question that id Tech 5 can produce amazing looking level designs, but it just has too many tech issues which kill the immersion that other triple-A games are producing far better nowadays.
Most importantly, when not focusing on the convoluted plot, The Evil Within’s mix of nerve-wrecking gameplay, lighting, and music can at times can be downright horrifying – and that’s all you really want in a good survival horror game. While it might not be the revolutionary comeback that many had hoped it would, The Evil Within is still a must-play for fans of survival horror. If you loved Resident Evil 4, but hated 5 and 6, then this is the game for you. The Evil Within gets 4 out of 5 stars (Great).
- Horrific survival gameplay
- Disturbing enemies
- Dreadful atmosphere and sound
- Brilliant upgrade system
- Feels like Resident Evil 4
- Weak story and characters
- Certain parts are more frustrating than scary
- Technical issues