I’ll admit, the preview build of the The Evil Within that I played at E3 this year had me worried. Back when I used to do this gig more often, most previews were pretty representative of the final version. And it had a few issues that really stood out for me. Only on rare occasions would you see stark differences in how a game previewed and how it reviewed… The Evil Within to my great astonishment managed to fall into this category, but for all the right reasons. Legendary developer and director Shinji Mikami and his merry team at Tango Gameworks have clearly been given free rein to make to make the horror title that they wanted to make. The clear inspirations from titles such as Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4, may lead to accusations of failing to innovate. However, modern consumer critique doesn’t allow developers much leeway either way, so it’s better that these guys have stuck to what they know. And what you eventually find is just how these ‘familiarities’ on the fact sheet can be used in completely different contexts throughout the game.
Even if it’s not a revolution of the genre, or a paragon of innovation, The Evil Within provides many refreshing aspects that seemed to have gone missing from the survival horror genre on consoles. This is a lengthy and sprawling journey that could easily span up to 20 hours on its first play through, it’s genuinely difficult and places a huge emphasis on playing it safe, and it rewards you for smart play while encouraging you to explore every single nook and cranny with proper rewards. Even that one extra bullet feels like it will make a difference. After years of hand-holding and superfluous rewards, Dark Souls and its ilk no longer feel like a flash-in-the-pan as a series of new games embraces the ‘old school’ attitude.
The Evil Within narrative is rather impressive in its scope and unnerving in the depths that it plunges to, but eventually buckles under the pressure that it creates for itself. Engaging throughout, from the moment that Detective Sebastian Castellanos walks into Beacon Hill Mental Hospital, the game unrelentingly sweeps you off into a disturbed and macabre world where all manner of depravities occur. As freaky as it is, it manages to be absorbingly fascinating as you stumble upon the snippets of what has happened in the world around you and learn just where you have been taken.
Why the world has all of a sudden crumbled around you, what are the forces behind your rapidly changing environments, what is possessing all these innocent people, who is this mysterious pale kid, what’s wrong with your rookie partner, why is the deadly cloaked apparition known as Ruvik stalking you down and just what happened in Sebastian’s past are all questions that are asked throughout. While some are cleared by the end, the game falls into the trap of reaching too far to start a franchise, and ends up leaving too much vaguely explained or not really touched upon. This is a shame given the execution in mystery in the lead up.
I felt that previous play time and prior knowledge of what was expected in the game to have helped my play through a lot. Having this basic understanding helped me realise that frugality is very necessary to survival. Wasting an entire handgun clip into the first enemy you see will leave you struggling later on. This frugal approach led me to appreciation of the mechanics and the environment around me. I learned that there were actually many ways around any given situation, through environmental traps and canny use of the weapons and tools. Also, knowing when to run and when to fight (apart from some set pieces and boss battles) greatly changed the situation.
While the Agony bolt and its various types of ammunition are a great example of the potential of defensive and offensive capabilities that have multiple applications throughout the game, the use of matches – initially I’d thought would purely mimic their use in Resident Evil – actually turn out to be incredibly versatile. Matches are not just used burn bodies that would potentially reanimate; I once managed to take out five enemies at once by trapping them in an oil slick with some astute timing, used bales of hay as a distraction or strategically burned groups of enemies piled up as they lay stunned from a single knee shot. There is nothing quite like the thrill of trawling through what initially looks like an insurmountable situation and defeating the circumstances with your wits and with some wares still intact.
The Evil Within takes you on a real rollercoaster journey, as you limp from one disturbing environments the next, occasionally taking a breath before tackling the next intricately crafted scenario that challenges your knowhow, the most surprising aspect is how fresh the game is kept over the course of 15 chapters. There is stunning variety for a game that is essentially linear in its execution, something that that mirrors the creativity shown in Resident Evil 4. You start the game terrified and almost unable to comprehend how to get to the next checkpoint, but slowly, as you progress and learn the systems, the feeling of horror is replaced by survival instinct and the thought on how to tackle each room you walk into. Despite the difficulty, despite the fact that I’d sometimes be running close to empty on ammo, I still wanted to keep going and I still wanted to keep finding that one extra bullet.
Despite being relentlessly put through one adverse situation after another, and regardless of the number of times that I’d felt like getting through a scenario was hopeless, my prior efforts at frugality were often reward once I had either figured out the best way to deal with it or realised that I shouldn’t be afraid to take my toys for a spin. Sure, controls are purposefully restrictive and your ammo is purposefully scarce, but often if you can’t get through a set piece it’s because you made a mistake, because you weren’t well prepared or you didn’t figure it out. The checkpoint system is generous enough to stop things from getting too frustrating, and save rooms are way more generous than the old ink ribbons from yesteryear Resident Evil titles.
The only time that the games structure impedes is when it strays too far from its philosophy of survival and tries to play the action card too hard. While I was happy to accept some level of trial and error, it’s the situations where you CAN’T run or stealth at all, namely a few boss battles and the occasional set piece, that the tension or momentum is compromised as you restart and learn the patterns. While I’m loathe to blatantly compare with Resident Evil 4, the upgrade systems in the two games are similar, though the spiritual predecessor did a better job of making you feel tangible progress. Even though The Evil Within always felt behind the eight ball, some smart moves such as fully upgrading the much maligned sprinting early turns out really beneficial in set pieces and made things better for me.
A lot will be made about the game being essentially given a lick of paint coming to the new generation consoles, but I could not find too much to objectively fault. Sure, this will go down as an early generation title, but the style and art direction are something out of this world. The designs are totally freaky and unreal, and impressive in their application and use. I actually like how it looked overall, as for what it lacked in technical grunt, it made up for in artistic direction. I only had frame rate issues on a couple of occasions and the game played stably for me, but I was still a tiny bit disappointed with the load times. The sound effects and music for the game are completely beyond reproach, and do a stellar job of combining with the visuals and design to create a tension and dread that I haven’t seen for a long time. Disappointingly, you were often taken out from this stellar atmosphere by some rather wooden voicing from the protagonists. Ruvik is suitably freaky but the detective trio were sometimes off. Something I would have liked to have heard more is the use of verbal clues, spoken out by the protagonist if you were lost or in a pickle.
To top everything off, the new game plus options are pretty cool and will, for the first time in a long time, convince me to go back and replay the game with my upgraded equipment and abilities. So overall, despite the familiarity in the inspiration and the poor finish to the story, I found The Evil Within to pretty much live up to everything that I would have wanted from the game, and it even succeeded in exceeding my expectations. It was refreshing to play a game to get the right balance of survival, requirement of wit and challenge without have your hand held. The biggest credit that I can give is, was that I was constantly on the edge and wanting to see what’s around the next corner, despite dreading what might be there.
A glorious revival of horror and survival gameplay, with a true survival emphasis | Good marriage of old school and modernity | Sprawling and lengthy journey that rarely relents in its tension and atmosphere
Story doesn’t come together well | Wooden Voicing | Some set pieces at odds with the game flow