Release Date: October 14, 2014Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PCDeveloper: Tango GameworksPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksGenre: Survival horror
No matter what way you look at it, the world of survival horror needed a game like The Evil Within. And that’s because it marks the return of legendary horror director Shinji Mikami, who was responsible for bringing us the first Resident Evil. In Mikami’s latest twist on the genre, players take control of Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who is tasked with investigating some extremely strange happenings. But while the final result is admittedly too bizarre and absurd an experience to offer up enough real scares like an actual Resident Evil game, the 2004-2005 styled gameplay is an excellent throwback to a golden age of horror, and above anything else, is just a downright treat to play.
Don’t go into The Evil Within expecting an engaging horror experience, because the game’s storyline is confusing and nonsensical as all hell. Bizarre things happen at every turn without any rhyme or reason, and Sebastian just goes along for the ride without really ever questioning why entire cities are shifting or how he can suddenly teleport into old black and white photos. There are far more eye-rolling and laugh-out-loud moments than legitimate scares, but at least the random twists in the story allow the developers to move between many different fascinating environments without any kind of transition.
Sebastian and the cast of supporting characters are about as lifeless and devoid of personality as you would expect from any low-budget horror flick. Not only is the voice acting poorly delivered and the writing ridiculous at times, but the in-game dialogue often seems to activate at the wrong moments. At one point early on in the game, a friendly companion randomly complimented my “nice shooting,” even though I hadn’t fired my gun in fifteen minutes or so. Another time after completing a dangerous encounter with a room full of enemies, my partner screamed out of nowhere, “I NEED HELP!” Sebastian then asked him, “Are you okay?” only for the partner to respond in a whisper, “I’m fine.”
Another note about the presentation: Tango Gameworks decided to use a letterbox format for the entirety of The Evil Within, meaning you’ll see those giant black bars at the top and bottom of your TV as if you’re watching a widescreen movie. While the idea is to create a more cohesive and cinematic experience, it can still be a slightly jarring design choice at first, and it almost feels restrictive once you arrive at the more action-heavy segments of the game. Even though it’s a nice aesthetic to have the cut scenes blend directly with the gameplay in this fashion, I’ll admit I never really got used to it throughout my entire playthrough, and was always aware that those black bars were there.
But just like your favorite B-rate horror movie, while the setup and presentation are nothing to write home about, The Evil Within still manages to be an incredibly fun experience overall: and that’s entirely thanks to the challenging and unforgiving gameplay. Aside from a few pacing problems during its beginning, which point players towards a stealth-oriented type of gameplay before opening up the floodgates to a more action-packed experience, The Evil Within checks all the right boxes when it comes to those semi-old school horror action games circa Resident Evil 4.
The game’s action is surprisingly very slow and methodical, likely due to the fact that each enemy has the power to absolutely eviscerate Sebastian on the higher difficulties. One of my favorite gameplay mechanics in The Evil Within is the need to burn the bodies of your enemies with matches after you’ve downed them. Unless Sebastian splatters their head into a million bloody pieces, many enemies have the power to quickly rise again, lest you douse them with flames. This adds another tension-wrought depth to the overall gameplay: when both ammunition and matches are in very short supply, do you risk another match on a single enemy, or waste even more bullets if the body gets up and starts walking again?
Sebastian carries a small but powerful arsenal to help him survive, which includes the expected pistol, shotgun, and rifle. And then there is the crossbow, which is capable of firing various kinds of bolts that deliver different elemental damage, such as explosive, shock, and even ice. Though certainly not the defining gimmick that Tango Gameworks may have intended it to be, it’s still a whole lot of fun to experiment with the crossbow, and to watch its devastating effects on the unsuspecting enemies that stand on the opposite end of the crosshairs.
Structurally speaking, The Evil Within incorporates the interesting use of a communal save room which takes the form of a creepy black and white hospital that’s run by an even creepier black and white nurse. Sebastian can travel here periodically by using fractured mirrors that are placed throughout the game for a moment of reprieve. Here, he can upgrade his abilities using green gel, open up a series of lockboxes by finding well-hidden keys in the main game, and build the foundation of lore by snagging new collectables that materialize on certain visits. In fact, the one enjoyable part about the story was slowly uncovering Sebastian’s backstory as a detective through these little journal snippets.
While the levels themselves are extremely linear in design, there are just enough nooks and crannies to satiate that need to explore and scrounge for more supplies. Aiding your careful progression through each area are the deadly traps that are often lying in wait, from proximity bombs, trip wires, and even bear traps. These hazards can be dismantled if spotted in time, and Sebastian can then use their parts to craft more bolts for his crossbow: another good reason to take everything The Evil Within gives you in strides. Throw in a New Game+ mode and another sadistic difficulty that translates everything into a one-hit death and you’ve got a lot of content to ingest here over time.
When Sebastian isn’t combing through a dilapidated house or burning bodies at the floor of a cave, he’ll be thrown into a fairly high number of thrilling boss fights. While each boss can punish you with frustrating one-hit kill moves, there is usually some simple trick that must be discovered first, which almost makes the boss fights feel more like deadly puzzles than anything else. The enemy designs in the game are also especially top-notch, and they never once felt stale throughout the lengthy 15 chapter campaign: from the slow-moving undead, to invisible hospice patients, to a giant spider-like woman that moves towards you with frightening speed.
In truth, there are a lot of horrifying things that permeate The Evil Within. Just be prepared to laugh a whole lot more than you scream. While the game’s ridiculous story doesn’t do much in the way of scares, it does allow for Shinji Mikami’s sick and twisted vision to branch off into exciting new locations, and to flesh out the tension-filled gameplay to exciting new heights. Because at the end of the day, not matter how much I sit here and nitpick all of the head-rolling things that do exist in the game, there’s no denying that The Evil Within is an absolute blast to play, and it’s something that I already plan to go back to time and time again when other new-age horror games begin to feel stale.