Survival horror sure has gone to the deep end in the years following its inception as a description given to a certain niche of games. What began with a healthy dose of originality with the Alone in the Dark games and saw a big boost thanks to the first Resident Evil, lasting for a while through other series such as Silent Hill is now stale and dumbed down, a term used to describe “scary” games. Resident Evil 4 was the start of the decline for that series as a true horror franchise, turning to a tense, action-focused style that was extremely successful and influential to just about every action game that came after it. Given series creator Shinji Mikami’s hiatus from Capcom and from bigger releases in general, all hopes were on his eventual directorial return with The Evil Within.
There’s absolutely no way to review The Evil Within without touching upon Resident Evil 4, given its pacing, delivery, and look. Considering how brilliantly put together Resident Evil 4 was in 2005, the odds were stacked high for Tango Gameworks’ debut. And albeit the wealth of features that both games share, The Evil Within doesn’t quite live up to all expectations. Then again, no game in Mikami’s former franchise managed to top its fourth iteration, considering critical reception both of its sequels. The Evil Within, as a spiritual follow up to what its direction started with Resident Evil 4, manages to evoke some of the tension but never quite comes to terms with what it initially sets out to be.
That’s most likely due to how the game starts out. Much like Resident Evil 4, you’re cast as someone definitely out of their element. On his way to a run-of-the-mill investigation, detective Sebastian Castellanos is thrust head first into a journey few would take with their sanity left intact. There’s little in the world of The Evil Within anyone could classify as inherently pleasant as you delve further along its fourteen hour long campaign for the first time.
In fact, much of the promised horror is successfully delivered through The Evil Within‘s positively gorgeous but extremely disturbing presentation. Every corner of this game drips with gore, guts, dirt, and blood, which helps set an atmospheric dread that manages to stay with the game from beginning to end, as it moves on from a fairly varied list of locations that present ingenious chances to make moody use of lighting for great effect. Even in daylight sections, The Evil Within still manages to keep you on your toes, throwing just the right amount of doubt around every corner, without relying on the shadow play and scares that come with exploring the unknown in the dark.
Unfortunately, The Evil Within‘s aim to keep you on your toes starts out in a weak fashion, as a means to teach you mechanics that very rarely come into useful play throughout the actual game. Facing off defenseless against a one-hit-kill dealing enemy, you’re indirectly taught the value of stealth and avoiding confrontations during the very first section of the game. Bottles lie on conspicuous spots, leading you to use them as tools to distract the empowered enemy you want to avoid on your way to escape, even though you’re never directly told to do so. You can also choose to hide, but due to the behavior programmed in for that particular foe, doing so doesn’t get you anywhere, because you’re forced to go through the area that guy’s patrolling. I came out of that section with the feeling of relief to be done with it — not because the situation was particularly scary the fifth time I had to repeat it, just how annoyed I was with it an hour later.
That problem is still present until you make a certain bit of progress through The Evil Within and manage to build your character up through upgrades that can be made every time you stop by the safe zone, a creepy ward in a hospital that works as the save game area and the game’s main tool for back story delivery early on. The coin spent on these upgrades comes in the form of goo that is found in jars lying around during exploration and for defeating enemies throughout the game. The most useful of these are improvements to Castellanos himself, that allow him to run for longer spurts of time and gain more health back every time he’s healed.
Through loading screen prompts, the game tells you to avoid confrontations, to just run away, even though, for the most part, it forces you to handle waves and waves of enemies before whatever door that was locked isn’t anymore, or to leave you alone to spin a particularly slow and heavy crank for a gate. Most of the time, there’s little reason to employ stealth, for as useful a tool as it can be to defeat most of the weaker monsters in one hit. Guns are quite powerful right from the get go, and only get stronger the more points you invest on upgrading them. Ammo, which usually plays a part in how you manage resources, a tried and true aspect of a ‘survival horror’ experience, is freely given and denied to you at convenient times throughout the game — so if you’re careful with its use, you’ll most likely be armed for the entirety of The Evil Within.
Speaking of arming yourself, the best weapon you’re likely to use in this game is a simple match. What start out as common corpses lying around turn into living traps throughout the game, and fire is the quickest way of getting rid of these guys, whether they’re alive or not. The Evil Within makes a big deal out of how finite of a resource matches are, but just like firearm ammunition, you can manage to save up a tree’s worth.
The only real instance of scarcity you might run into is finding bolts for the aptly named Agony crossbow, that’s fitted with a healthy amount of different darts that would put Green Arrow to shame. That’s where a simple crafting system comes in, allowing you to build bolts with trap parts you find as pick ups or through the disarming of actual traps. That’s probably the most choice you’re given within the game, outside of the aforementioned character upgrades — whether or not you want to keep an armed trap around that could work to your advantage against enemies in pursuit or even unaware of your presence. You’re also given the option to fire crossbow arrows on walls and ceilings, acting as traps on their own, freezing, carbonizing and even electrocuting whoever is unlucky enough to trigger it.
The same tense action scenario delivery from Resident Evil 4 is in The Evil Within. Most of the foes you fight act just like the Las Plagas infected Ganados, slowly inching towards you in a menacing way. As you get further along in the game, they start wielding lit torches, axes, and guns, which ramps up the danger. Stronger enemies make an appearance, not only serving as even bigger bullet sponges for you to waste ammo on, but also as tools for the game to kill you quicker, mostly due to how easily they can end you regardless of how high or low your health is at the time. Still, even in these cheap moments, the combat is tight and extremely satisfying, thanks to great use of impact effects that slowly take chunks off of enemies as you shoot them. This is easily one of the goriest games you’re likely to play.
That sense of disgust in design is implemented well in just about every creature you encounter during The Evil Within. Common grunts are disfigured messes of skin and metal, animating in disturbingly morbid way as they grunt, yell and stumble towards you. Bosses are also incredibly nasty looking all around. One in particular takes cues from the menacing Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 with a new spin, which must go unspoiled. Safe to say, the game won’t disappoint those looking to fuel their visual nightmare catalog.
If it weren’t for the uneven way it’s delivered, one that is at times unsure of itself, if it’d rather blatantly and outright scare out, or annoy the crap out of you, there would be ample reason to name The Evil Within one of this year’s top games. It has certainly seen an exorbitant amount of care to its mood and setting, but it ultimately adds up to a predictable experience that’s just slightly above average.