The other night I went to the bathroom to do my usual pre-sleep ritual. The brushing of the teeth, primarily. And I hesitated at the door. Just for a moment, I actually felt a little nervy about opening it. A small part of me feared something might be waiting on the other side. The Evil Within has definitely gotten under my skin over the last week, suffice to say. Straightforwardly, this is a good game. It may have been very good, but a cocktail of a couple of weak chapters, some technical issues and horrendous characterisation drag it down a few notches. But let us begin with the positives.
At its best, The Evil Within is terrifying. Its opening chapter is one of the greatest things I’ve ever had the (dubious) pleasure of playing, with me feeling outright panicky despite knowing beat for beat what was going to happen (this chapter featured heavily in the promotional videos leading up to release). It is one thing to watch a video, a different thing to play the game, with the sound effects all around me, the visuals in front, controller in hand and no distractions to lessen the atmosphere. It does a superb job of taking what should be a strong and confident protagonist and making it clear that he is out of his depth and all but powerless against the force now threatening him. The following chapters never quite hit that height for me, but they maintained a constant level of excitement and tension, interweaving the odd scripted moment that never failed to hit the mark. For those who do not know, The Evil Within is Shinji Mikami’s almost triumphant return to the genre he more or less created with Resident Evil, after having left Capcom and set up his own studio, Tango Gameworks, which in turn has been bought by Bethesda. Tangentially; I have a feeling that if Mikami ever writes an autobiography we’ll find in it some sort of anecdote about childhood trauma involving a chainsaw-wielding scientist performing some dubious experiments on all and sundry in the basement of an old mansion. He does get stuck on this motif.
Many reviews that I have read focus a great deal on The Evil Within’s similarities to Mikami’s previous games, with some accusing it of playing ‘like a greatest hits’ at times. I feel that this is unfair. Comparisons to Resident Evil are unavoidable because TEW’s control system is very similar, but then comparisons to Resident Evil are unavoidable when discussing Silent Hill games for the same reason. Many people seem to forget that the Hill series – mechanically speaking – is just a slightly worse version of Resident Evil. What sets it apart is the plotting, setting and overall style. In this regard, TEW is in the most part a huge departure from Resident Evil. There is still a stock focus on scientific misdemeanour, but the effect of that misdemeanour is different, and the angle of the game is different.
Saying that, exactly what is happening in TEW is at first difficult to parse. There are a couple of hints early in the game that genre-savvy players can unravel to figure out most of the plot, barring some specific reveals in the later stages, but by and large strange things happen for no discernible reason. The feel is far more Silent Hill than Resident Evil. Here there be monsters, but why? Mikami’s previous work shows most in the gunplay, and it is here that TEW either gets it right or gets it wrong, depending on the player. Sebastian Castellanos – our hapless protagonist – may be defenceless for a couple of chapters, but then he finds an arsenal. The guns are familiar. A pistol, a shotgun, the ubiquitous agony crossbow that really can cure anything that ails you, and later in the game a few other stock goodies.
For me at least, this was where I felt the influence of that opening chapter. Despite carrying an arsenal, I did not feel safe. Sure I could fight back against the Haunted, the common, zombie-like enemies that are your most frequent tormentors, but the Haunted are a tiny symptom of the problem. Ruvik, the game’s central antagonist and source of all the insanity, never seemed less intimidating because of my nifty crossbow. But it did mean that between the scare high-points I found the gameplay satisfying. Ammunition and health are a genuine scarcity in TEW, not the alleged scarcity that I always heard about but never found in the Resident Evil games. I struggled through most of the story to keep Sebastian’s health above the halfway mark, and I almost always had one or two guns that were out of ammo. I never finished an encounter with no ammunition at all, but I ended several with my favourite weapons depleted to the point that I dared not use them. Encounters with the Haunted remained tense, if not because I feared them, but because I feared a missed headshot, a wasted bullet that I could never get back. Sooner or later, I always knew, I would need that bullet. Melee is an option but is almost useless, unless armed with a hatchet or flaming torch. Before long, leg-shotting a haunted and dropping a match on them becomes an almost necessary tactic to preserve ammunition and cut short protracted encounters.
Not to imply that gunplay is forced. Far from it, stealth is by far the preferably option in most scenarios, and a skilled and careful player can take advantage of the mechanics to remove most if not all the haunted in an area before being discovered. The relative ubiquity of traps in most environments also encourages a stealthy approach, which in turn means you spend longer soaking up the atmosphere. Moreover, because you can disarm traps if you don’t trigger them and use the parts to create bolts for the agony crossbow, you are directly incentivised to be slow and careful. It’s a savvy approach to game design that pays big dividends in practical and atmospheric terms, putting as much control into the players’ hands as can reasonably be afforded in a genre that leans heavily on scripted events and set-pieces, and in such a way that it enhances the experience on all levels. In this regard I consider TEW to get it right. The game is not a re-tread of Mikami’s greatest works, it’s a bold move forward that learns from and adapts his successes, using what worked in previous creations to anchor what he’s doing here. An upgrade system is present, in the form of green gel that can be used to increase physical abilities or the properties of various guns. Some publications have been oddly dismissive of this, claiming it has no real effect on the game, but I found it vital, especially since it allows for some of the genre’s old tricks. If you upgrade your health, for example, your entire health bar is refilled. Zeroing in on your favourite gun and deliberately stockpiling ammunition for it, saving it for the big battles, is satisfying in and of itself, and adds elements of strategy and planning to the action.
The game’s overall presentation is excellent. Sound design is phenomenal, with every different environment having its own ambience and all of the enemies having their own unique soundscape that they bring to an encounter. I found Laura, the strange four-armed, long-haired woman in the trailers, to be the game’s easy high point. Her creepy, spider-like movements, her deep and hoarse breathing, and her frankly chilling screams when set on fire (you’ll be doing that a lot if you want to survive) all combined to make her the game’s most memorable figure. An honourable mention goes to the Keeper, the huge man with a safe for a head, who is unlikely to ever reach pyramid head’s level of notoriety but could have done with a few tweaks to how he was used in the game. But while these are the high points, there’s no enemy that doesn’t get love and attention. Indeed it’s the excellence of the sound design that contributes so much to the consistent atmosphere.
Lighting is also used well, both to create some classic tableaus (the shadow of a crouching figure eating a corpse, a fan throwing a ceaseless spinning shadow on the wall, and of course something really goddamn horrible chasing you down a corridor) and dynamically. Indeed, sometimes it’s the long shadow cast through an open door that makes you freeze on the spot and start edging forward to get a feel for what lies ahead. Not that there’s any less attention lavished on the beasts casting those long shadows. The Haunted come in many varieties, so many that character models take a long time, several chapters into the game, before I noticed any repetition. All of the individual or one-off enemies and bosses are unique, detailed and intimidating. Environments, too, are well detailed, with each room having its own features, dynamic objects to know over and rattle around, and usually a lot of blood splattered everywhere. The gore definitely benefits from this new generation, too. Prior survival horror games I’ve played have never quite made me feel the blood. It just didn’t look right, but TEW is able to make it look just horrible enough to occasionally turn my stomach, and more than enough to get me on edge. On the occasions that gore and viscera literally drip from the walls I grimaced my way past it.
A special mention deserves to be made for TEW’s unique save system, as even this is creepy. Rather than a straightforward save point, you are transported to an entire hub world, where you can use your green gel, save your game, and utilise small keys occasionally found in the environment to unlock additional ammo or green gel (or on one occasion, more small keys. Keyception!) for general use. What raises this above, though, is that various events happen here. The environment changes over time, there are occasional indications of other presences there with you, and other surprises that I won’t spoil. Even the save system kept me unnerved, and I appreciate the effort. Even the loading screens are unsettling, usually showing a normal image for most of the load before adding a new figure or changing a detail. A common one shows a decrepit room with an elevator, with the ending of the screen showing Ruvik appearing in it, all in shadow.
If would be my pleasure to end the review here with a glowing score and nary a bad word said. But, alas, the development team done goofed a few times, and it’s time to take them to task for it. Sadly, given how heavily the genre relies upon plot and setting, TEW has some serious problems with the characters we follow through it. And not sub-characters. Oh no, those are mostly okay. It’s the protagonist who falls short. Oops. Detective Castellanos proves to be one of the least inquisitive detectives in the history of mankind, a detail that after a while becomes slightly off-putting. You’d have thought that being attacked by dozens of obviously undead, weapon-wielding human beings who keep coming after having half of their heads blown off, let alone a maniac with a chainsaw would inspire some sort of query. I’m not a detective, but I’d be asking all sorts of questions in that situation. Many would begin with the word ‘what’ involve several swear words, and end with a question mark, but questions would most assuredly be asked. But Castellanos is mostly silent, no matter how insane things become, and that in some ways does affect the atmosphere. He is too much an avatar, too little a character. I can see where someone might think it better to leave him silent. Do we really want to have him screaming or asking variations of ‘what the hell?’ every ten minutes? No, and I like to think a skilled writer could find more imaginative things for him to say. All I know for sure is that silence did not work for me. It doesn’t help that when he does talk, what he says often feels stilted and inappropriate.
For example; in one of the game’s earlier chapters you are forced into battle with an invisible enemy. They only become visible if they grab you or when they are hit, revealing that the creature in question appears to have most of their face ripped open into some sort of creepy mouth thing. It’s a bit too horrible to describe, honestly. After ultimately defeating this enemy, Castellanos remarks ‘This place is a deathtrap! Is anywhere safe?’ No. No there’s nowhere safe, as should be abundantly clear by now. You might have thought that the chainsaw-wielding maniac in chapter one would be a hint, let alone the small army of corpses he’s cut through to get to this particular moment, but apparently not. For that matter, Castellanos never even remarks when the environment abruptly changes around him, beyond a rather noncommittal ‘wha?’ as if Bill and Ted were going through the events instead of what looks to be a hardened detective in his mid to late thirties. Maybe forties.
A little later in the game Castellanos comes across a colleague, someone he knows, in a rather… unusual situation. Once they’re up and about, he never thinks to ask ‘How did you get here?’ for example. Or ‘Do you remember what happened?’ In fact, if you can think of a single obvious, sensible, useful, or even reasonable question to ask in a situation as bizarre as the one they’re in, you can be assured he does not ask it. He does observe, however, “We should get out of here.” I’d never have thought of that one. It may seem that I harp, but this little miss-step grows into a significant problem as the story develops. Castellanos has an entire backstory that is revealed as the game progresses, but he shows none of it in his dialogue or general behaviour. The Silent Hill games are video games’ premier zone of weird horror, but each of those games hinges upon a sympathetic protagonist that is obviously freaked out and confused by what’s going on. You follow their journey to understanding and, hopefully, to overcome the all-too personal terrors that beset them. Their responses to their situations might be a little stilted due to occasional dodgy voice acting, but they do respond.
Castellanos, though, is either silent, or when he does lend voice to the proceedings, sounds annoyed or frustrated. Not in the screaming at the sky, dramatic ‘What do you want from me?’ sort of thing that’s almost expected of a game in this sub-genre, but in an entirely mundane, almost bored sort of way. It’s the most bizarre voice acting I’ve ever seen, to be honest, because it runs contrary to the atmosphere of the game in the worst possible way. Never, at any point in the game, does Castellanos seem to be emotionally breaking down. In fact he never seems to be affected emotionally by any of it at any point. There’s a nice animation of him cowering that’s used now and again, but that’s all, and it’s gone in a hurry. Perhaps this only bothered me, and you can ignore the last few paragraphs. Story is very important to me, after all. As a final note on voices, the actual voice cast is quite talented. Ruvik – fittingly the best performance – is voiced by Jackie Earle Headley, best known for Watchmen’s Rorshach; Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter’s Debra Morgan) voices Julie Kidman, while Anson Mount (a bit-parter in all sorts of TV series) is mostly wasted as Castellanos.
But gripes about story and acting are not all that went a bit wrong with TEW. This is quite a hard entry into the survival horror genre. Most of them are kind when it comes to ammunition and health, with TEW being especially stingy on the latter and grudging on the former. On top of that, there are some brutal difficulty spikes in the ending stretch, and most do not seem to be by design. For example, there is a needlessly frustrating boss fight in the latter third that is the result of several terrible design issues. The boss in question is nigh-invulnerable to all but three weapons (specifically, different types of bolt for the agony crossbow). These weapons slow it down more than damage it. To proceed in the fight you must use your handgun or other weapon to shoot valves to redirect fire, allowing forward progress. Each of the environments you battle in are cramped and dangerous, and the boss, to top it all off, has an instant kill attack as its go-to move which has a decent range on it. There are no checkpoints between stages of the fight. I died on this battle at least ten times, simply because I ran out of ammo that would allow me to pin the boss in place long enough to do what was needed to advance.
Just when you’ve dragged your carcass through this battle, costing most of your rare agony bolts in the process, there’s another boss. This one is just as frustrating in a completely different way. Where last time most of your guns were useless, now the enemy is vulnerable to all your guns but is tough, charges you down aggressively, and after taking enough damage switches to an instant kill attack that is also undodgeable unless you’re far enough away when he starts it (he charges for that, as well). Once I’d figured it out the boss was actually quite easy to fight, and the fight itself became quite atmospheric. But the process of getting there took a long while, and the ‘second stage’ proved unbelievably frustrating until I learned to bow at the altar of almighty freeze bolts. Exactly why this happened is baffling to me. Survival horror games, in general, trend towards the lower end of difficulty for fairly obvious reasons. They’re about atmosphere and tension, not frustration. It’s pretty hard to be into the mood, or scared, when you’re going through the same process for the tenth time running. Putting these two boss fights aside, the latter third of The Evil Within is weak, and jars unpleasantly with the game’s far superior preceding chapters. It’s sad in a way, because I can see what the team and Mikami were going for. The early chapters are quiet, slow, atmospheric, emphasising stealth wherever possible. But as the game progresses events ramp up in stages until… well… the latter third happens. In theory it should work, but in practice I found myself wishing the third act would scale it back. The bright spots are visible, but all-too often it becomes reminiscent of the bombast and explosive non-horror that caused such fan uproar when Resident Evil 6 was vomited out of Capcom’s basement and into our lives.
Another sequence from this section of the game is the most baffling in its entirety. It involves – of all things – a first person driving sequence. In and of itself this is not a problem, however the section involves Haunted in the road, and the pop-in for these haunted is beyond hideous, to the point that you have to feel that this should never happen on a new console generation. It’s a sequence that makes The Evil Within look distinctly third-rate when by and large its production values are impeccable and the graphical fidelity is excellent. Again, I cannot understand how this section ended up in the game. Anyone can see that it looks terrible, and would have even on the PS3 or Xbox 360. I almost dread to think how the same section plays on those consoles. As a final niggle, there is some noticeable texture pop-in, especially on foreground objects. Since I don’t have a keen eye for such things, it’s probably much worse than it looked to me, but I don’t feel it detracts overmuch save in the driving episode mentioned above. I will say – with a degree of relief – that things get back on track for the final chapters and that the game finishes strong, albeit with a rather over-the-top and mind-bending final battle.
Frustrations and miss-steps aside, I came out of my time with The Evil Within feeling enthusiastic and hopeful for the genre going forward. This is still a good game and a worthy entry into a genre that had begun to slide into decline before games like Amnesia and Outlast reminded the industry why survival horror became a thing in the first place. I hope Mikami keeps on keeping on, because if he just builds on what he does in The Evil Within his future endeavours in the genre could be amazing. And boy oh boy, does this game give an idea of how utterly demented Silent Hills could be. My gripes aside, I heartily recommend The Evil Within to any survival horror fan and would say it is an essential purchase to those who are lapsed fans of Resident Evil in particular.