Review: The Evil Within

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Okay, I think I can start breathing again.

I’ve survived the gore-soaked head trip that is Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within, the newest successor to survival horror’s bloody, barbed-wire crown. I’ve limped down countless scummy blood-soaked hallways, had my brains bashed in by a giant with a metal safe where his head should be, questioned at least three of my senses and seen countless creepazoids that will haunt my nightmares for months.

I’m left with a few less limbs, a few less gallons of blood, and these random observations about a survival horror game that gets a lot of things right:

Those little classic touches are timeless. I dare you not to smile a little when you see those individual leaves or globules of blood floating through the air—they’re a visual detail that’s instantly familiar to anyone who lived through Shinji Mikami’s last horror opus, Resident Evil 4. The deranged and deformed humanoids in the game’s early levels bear an unsettling resemblance to the castellanos that stalked Leon S. Kennedy. Sans burlap sack masks, of course.

Messing with reality is way scarier than buckets of blood. The Evil Within trafficks in both, of course—the number of times you’ll be gutted by chainsaws, have your limbs and head ripped from your torso in fountains of gore and wade through blood slicks is both remarkable and ridiculous—but it’s the mental stuff that really rattles here. It’s almost always impossible to tell exactly what’s going on, because it always seems to be on the point of morphing into something else.

You might think you’re in for something straightforward when your character, Detective Sebastian Castellanos, is summoned to investigate multiple murders at an urban mental asylum–and you’d be wrong. One moment you’re dodging falling skyscrapers in a crowded downtown, the next you’re shuffling through a spooky forest, and the next you’re in some kind of haunted sanitarium. When you’re stepping through mirrors to enter god-knows-where, it seems like nothing is real, anything’s possible at any moment, and you have no control over any of it. Now that’s terrifying.

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Dead Space had some great ideas. EA’s in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-necromorph magnum opus sometimes takes a back seat to horror classics like Resident Evil and its various sequels. But using your specialized agony crossbow bolt to freeze an enemy and smash him into a thousand ice cubes is just as satisfying in a darkened mansion as it was in zero gravity.

Match point. Even though it can lead to some frustrating resurrection situations, I like the fact that to be truly safe, you have to strike a match and torch the bodies of your enemies. Matches become one more precious resource to manage, and, if you use them wisely, can also be combined with the environment for some devastating attacks.

As you’d expect in a game by the man who gave us Resident Evil 4, you spend most of your time in The Evil Within teetering on the brink of disaster, with supplies as scarce as the shelves at Wal-Mart at the end of a Black Friday bum-rush. Every bullet, every crossbow bolt, every healing syringe feels like it could be the last one you’ll ever see—and damn, it looks like there are a lot of nasties to deal with in that next hallway or courtyard. And did I mention that melee attacks are about as effective a survival attack as tap-dancing?

Stealth is a great gameplay mechanic—when it’s implemented fairly. The game clearly wants to push you toward sneaking and skulking your way through its decayed environs. On the one hand, this creates a real sense of tension in your decision-making. You could just creep past all the bloody, barbed-wire specters and make your way to the next area, but by not killing them, you forfeit the precious resources they drop when they die.

On the other, a series of cheap deaths and reloads is enough to help you discover that the stealth odds are almost never in your favor. The bestiary of The Evil Within all seem to have been equipped with some kind of preternatural radar sense, and they’ll bust your creeping ass nine times out of ten, usually just at the point of attack, when you’re too close to run away again without taking devastating damage. It becomes clear that there’s a very, very specific path you have to take to your stealth kill, and if you stray from it even a hair’s breadth, you’re probably toast.

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When you’re crouched in a corner with a bottle in your hand, hoping your toss will distract the shambling, doll-faced horrors in the next room, it’s easy to be reminded of The Last of Us, a game that tilted its stealth elements very much in the opposite direction—remember Joel’s Batman-esque ability to use his hearing to see through walls? While that ability always felt a little out of place and overpowered, it’d be awfully welcome here.

Your boss demands detail. In some games, boss battles are about pattern recognition, and looking for the brief windows that let you deal some damage. Here, they’re about painstaking trial and error puzzle-solving; like managing the stealth elements, you’ll have to be very, very precise about the ways in which you take down the game’s biggest threats. Miss a key step, and you’ll end up a bloodstain.

Dude, run for your life! Instead of relying on cheap jump scares, The Evil Within does a spectacular job of placing you in situations where running like your trench coat was just set ablaze is the only possible option for survival, and these sequences are never anything less than gripping, especially when they involve uber-powerful monstrosities who can take you out with a single hit. The fact that your character runs out of steam faster than a big-three network comedy only adds to the tension.

Characterization matters. It’s probably not fair to keep trotting out The Last of Us comparisons, but one of the reasons that game worked so effectively was that we quickly grew to care about the fates of Joel and Ellie, such that every triumph, travail and tragedy carried a real emotional weight. The same definitely can’t be said for our dear Detective Sebastian, who finds himself in mortal peril mere moments after we’ve met his oily, five o’clock shadowed self. Even after spending hours saving his bacon from madness and mutilation, we’re given very little reason to root for this guy—he’s gruff, and he remains both clueless and distressingly personality free throughout the game, even after we’ve gleaned his backstory from skimming all those handy diary entries hanging around. (Hint for the sequel we all know is coming: Using audiologs to convey backstory, like the BioShock games did, is far, far more effective.

Story matters, too. And frankly, The Evil Within treats its storytelling the way an ex-girlfriend treats you at an office party. The story here makes little sense, and meanders badly before stumbling to its finale. Lack of solid storytelling doesn’t offset the truly terrifying atmospheric terror the game creates, but imagine how much more engaging it could have been with a sensible, engaging plotline.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Terrifying use of atmosphere, sounds
+ The ways the game messes with your reality are wonderful
+ Tense life-or-death vibe rarely lets up

Cons:
– Our hero is a boring blank
– The game’s story makes zero sense
– Stealth elements don’t always feel fair

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Release Date: 10/14/2014
Genre: Survival Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.