Review: The Evil Within is Sebastian Castellanos and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Warning: This review will contain screenshots from The Evil Within, some of which will be gross and disturbing. Reader discretion is advised. The review won't spoil any major story details.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
The first two hours of The Evil Within made me want to give up. Most of the rest of the game made me want to throw up.
I mean that in a good way, I guess. Sort of.
The Evil Within will remind you of Resident Evil 4, which makes total sense considering the game is Shinji Mikami's celebrated return to the survival horror genre. It will also likely remind you of The Last of Us, though it will most often do that in terms of unflattering comparisons, as The Evil Within features gameplay and storytelling from a pre-The Last of Us world, one in which limited strategic options and vague, emotionally disconnected stories were standard inclusions in the survival horror genre.
The game's plot will remind you a lot of The Cell provided you saw that movie (what, you aren't a fan of surrealistic horror films starring Jennifer Lopez?) and the experience of playing the game will remind you how nice it is to go outside and take a walk in the sunshine for a while, just to take a break from a world in which everything is trying to kill you and a whole bunch of things will do so successfully.
Fighting the Haunted
The gameplay of The Evil Within is very similar to the classic Resident Evil 4. You'll mainly concern yourself with exploring sinister areas, solving simple puzzles, and trying to survive against the zombie-like Haunted and various other monsters and creepy creatures that you encounter along the way.
Even common enemies can do a significant amount of damage if you let them get close enough to you -- taking off about a third of your total life bar at a time early in the game, and that's a life bar that will rarely if ever be full in the first place -- so effective use of your ranged weapons is essential to survival. This is part of what makes the opening two hours of the game so frustrating, since before you have effective weapons you'll need to rely heavily on stealth, which isn't well implemented in The Evil Within.
This is especially true if you, like me, try to start the game on the "Survival" difficulty rather than the "Casual" difficulty. After dying a dozen times to some of the game's first enemies I swallowed my pride and dropped to "Casual," which includes an eyeball indicator of how effectively you are sneaking. Playing without that indicator is far more frustrating than fun, and I actually think developers Tango Gameworks made a mistake by labeling the only difficulty to include it "Casual."
Hiding under beds and in closets is a regular option in The Evil Within, but you don't actually need to do it much.
After the game provides you with some decent equipment and you can begin to ignore stealth for most of the time, The Evil Within becomes a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating. In fact the strongest and most effective portion of the game is the middle third, once you've been given enough weapons and equipment to have to make interesting choices but before the rocket launchers and machine guns show up.
Too many of the final hours of the game get dragged down in extended and difficult combat sequences, and though the Haunted you encounter become more dangerous, the fact that their increased threat comes from wearing armor and wielding more powerful mundane weapons undercuts the supernatural fright and menace they had offered earlier in the game experience.
For most of that middle third, though, The Evil Within works very well as a relentlessly intense survival horror game. Even once you can begin upgrading your weapons you'll never feel out of danger, and the developers deserve praise for the ways in which even "regular" Haunted enemies can be a challenge. The way they duck and weave as they come at you makes headshots a challenge, and the first time you blow off half of your enemy's head only to have them keep coming at you will almost certainly have you sweating.
Monsters, the world, and you
Beyond your battles with the Haunted you'll come up against a variety of different enemies and bosses, many of which are downright disgusting to look at. These stronger enemies and bosses are used effectively, for the most part, though too many of the boss battles are of the "run away from the invincible boss flipping switches to hurt it" variety, which get old after a while. More than once I found myself dying in a boss battle and dreading the fact that I had to drag myself through the tedium of the whole thing from the beginning again.
The environment itself is a hostile force in The Evil Within, and the tripwires, bombs, and other traps that fill the world actually do a fantastic job of keeping you on edge. If you drop your guard or let your eyes wander while exploring, you can easily miss an explosive trap which, like pretty much everything in the game, can knock your health down by a third or more. The placement of these traps are often cunning, with bombs located right behind crates you'll undoubtedly be smashing, or wires stretched across a hallway you'll be running down as you flee a giant monster.
Though mostly effective, the traps filling the world were also indicative of one of the game's big shortcomings. I often wanted to use these traps in creative ways against my enemies, only to find my options to be seriously limited in that regard. The Haunted aren't affected by trip-wires, and though you can shoot bombs as they pass them to do some damage, it was never as effective as it seemed as though it should be.
It was also hard to predict whether or not a particular trap or environmental hazard would have any effect on a particular monster, and that had the effect of encouraging the player to either shoot or run, rather than exploring any more interesting strategic options. Recent survival horror stand-out The Last of Us presented players with a wide variety of ways to approach just about every battle, and The Evil Within seemed extremely shallow when compared to the richness of combat in that title.
This may have been my favorite part of The Evil Within. Your ally Joseph is the man seen here covered in gore and holding an axe. Prior to this screenshot he had spent five minutes standing at the top of that ladder behind him, killing literally a dozen Haunted in a row as they climbed up the ladder one by one. I didn't need to do anything at all to help him. This was probably a design mistake and what should have been a big battle ended up being kind of silly, but it made me laugh and was a ton of fun to watch. Looking good, Joseph!
But is it scary?
Of course, gameplay is only part of the survival horror experience. Players who pick up a game like The Evil Within are also looking for thrills, chills, and disturbing scenes.
When judging a work of art designed to inspire fear, I've always found the following quote from Stephen King to be extremely helpful:
The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...
Applying King's categories to The Evil Within, the game is most effective at the Gross-out, contains plenty of Horror as well, but doesn't use Terror nearly as effectively as horror fans might have hoped.
As you might have guessed from seeing the game's screenshots and trailers, elements of gore and mutilation feature heavily in The Evil Within, and this aspect only intensifies as the game goes on. By the end, I had trouble thinking of any other game I've played that was as full of blood and guts as The Evil Within, and the game frequently made me queasy even though I'm not really a squeamish person.
Horror, as defined above by King, also plays a major role in The Evil Within. Threatening and unnatural monsters lurk around every corner, from the zombie-like Haunted to mutated beasts to the box-headed Keeper who has featured in much of the game's marketing. The tension in The Evil Within never lets up, and after playing it for eight hours in a single day I felt sick and uneasy for hours afterwards, as if I had generally been through a traumatic and dangerous experience. People who aren't fans of horror will not like The Evil Within, and to be quite honest there were a lot of times when I wasn't sure how much "fun" I was actually having myself.
What's missing in The Evil Within is that uneasy, not-sure-what-will-happen-next sense of Terror. Though the game will throw plenty of challenges your way and it will have your heart racing and your blood pumping, it doesn't have that "Oh no what is happening?" sense of bewilderment and unpredictability and foreboding that could have taken the horror in the game to a higher level. The Evil Within is constantly, almost unbearably tense, but at the same time it isn't ever that surprising. You know something will jump out at you and you'll have to shoot it or run away. You'll be on the edge of your seat, but you'll also be very clear about your options.
In the end, nothing that happened in The Evil Within was as effectively creepy as the opening ten minutes I spent with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter just wandering around the forest and bathing in the atmosphere, unsure of what was going to happen. Much like Resident Evil 4 before it, The Evil Within is a straightforward and effective combination of horrific imagery, tense gameplay, and engaging action combat.
Don't touch the walls
A great deal of attention and thought was paid to the sights and sounds of The Evil Within. As with most horror games, playing in a dark room and with headphones on is the recommended experience for anyone who really wants to test their limits.
Though the overall graphics weren't remarkable, I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Evil Within used light and dark areas just as well as Mikami claimed it would. Over the 15-20 hours it will take most players to complete the experience, they'll be able to environments both dark and shadowy and surprisingly bright, with a wide variety of lighting styles and tones used to great effect. While I would have loved to see some additional variety in terms of the levels themselves (the Silent Hill-style decaying bloody factory aesthetic dominates the game), I did enjoy chances to explore some classic horror settings/clichés, including the creepy church, creepy village, creepy old mansion, creepy hospital, and creepy insane asylum.
The game uses music subtly and only on occasion, and the developers clearly understand how quiet and subdued sound design can be used to great effect to heighten a player's sense of unease. When the music and sound take center stage, they are often dissonant and disturbing to listen to, which works perfectly for a horror title. The recurring tune used along with the game's save-points and the relative safety of the Asylum area was also a nice touch.
A disturbing nonsense story
Have any of the Resident Evil games ever really made a lot of sense? They certainly haven't to me. I've never really felt 100% sure of what was going on in any of the classic titles in the franchise, and The Evil Within takes that same confusing narrative experience to a whole new level.
Things that happen in The Evil Within are vague and hard to follow in ways that don't always seem entirely intentional. From the very start the game has the surreal, choppy, possibly-just-a-dream feeling common in horror titles, so it's often tough to distinguish when something doesn't make sense because of problems with the writing or because it isn't supposed to make sense, but by the end of the game I still had a lot of unanswered questions and was bothered by a lack of resolution.
The game was also plagued by small touches of unreality that took me out of the experience, such as how Sebastian injects himself with healing syringes through the sleeve of his shirt every single time. Just roll your sleeve up another inch, buddy!
The bulk of the dialogue in The Evil Within has a clunky and awkward feeling to it, though by the end of the game I had become really fond of main character Sebastian's penchant for putting players' thoughts into words with frequent profanity and lines like "Not this guy again!" A surprisingly funny joke about elevators towards the very end of the game also made me chuckle.
If nothing else, The Evil Within can serve as an example of how important clear narrative stakes and characters you actually care about are to a horror title. With no emotional connection to anything that was happening in the game (except for Joseph the Indestructible, as I described earlier) it never really engaged me on a level beyond its unrelenting tension. And while it was undoubtedly a success in many ways, it also felt like a step back from the richer and more emotional narratives we've seen in recent horror games.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for evaluating The Evil Within:
The game is at its best during its exciting and tense battles and action set-pieces. Stealth doesn't work very well but you don't have to engage it in much after the opening hours are done. It can sometimes feel a bit silly to run circles around terrifying bosses, but it's also an effective strategy. The inventory system is well-designed, but the game is lacking in strategic depth.
Though most of its horror is of the disgusting and shocking variety, rather than anything innovative or surprising or truly unsettling, The Evil Within had me on edge for hours after putting down the controller.
Replay Value: 6/10
A variety of potential upgrade options and collectibles and achievements to earn might be enough to draw you back, but it's likely that for most players one trip through The Evil Within will be enough.
The decent though unspectacular graphics looked fine on the PS4. The letterbox visual format of the game was annoying at first, but I stopped noticing it after the game's first hour. The sound design and music was first-rate.
Remember that part in The Cell when those glass dividers fell down on that horse and it got split into pieces? That was really cool.
I often didn't know what was going on in The Evil Within, and by the end I was forced to accept that it wasn't going to make sense and I wasn't really going to care.
If you loved Resident Evil 4 and you're looking for more of that style of game, The Evil Within will probably push the right buttons for you. The game is a clear success in a throwback sense to that earlier title, though its lack of innovation, strategic depth, or an engaging story are all marks against it.
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