The Evil Within is a Survival Horror game developed by Tango Gameworks and ‘legendary’ designer Shinji Mikami, the mind behind Capcom’s Resident Evil. It promises to takes us back to the roots of the genre.
- Surreal settings
- Good visuals
- Solid audio
- Disjunctive storytelling
- Incoherent Plot
- Inconsistent gameplay and atmosphere
- Too many one-hit deaths
- Weak horror
- Boss rehash
- Pathetic final boss
- Punishing resource scarcity
- Shallow crafting
- Bad trap design
I was a big fan, still am, of the original Resident Evil games. I always thought they were very well designed, a combination of good action, puzzling and creepy atmospheres. With that mindset I expected a lot from The Evil Within. I expected to find what Resident Evil lost when it shifted to action. I expected the game to frighten me as I had seen other genre titles do in the past, such as Fatal Frame or even Dead Space.
The Evil Within failed to meet even one expectation, leaving me sorely disappointed and thinking I had just wasted a good birthday present (because it’s pretty damn expensive). I overestimated Shinji Mikami’s abilities and got a subpar game because of it.
It’s not that it’s entirely bad, it’s not, there is potential in every part of the game’s design, but it just doesn’t come to fruition and feels unpolished.
Let’s get the good parts out of the way, because there aren’t many. The visuals are very good, from the brightly lit set pieces to the gloomy corridors, and especially with the more unreal locations and sequences. The use of shadows is brilliant and could have done a lot for the game’s mood if the rest of it didn’t ruin it. There is some reuse of locations, especially the mental hospital, but it’s not too bad. One point I hate though is the film grain and letterboxing (the black-bars on the top and bottom), which only limit your field of view and make noticing things very difficult. I lowered the grain to about half and there was still too much of it. The soundtrack has some very moody tunes, and the sound effects in the creepy locations are spot on. But as with the visuals, the rest of the game undoes whatever the sound design could have accomplished. Voice acting isn’t bad but no dialogue is believable, though I’m more willing to pin that one on bad writing than bad performance. I will say Leslie’s the best character in terms of voice performance. You can feel the angst, the fear and despair in him, which is more than I can say for everyone else.
The plot is a mess. It’s the typical story of breakthrough but cruel medical experiment gone wrong, with the characters dealing with the fallout. It’s so by-the-numbers in its premise that from the moment you meet them, you can predict what will happen to each of these cliché characters. Characterization is weak and flat. Castellanos, the main character, has an alcoholism and family loss backstory that doesn’t tie into the game’s plot nor is it referenced at any point. And going by the portrayal, they could have given him any background and he’d still be the same surly bastard. It’s even more jarring when the background notes portray him as an idealist and you see he’s anything but. It’s an attempt to humanize the character by giving him a dramatic backstory to care for him, but for that to be effective we have to actually give a damn about him. The worst realization I had while playing was that the character was ultimately meaningless, and he could have been silent for how much his words matter in any given conversation. The game also makes the mistake of reuniting and separating you from the rest of the cast almost every chapter, giving you very little time to actually give two damns about them. The disjunctive chapter storytelling helps sell the surreal and nightmarish nature of the story and setting but makes it so the game has to have catch-up chapters to give you exposition. Because you jump around from place to place, you can’t delve deeper into the mysteries and therefore the game has to have tell-not-show moments when it tells you what’s going on.
Each level, because that’s what the chapters really are, takes you to different places with very linear layouts. There is room for exploration, but it’s shallow at best and not always available. Some stages are just a series of corridors. Even the highway and city levels, with arguably the greatest potential for diverging paths and exploration rewards, act as nothing more than glorified arenas. While the locations themselves are surreal, mixing ancient villages with higher technologies or some mind-palace labyrinths, they are ultimately wasted by the game’s lack of consistency in tone and atmosphere. At times, the game is about exploring areas and finding monsters on the way, and at others, it just throws wave after wave after wave of enemies for you to use your dwindling resources on. When it does the (shallow) exploration with occasional confrontations, it comes close to being an actual horror game, but switches things up without building up any suspense, let alone fear.
When it works, the game’s combat handles beautifully but the problem is it doesn’t always work well. To give you an example: at one point I had very little ammo and had three creatures in front of me. Shooting them all wasn’t an option as they’re all bullet sponges. I thought of dropping them to the floor and then using a match to burn them all thus instantly killing them (in this game a match is more powerful than a Magnum). I then thought to myself, “I’ll shoot their legs, then burn, it worked on the last guy!” But I found myself wasting all my ammo because shooting them in the leg only sometimes makes them fall down. It’s the same with headshots, sometimes the heads blow up, sometimes they split in half, and sometimes they just don’t do anything. There is a severe lack of consistency when it comes to the combat mechanics. Oh and don’t even consider melee. It just tickles enemies, even if you continue to wail at them like a maniac. The first hit will stagger the, but the rest won’t even faze them and they’ll just see it as an opening to attack you. The only way melee works is by taking the weapons from fallen enemies but they work for one hit then they vanish for some reason. It’s the same with torches; they’re worth one instant kill, that’s it.
That brings me to another point, The Evil Within’s one-hit-kill-mania. At any given time if you don’t have full health, which is almost a constant thing, enemy attacks can simply one-shot you. You get it for the big prick with the chainsaw because it’s a bloody chainsaw! But when it happens even with zombie-dude number 3, you start getting quite irate. When monsters grab you, there’s a 50/50 chance of the button mash prompt to escape to show up or not. Bosses, which the chainsaw maniacs are, all have instant death attacks. If that wasn’t enough, there are hundreds of one-hit kill sequences, from traps to sudden-camera-shift chase sequences. I have never played a game that has made me groan as much as this one. I kept saying, “one more bullshit death thing like this and I quit.” One particularly appalling sequence has you going into a series of rooms with two switches, one of them opens the way out and the other kills you instantly. There isn’t any way of knowing which one saves you other than trial-by-death, which I consider lazy puzzle design…and I’m being generous. By the end there’s a worse one, which has you running from a massive blade, but the camera shifts from your back to the front. Sounds good, right? That way you can tell there’s a blade coming, right? Well, how about if I told you there are suddenly puddles in front of you that bring you to a dead stop and which you can’t see because of how zoomed in the camera is? That’s exactly what happens. The only way of getting through is dying enough to know the puddle pattern. It’s appalling design.
Bosses are a monumental pain in the arse, there’s no other way to say it, not only because of the previous point and the close-quarter nature of every encounter, but because the game keeps bringing them back. With a handful of exception you will often fight the same boss three or four times. The first time you encounter them, you appreciate how surreal they are in their design but by the third, you’re just annoyed you have to have the exact encounter again.
The fights themselves vary greatly in challenge, mostly depending on how many resources you have, but you will die at least once to some of them, such as the dog-thing, with hard to avoid lunges and barely any openings to attack. The final boss on the other hand is the complete opposite, shifting incoherently to big set pieces, a mounted assault cannon with unlimited ammo and the Shinji Mikami Rocket Launcher staple. It’s a weak end encounter, a dreadful boss design and it doesn’t match the rest of the game.
Overall, The Evil Within’s challenge is based on resource scarcity. You will rarely find ammo on the ground or dropping from enemies, and when you do, they hold very few rounds. It’s not uncommon in this game to be surrounded by enemies, finding a handgun ammunition pickup and getting one bullet. It’s pretty standard-fare but The Evil Within takes it to frustratingly punishing levels by setting you up against large numbers of enemies every time, followed by one or more bosses. It forces you to use the resources you’re trying to keep, no matter how intelligently or strategically you play, as the aforementioned inconsistent combat plays into it as well. Worse still is how randomized the drops are. There are some fixed ammo drops, but if you die, other drops will change on reload, which more often than not will hinder you instead of working to your advantage. I once found four shotgun shells in a box, then died and found nothing breaking that same container. It’s even worse considering how unhelpful the camera is when it comes to pick-ups; you have to be looking exactly at the item to pick it up and if the camera even twitches a millimeter away, you can’t pick the items up. It’s yet another layer of frustration to this game.
I mentioned the unbalanced mechanics, but another part of the ‘challenge’ comes from some of the enemy designs, which are just bloody unfair. Like the invisible zombies in the hospital, the only way to register their position is to watch out for puddles or moving equipment, but even if you manage to hit them they remain visible for just a fraction of a second, making it night-impossible to follow up your attack. When they get you, anything less than half-health means they kill you. It’s one of the most frustrating sequences in the game, and the frustration actually kills all the mood the game was trying to build. Also, for a cop, the main character can’t really run, getting tired three seconds into the sprint (about 6 second when upgraded) and then needing almost twice that long to recover—except on the pre-determined chase sequences where he has unlimited stamina. It feels unnecessarily and unjustifiably punishing. It makes avoiding enemies and bosses sometimes feel like an exercise in futility and as a matter of fact, it’s sometimes easier to let bosses hit you, except for those you know will kill you if they touch you. Enemies can also stun-lock you to death, another thing that happened quite often when I tried to reposition myself for an attack.
Another problem with the drops is how it ties into the upgrade system, because of course there is one (what game nowadays doesn’t have one). Every container has an equal chance of giving you ammunition or health, which you desperately need, or Green Gel aka Upgrade Goo. On the upside the upgrades are mostly meaningful, with the exceptions of the melee attack, which takes your wild flinging from poor to mediocre at best. The downside is some of the upgrades are nonsensical. I get upgrading weapons your own innate skills, but are you seriously telling me you’re injecting yourself with green goo to increase your ammo carry capacity? Does the goo transform into extra pockets? It’s nitpicky I know but it feels tacked on only to force the scarcity, to prevent you from collecting ammo which you’ll desperately need, and which happened to me over the course of the playthrough more than once. Upgrades also become so expensive that even collecting every bit of green gel will make it impossible to improve some stats.
Finally, there’s the crafting system, one of the things I had the biggest hopes for in this game. Early trailers showed the character building his own traps and ammunition and weapons, but it turns out the only thing you do make are crossbow bolts. Sure, there are a variety of them, but it feels shallow, as if it was part of a scrapped bigger idea. The bolts themselves also require upgrades but I didn’t really bother with them, too expensive for what they actually do (later on, enemies will use bolts against you and theirs work a thousand times better than yours do). You build them by collecting parts from the ground or dismantling traps. Each bolt has a part cost, and given you need to upgrade your carry capacity you can’t really have too many arrows of any one kind. But you can’t create your own traps, you can’t craft ammo and when you can create explosive, freezing, shocking and flamethrower arrows, you can’t expect me to believe you can’t rustle up a bullet, especially considering how intricate those bolts look!
Traps would’ve greatly expanded the gameplay. You can already use some traps in the environment for your own purposes though more than likely you’ll trip on them, as they’re really difficult to see unless you’re walking extra-slow. Trip-wire and bear traps work on everyone but for some reason the proximity/movement mines only detect you and dismantling them is pretty much a QTE, pressing the button at the right time to make the dial stop at the green zone. If you fail, you’ll either lose a chunk of health or just die, succeed and you get a couple of parts. By the end I stopped dismantling them and just shot them when enemies were close enough.
But what I consider The Evil Within’s greatest weakness/crime/disappointment is its weak horror. As I mentioned above, when you’re exploring creepy environments and you get enemies stalking the halls, the game comes close, but it never reaches horror. It tries to scare you through shock value, by overusing blood, guts and torture chambers. It might just be me, but after a decade of similar games and films, I’m completely desensitized to that brand of ‘horror’. It’s just garish, boring and uninspired, there is no chill factor, no eeriness, just a constant stream of pain. As I recently said during a podcast: “It’s the equivalent of having someone screaming in your face, it’s not scary, it’s just annoying!” And I maintain that position. Years ago, when no one had ever screamed in my face, it would’ve startled and scared the hell out of me, now I’m just done with it. The frustration part of the game’s shoddy design also helps kill whatever horror the game aims for. This was the most disappointing horror experience I have ever played. It also doesn’t help to have a goofy setting like this one; I mean I can’t take Krimson City seriously, no matter what game it is. It tries too hard (Krimson is crimson, like blood, get it?) and fails miserably.
The Evil Within and Shinji Mikami not only fail miserably in reviving the genre or return us to the good old roots, but might also completely steer people away from Survival Horror. I am beyond disappointed, I am horrified by this game and not in the good way I expected to be. It’s punishing and frustrating but not in the fun Dark-Souls-y way but in the unfair “This is bullshit!” way.
The Mental Attic Score: Oh Hell No! I will never play this game ever again.