To have created something that is sure to live on in gaming eternity with reverence and love, such as is the case with Resident Evil, is always going to provide any future games you create to have an increased sense of anticipation and scrutiny. While the Resident Evil series has convulsed between the brilliant and the poor there has been a real belief that with The Evil Within Shinji Mikami would reanimate the corpse of the survival-horror genre. Setting aside the fact that Mikami will always be a legend in his own right and the strong desire for a once rich genre to have an authentic resurgence, we have to look at his latest offering with objectivity. From this perspective it is hard not to judge The Evil Within as a relative failure, or disappointment if you are being kind, suffering under the weight of previous successes and also the failure to appropriately move the genre forward.
As may be expected from a game of this genre the setup and general tone of proceedings is that of a schlocky horror, which is not necessarily a bad thing but those who may be on the search for a well-scripted and acted story may need to go elsewhere as you will be left wanting. The story places the player in the shoes of the forgettable Detective Sebastian Castellanos, the typical troubled cop hero, who is aided by his equally forgettable partner Joseph and the woefully underused female counterpart Julie Kidman. The game begins with the team being called to a mass murder - before being confronted by a supernatural force that subsequently forces Sebastian and co into a world that, while resembling our own, is littered with tortured souls and surroundings that change at the drop of a hat.
A lot of the early game will see Sebastian trying to re-unite with his colleagues, only to be torn apart again, while a lot of the middle section focuses on unravelling the mystery of what is going on. A lot of the best sections of the game include Sebastian’s colleagues, providing you with an extra element of peril as you escort, protect or simply fight alongside them. However, don’t get too comfortable with their company as they are routinely removed from the game in various plot devices and what you are left with is a leading man that is neither interesting nor a character that you want to invest yourself in. While a multi-person narrative may have made the story more impenetrable it may also have given an extra layer of peril as you try to ensure the survival of all three characters - although as part of the season pass they will be releasing DLC that will focus more on the supporting cast.
The story is largely engaging, to the extent that you will want to push forward through the mystery, but throughout there is something just not right with The Evil Within, whether through expectations not met or simply through it being an average game dressed up to be something it simply doesn’t have the ability to be. One major problem that should be made clear from the off is that The Evil Within is not remotely scary; jump scares are largely telegraphed and at every turn the game seems to deflate any development of that gut feeling of dread that is ever present in the best of the survival horror games and perhaps best displayed in the Kojima/Del Toro mini-masterpiece P.T. If you were to describe The Evil Within more as simply a third-person shooter with blood on the walls it would be a hard case to argue against.
It’s hard to nail down exactly what makes The Evil Within a frustrating and largely hollow experience, but largely it could be attributed to a number of poor choices combined. Initially, and superficially, the first thing to become apparent is how poor the game looks - the version we reviewed was for the PlayStation 4. The opening cutscene started the alarm bells ringing as it has been a long time, with a game of this level of production, that the quality of character modelling and animation has affected immersion. Characters talk to each other in an unholy union of poor lip movement and glazed over eyes, and right off the bat that does not help you buy in to the game. Graphics do not a great game make, however the gulf between what you probably expect and what is actually on show will jar. In isolation this is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the visual problems only really begin there.
Compounding the visual issues is that the game is also delivered in a bizarre, heavily letterboxed format that does nothing for the player other than restrict their view, and given that this effect seems to provide a smaller image to render the game will struggle to keep up those ever important frames per seconds. Letterboxing is typically used to add a layer of cinematic gloss but it is applied in such an odd format that it cannot be for that reason, if you were feeling generous you could perhaps say that the aim of this is to make the player at ill ease and if that is the case then it is a resounding success.
Further compounding the visual problems of The Evil Within is the use of a field of vision that feels uncomfortably too narrow for the player. With the visible area already squeezed from the top and bottom provides a challenge for the player, the field of view will make you feel like you just can’t see enough. The game has no lock-to-cover mechanic, rather you just old-school it by nestling up beside walls and corners. Whether it has no lock-to-cover mechanic to relive glory days of survival horror, or if it was just a plain omission, the view on display just doesn’t give you adequate coverage of areas,especially when the game on many occasions asks you to stealth your way through sections.
While playing through The Evil Within you will largely forget about these problems, but only insofar as you are not expected to make a quick turn or to maneuver with any real sense of purpose. This can no better be exemplified than when you face off against the truly menacing box-headed boss called ‘The Keeper’. During this encounter you will need to act quickly and nimbly in a very confined environment that is filled with gas and it is in instances like this that these display decisions truly vex and infuriate. Run into a wall due to lack of vision, die,rinse, repeat. It’s the feeling that it is inevitable that you are going to die many times in situations that are unavoidable because the presentation and perspective won’t allow it that really irks. It is such a shame that these are issues as it really detracts from the superb art-direction and while a lot of the horror tropes are wheeled out in the shape of enemies, they are presented in such tortuous and bloodied ways to mostly keep the players wincing and smiling in equal measure at the twisted visual devilment on display.
The boss characters, like the art direction, are also a visual treat, each wrought with an insidious presence that screams more Silent Hill than Resident Evil. Bodies will shamble towards you wrapped in barbed wire, your opponents typically convey a fantastic combination of being haunted and angry. The conceit of alternate, shifting realities helps The Evil Within to explore varying and reasonably interesting locales - from asylums to crumbling ruins. Each location is well realised and for all the shortcomings on show elsewhere it is hard to fault the ambition of the designers and developers mixing up the locations, giving the player a real sense of confusion and disorientation.
The controls, however, are not as inspired and again there seem to have been some questionable choices that have been made. The overall control of the game feels slightly sluggish and everything from the camera movement to the aiming all falls on the wrong side of responsive. Again, like much of the qualms with The Evil Within, this individually is not a massive issue and largely you’ll just get used to it, but you cannot escape that something just feels ‘off’.The implementation of the control scheme is reasonably standard fare - items can be set to the D-Pad for quick selection, L2 for aiming, R2 for shooting, you get the idea if you’ve ever played a third-person game. However, there are two elements to the control screen that verge too close to infuriating for comfort, and especially so when you take it in the wider context of the game. Let’s start with the function of L3. A click of L3 activates your neverending oil-lamp, useful for finding your way through the darkness and perhaps highlighting some collectible that you may not have seen otherwise. However, giving that your left stick is used for movement and that the game relies on stealth a number of times, there will invariably be multiple moments of stealth broken up because you have just turned your lamp on by accident and alerted the nearby ne’er-do-wells.
R3 also poses a similar problem, in that it is used for moving the camera but it also activates your inventory. The problem here arises when you accidentally click the inventory when trying to make a quick escape and change your direction. The inventory screen does not freeze time but rather it slows it down to a pace that is too quick should an enemy be close to you, meaning that you need to de-activate the inventory then re-orientate your stick appropriately. Now these problems that I have described can be put down to user error, and perhaps under pressure I applied too much pressure, but the assigning of those actions to those buttons would always have had the potential to cause these issues. Perhaps this is the core of a lot of the issues with The Evil Within, it seems to have deliberately put these types of obstacles in your way through an active decision to make the player stumble.
There are other examples like this, such as enemy AI predisposition to knowing where you are despite the fact you feel completely hidden - the game asks you to be stealthy but it doesn’t necessarily facilitate that mode of play. Or how about the inability to crouch and shoot at the same time? There were numerous occasions when a crouched shot would have perhaps made the difference between success and failure but for whatever bizarre reason you are denied this ability. Continuing the thread of this review, all of these problems do not amount to a bad game but they serve to be utterly frustrating and serve as nothing more than a distraction from the game and its wonderful atmosphere.
What does work, very well in fact, is the survival element within the game and probably the best comparison to give it may very well be The Last of Us. Ammunition is never in abundance, despite the game forcing you into combat at nearly every turn, and you will be making sure that every weapon is loaded before you turn a corner. Littered throughout the game are traps such as tripwires and wall-mines that can be carefully approached and dismantled into parts that can be used to craft varying types of crossbow bolts for your Agony Crossbow - and yes that is what they are calling it. The game does a really good job of encouraging you to thoroughly explore the levels to find bits and pieces that will help you get through the next section and it isn’t scavenging for the sake of it, you really do need to find as much as possible as you are going no further than back to the slightly long loading screen.
Another element of The Evil Within that works extremely well is the upgrade system, again essential to hoping to aid progression in any form. The currency for upgrades is jars of green slime that you will find littered thought out levels either as collectibles or after dropping a match in a corpse - a finite resource that can yield something or nothing. To actually upgrade however you need to access the safety of an asylum, which quite wonderfully is accessed through mirrors through levels, typically found by following the distant sounds of music. Once you are transported to this hub you can either use special keys that you have found to unlock special lockers with the promise of a bonus for your inventory, save your game or upgrade your skills.
There is nothing clumsy about the upgrading, no branching skill-trees, everything has a finite number of upgrade steps with each costing more resource than the last. You can choose to improve physical attributes such as your health bar size, or perhaps your stamina as it seems Sebastian can’t run the length of himself without actually bending over double to catch his breath and leaving enemies free to do whatever they wish. You can also upgrade your weapons, whether it be the size of the clip or the power the weapons shot - quite literally getting bang for your buck. With these elements being so well considered it is truly bizarre that The Evil Within gets so much wrong, and for every right decision there will be another that will confound.
What we have here is a true oddity in many regards, a game that was hoped to revitalise the survival-horror genre but has seemingly decided to build a memorial to the type of game that started the genre. There is a real feeling throughout of the game already being antiquated, and while that be intentional, is that really enough? From an undisputed genius like Mikami, is the best we could hope for a game that focuses on action and is alarmingly low on scares? We can’t judge him on the game he didn’t make but rather only on the game he did and based on that it is hard not to feel underwhelmed. By all accounts The Evil Within is a decent game, largely playable and entertaining, but this is a game you’ve played before many years ago and things have moved on. The best thing to say about The Evil Within is that it is a good survival game with some decent mechanics, the worst thing I can say is that it is a poor horror game that doesn’t live up to its design or the talent of the director. I’m not angry, I’m just very disappointed I’m not scared.