Shinji Mikami is considered by many gamers to be the grandfather of the Survival Horror genre. He popularized the genre with the release of Resident Evil in 1996 and then revolutionized it again in 2005 with Resident Evil 4. When it was announced that Mikami would be directing The Evil Within, many fans of the survival horror genre were excited to have a game that claimed to return to the Survival Horror roots while also remaining true to the formula that made Resident Evil 4 so successful.
The game stars gruff detective Sebastian Castellanos as he tries to survive the twisted nightmare world he so quickly thrust into by antagonist, Ruvik. Much like Resident Evil 4, The Evil Within is an over-the-shoulder third person action horror game, that focuses on claustrophobic shooting situations in horrorific settings.
However, we already have an issue. While The Evil Within claims to be a Survival Horror game, I don't get that survival feel from it. Despite resources feeling limited, this only acts as a challenge more than a feeling of scrambling around just for the sake of getting to the next goal point. This “survival“ aspect is further deflated when more often than not, you're forced into several head-on fights with the monsters, and goal isn't to get to the next door or checkpoint, but to just shoot everything in the room. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I certainly wish that games like this, Resident Evil 4, and Dead Space weren't putting on the facade of being survival horror, and just own up to being action horror.
Now, with that aside, The Evil Within is a competent and fun action horror game. Aiming is a bit strange when enemies get too close, and get behind your cross hairs, but otherwise works well enough. The melee acts as a way to slow enemies down more than something to fall back on for a kill, since it can take 20 or so swings to down even the basic enemy. The weapons have impact, but also feel lifeless. Sebastian will hardly flinch when shooting the shotgun, but enemy's heads will fly apart or be left with huge gaping holes in them, so it's half way there. The camera doesn't feel as cemented on Sebastian as it was on Leon, and sometimes seems to fall too low, or go too high. It feels more like it's attached with a strip of masking tape. The upgrade system is standard, though the lack of any stealth upgrades makes the stealth mechanic tacked on. Finally, the inventory system is really just a max stock amount for all your items. All in all, it'll feel all too familiar for RE4 fans, but may also feel unpolished or streamlined as well. The lack of the attache case system and laser sight on guns are the kind of little things that just make The Evil Within's gameplay feel less inspired, less interesting, and less polished than its older brother.
The stealth system feels situational at best. With most levels designed with the idea of taking a head on approach, or being ambushed, it only really works its best in the beginning of the game. Enemies are spaced out more, paths are more logical, and line of sight is more in the player's advantage. Unfortunately there's no real way to tell if the player is truly hidden or not, or what kind of field of vision the enemies have. Thankfully, there's an awareness icon in the options menu that can be turned on to help the player gauge the situation more accurately when attempting the stealthier approach.
There's also a burning system where the player carries a certain number of matches and can use them to burn bodies or downed enemies. It's an interesting idea, but gives the player some wrong impressions. For example, I figured I would need to use them on enemies I killed to prevent regeneration, but with only being able to carry 5 at first, I ran out quickly. And just when I did, after I killed another enemy I found out they don't get back up. So the system is just unclear on its purpose, but once figured out, can be used to some effectiveness. It's a nice touch, and even makes sense in the context of the world due to some things the player finds out about Ruvik.
A crafting system has also been added to the formula, but it's simplicity makes it feel like a strange stand out. It's not bad, just feels a bit tacked on. How it works, is the player has a crossbow and can make different kinds of bolts for it. There are five in the standard game, and two more for pre-order copies. They have different utilities, some for crowd control, others for stun, and some for pure damage. It reminds me a bit of Bioshock's different ammo systems in that it proves to deepen the combat on a tactical level.
Where the crafting comes in, is the player is able to gather “parts“ either as drops, pick-ups, or from traps that are laid out around the game. The player then uses these parts to make different bolts, each one requiring a different number of “parts.“ It really isn't complex, as the “parts“ act as just a number, and the number goes up as you collect, then the different bolts just subtract from that number. It's not so much crafting as much as converting collectibles into ammo, and ammo only for the crossbow. You can also come across bolts on their own, so it just raises the question of why do the system at all? Why not just raise the maximum bolt count and make the player use them intelligently rather than just spam some then remake them? It's just a very strange addition that's neither bad nor good. It just feels like a half baked idea that was thrown in to give the illusion of some depth in the inventory system.
Speaking of half-baked the story of The Evil Within absolutely needed some more time in the cooker. Most of the game finds the player suddenly transferring from one all-too-familiar horror setting after another. The player is just tossed around from cliche to cliche like a hot potato. One level will see the player in a sewer, then suddenly a factory, then suddenly a high-way, then an ancient ruin, then a hospital, then back in an industrial setting. The environments change so frequently, and with little to no reason that the player has no real sense of progress. And with 15 chapters, it doesn't feel like until almost the 10th does the story start to even show it's ugly head. Even then it's just nonsense about reality bending. There's no connection established between Sebastian and Ruvik, and the fact that Sebastian is even involved feels arbitrary. Most of the story is of Ruvik's backstory, and less on what is going on right now. It just feels like an excuse to take the player from haunted house ride to haunted house ride.
And to be fair, most of these scenes are absolutely oozing with horrific imagery. The game is absolutely bloated with horror mise-en-scene, and the frequent change of atmosphere helps from keeping it all from being too boring. Base enemies are zombified people with glowing white eyes, and barbed wire or pikes sticking out of them. There's a long black haired spider girl who can only be hurt by fire. And my favorite was the mascot monster of the game, the safe-headed man in a butcher's outfit holding a hammer. They all scream main-stream western and eastern horror, but just the pure abundance of it could strike a chord with horror enthusiasts. Being a huge lover of horror myself, I couldn't help but happily bask in all of the rusty, bloody walls, low lighting, spinning rusty blades, abandoned and decayed hallways, and monsters. It was like a night on Netflix with it's long list of B-movie and knock-off horror movies. I don't watch them to really get scared, because I know they'll be lousy, but I just love everything in horror so much, that it acts as more of a fix than anything.
But with that said, I can't bring myself to actually say it was ever scary. It was mildly tense at times, and only one portion really got my heart going. With all of it's imagery, and settings, and mise-en-scene, it almost comes off as trying too hard. There's no tension, no real suspense or wonder. Aside from looking very creepy, the atmosphere is dull. The sound score only picks up when the action does, and ambient noises are only present when actual monsters are, and most of the time you can see them before you can hear them. Another fault is in the attempt to look so scary as well. The environments don't feel like something that once was another thing. They feel artificially made to be eerie. In fact, according to the plot, they were. And that takes a lot away from the tension. If the player knows the area they're in is made the pure intention to look like it should be scary, then it won't be scary, it'll just be obvious. So, despite trying so hard to look scary, doesn't try at all to be scary.
The few real highlights as far as tension goes are when the player is chased by something they seemingly can't kill. Instead, the player is running around, desperately trying to hold off the horror while also trying to figure out a puzzle so they can get away from it. These moments are rare, unfortunately, and while are effective at being high points, they do more to show just how tensionless the rest of the game is.
Upon completion of the game, the player is given the option to go on to NG+. And while there's nothing too different about it, what I did like was how they upped how much upgrade material the player got, no doubt to help completionists fully upgrade Sebastian without making it much of a grind. It's a small thing, but I found it to be a very nice gesture, and something I hope more games do.
In the end, I suppose I recommend The Evil Within to anyone who liked Resident Evil 4, but don't want to play a Resident Evil game. With as much as it does right in gameplay, there's a lot it does wrong artistically. Yet, with it's wrong, it doesn't come off as offensive or infuriating, but a little endearing. In a way, the game almost feels like Mikami is admitting he doesn't know how to create an actually scary experience, so instead he just wants to share all of his favorite things about the genre and let horror fans like him and I just gush all over the genre without actually being scared. I'm sure that isn't the case, but he's still an adorable little scamp for trying.