I’ll be honest right from the start and admit that I am not a typical horror game fan. I don’t have the fond memories of atmosphere slowly crushing my psyche via a Silent Hill game, and I found what little time I spent with Resident Evil to consist mainly of frustrating controls rather than any genuine fear. As a kid, the genre had simply been impenetrable for me.
Of course, I have used this month as an opportunity to go back and play some older games that went for more sincere scares. But I have to confess that the first case of me actually liking a horror game started with Resident Evil 4. It had a solid control scheme, great level design, one of most tense openings I’ve ever played, and a lot of ridiculousness woven throughout the plot. It’s pretty much the perfect horror game for somebody like me, who enjoys games that find an entertaining balance between the genuinely unnerving and the batshit loopy.
The director of that Resident Evil 4 was Shinji Mikami, and his studio Tango Gameworks have now made a new game. The Evil Within is the studio’s attempt to build a true survival horror game in the modern age. So is the game successful at that goal? And supposing it is, will I actually like playing it as I enjoyed playing RE4?
I suppose I ought to answer those leading questions, shouldn’t I?
The Evil Within follows Detective Sebastion “Seb” Castellanos as he and his two partners approach a gruesome mass murder at a local hospital. The mysterious, scarred killer knocks out our good detective, and Seb awakens to find himself in a nightmarish world that is under the killer’s complete control, from the monsters who populate it to the physical world itself.
That setup truly about as much as I can tell you about the game’s plot. This is largely due to the fact that The Evil Within‘s story is weird as shit, and about as convoluted as I’ve played in any game. It really attempts to mesh a lot of ideas together like insanity, introspection, classic horror themes, classic science-fiction themes, fragmented story-telling, and just attempting to wrap your head around all of it might be the craziest thing to try to do. The story is absolutely one of the strangest that I’ve ever played, and that might be a struggle for some looking for smoother example of story-telling.
But strange doesn’t always mean bad, either. While the game is likely biting off more than it can fully chew thematically, it is a story I found very compelling throughout the game’s length (my full game time took me around 17 hours). What helps is the protagonist/antagonist relationship The Evil Within builds. Seb is a rather vanilla protagonist by today’s standards, but the game’s story doesn’t revolve around him in the typical way. His personal demons—because every cop has personal demons—are a factor, but they don’t define the horror around him. It’s not the Horrifying Adventures of Detective Seb. He’s just one player in a really screwed up game, and like everyone around him, he’s trying to win because it’s the only way to get out alive.
On the other end, the killer, Ruvik, is a very well-executed horror antagonist and takes a greater part of the game’s focus. What is odd is that The Evil Within relies mainly on gore and spectacle for its monsters, and so there’s a lot more fear in what these monsters will do rather than what they are. From the zombies covered in barbed wire to the monstrous, hammer-wielding man with a safe box for a head, they’ll all be able to beat the shit out of Seb, but many horror fans might prefer more subtlety to their dread than what the bulk of the monsters here are able to offer.
So it’s a little funny that Ruvik, who appears to be much more normal compared to the monsters he’s throwing at our good detective, ended up inspiring the bulk of my fear. The game takes a long while before even beginning to explain his story, and even after some light gets shed on him, his role and personality remain a great portion of the game’s horror. From beginning to end, Ruvik exists as an embodiment of pure malice. He has specific goals in mind, but they all demand the suffering of Seb and everyone he else he has yet to corrupt. Whether it was solely in the story, or being hunted by the character in the game, Ruvik is probably one of the more memorable villains I’ve come across in a long while.
With a fascinating hero/villain dynamic, and a bizarre concoction of story elements, The Evil Within ends up telling a damn interesting story, even if it fails to tell it in a particularly graceful way. But outside of an engaging, horror-style mindfuck, is The Evil Within a game worth playing? Why do I keep asking questions I’m going to answer right away?
The Evil Within plays somewhat similarly to RE4, but with drastically less available weapon resources and a new emphasis on stealth thrown into the mix. And outside of getting used to Seb’s finicky accuracy and slow pace when sneaking, the combat was fairly satisfying when I got the hang of it all. Knowing when to take a stealth approach—which I always tried to do—and knowing when it’s time to go loud and take a chunk out of such limited supplies adds an interesting bit of stress, especially considering the typical enemy is not fully dead until their corpses are burnt or their head is blown off. This stress led to a lot of fights ending with me asking the question, “How did I even survive that?”
The game always seemed to give me just enough tools to get through, though. And, so long as enemies weren’t getting caught on random game geometry or something stupid, I found myself appreciating the stress and challenge the game offers to fairly routine mechanics.
What I didn’t appreciate were the proximity mines. The Evil Within‘s levels are all full of traps, and most of them can be easily taken care of as long as you’re patient and observant (you can then use the parts from the trap to manufacture crossbow bolts), but the proximity mines have an unforgiving timing mini-game in order to defuse them. So I maybe disarmed one in my time with the game, and just tried to sneak by the rest. And sneaking isn’t always easy when one might have to sprint away from some creepy demonic girl on a moment’s notice down narrow hallways.
Speaking of demonic girls, the “boss fights” are probably the one area the game struggles the most with. The game’s various manifestations of evil are certainly freaky and difficult enough, so it did feel satisfying to take one down, and I personally never had the issue of knowing when I was in a real fight or when I was supposed to escape (Here’s a helpful hint: If there’s a way to run, do it!). However, I did have one hell of a problem knowing when I was doing damage in an actual boss fight. There was often very little indication of when I was actually attacking a boss correctly, and it’s a lot worse in fights where the boss seems to randomly respawn a set number of times. Sometimes this served to build up that hopeless feeling of being clearly outmatched that I’m sure The Evil Within is going for, but most of the time it meant annoying trial-and-error tactics to get through fights.
Even with those gripes, though, I feel like The Evil Within is ultimately an enjoyable game to play compared to more limited horror experiences where your options amount to “run” and “hide”. Admittedly, the stealth/gunfight formula likely would have wore thin if not for the game’s wide variety of disturbing environments that Ruvik will send the player to, and the action and stealth will not rewrite the book on third-person shooter mechanics. Still, the game does a solid job demonstrating how those mechanics can be incorporated into the horror genre without sacrificing all the tension. Even if it needs to milk the the setting and tone for all they’re worth to successfully get to the finish line, the game does get there.
Ultimately, I just cannot say that The Evil Within is polished. The game’s story is convoluted to the point of baffling, its combat has some really nagging frustrations on both sides of it, and the chosen aspect ratio for the whole game is flat-out stupid (I have a decent TV now, and I would like to use all my picture without some random cropping). Worst of all, there are probably plenty of other games The Evil Within will bring to mind, and it will likely feel inferior to them in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s certainly no Resident Evil 4.
Yet I can’t recall playing anything quite like The Evil Within before. I can recommend tons of games that are better-designed and somewhat familiar, but I can’t name another one that is so committed to such a fascinating story of the evil and psychotic, while solidly maintaining a level of tension and intrigue for many hours. The game is exactly what it was meant to be: a bloody horror game with modern design sensibilities.
The Evil Within is certainly the weirdest game I’ve ever played, and that will stick with me more than any of its faults. The game is rough around almost all of its edges, but it is full of cool ideas. And those ideas ended up wrapping around my head and dragging me through a very screwed-up journey, and left me wondering how I even survived it.