The Evil Within (spoiler free) review.

Nefarious actions taking place within the residential area.

Out of the boatload of trailers and sequels that were shown at 2017’s E3, there was one that caught my attention above many of the others. Namely, the reveal trailer for The Evil Within 2. It’s a hell of an intriguing trailer: the viscera and blood of the previous game comes into sharp contrast with the disturbingly clinical white tar that seems to be infecting and drowning everything. Not to mention, the fact that some outside force is forcing the main character to watch his daughter (who should be dead) die repeatedly to burning is pretty horrifying.

Also, I’m not the only one that thinks the song is pretty rad, right? Like, come on, it’s a horror-themed cover of a god damn Duran Duran song. All I need now is a horror-themed cover of Hungry Like The Wolf and I can finally find inner peace.

Seriously though, one of the things that I found interesting about Evil Within 2’s announcement was the follow up statement that Shinji Mikami will not be directing the game. This shouldn’t really be surprising, as the man previously stated that the first Evil Within would be the last game he directed, since he wanted to make room for younger directors to take the helm. Despite that, I had half expected him to make an exception for such a direct sequel, though I suppose the role of executive-producer that he’s taken still gives him some control on the direction of the game.

For those not in the know, Shinji Mikami is a highly prolific game developer who is masterful at two concepts: making really elegant and well executed game play, and throwing the concern for the story out of the window. This isn’t to say his games’ have weak writing, he directed Resident Evil 4, a game that has plenty of hilarious dialogue and characters. However, a glance down Mikami’s games shows that the stories in them rarely try to take themselves seriously; God Hand, Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish all have enjoyable narratives, but that’s because they’re not pretending they’re there for any other reason than to be a means to contextualise the game play. It is perhaps his departure of director that has caused the pre-release info on Evil Within 2 to claim that the story is much more involved, and I’d believe it.

All of these facts and more should be kept in mind as we go back to review the very first Evil Within game, since knowing Shinji Mikami’s staples help to explain a lot of the odd quirks of the game. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

 Game play
Shinji Mikami once again proves how he earned his reputation, though some odd difficulty decisions might impede the game’s actual horror factor.

Much like Mikami’s famously fun Resident Evil 4, The Evil Within is played from a third person perspective, although mixes in some stealthy backstabbing action into the gameplay in addition to the usual shooting action. If there’s one thing that I have to absolutely hand to The Evil Within, it’s the fact it really knows how to ramp up. You start off the game creeping around every corner and counting every bullet you fire, trying your damnedest to take out as many enemies with stealth as possible. Even small groups of two or three enemies pose some significant threat to your weak, slow and lightly armed self, even though you’re the only one with the means to fire from range. Bosses pose a particularly terrifying threat, since the scarcity of bullets means that the crap load of punishment they can take is going to be a serious drain on your resources. While the game’s upgrade system helps to take the edge off this early game difficulty, you’re struggling to get enough ‘gel’ together to just upgrade basic things like health and ammo capacity. To that end, the first few sections of the game are undeniably the most tension filled moments in the game. By the mid to late game, however, things have taken a drastic turn: your character has managed to scrounge together quite the arsenal of weapons, and (more importantly) you’ve upgraded them to be much more deadly in combat. While stealth and other tactics to preserve ammo is still highly advisable, you can fight off much more dangerous enemies and outright shoot your way out of many encounters. This progression feels very natural, and it’s cathartic to outright slaughter your way past enemies that were giving you trouble before. This is definitely Shinji Mikami’s touch on the game, because the advancement of your fire power vs. what you’re coming up against feels perfectly balanced even as you resort to stealth less and a less.

The second thing that I have to absolutely hand to the game is the fact that its systems really lend themselves well to some creative problem solving. At the very start of the game, you’re given the ability to throw matches onto bodies or downed enemies. This doesn’t sound too useful, since there aren’t a huge number of time where shooting an enemies’ legs out and then burning them is much faster or more effective than simply blowing their heads off…at least until you realise that burning foes will also set other nearby enemies on fire, which results in their swift death. Suddenly, every body, every downed foe, and even some environmental hazards present opportunities to clear out several enemies at once, especially since the player is immune to any fires they create. Not to mention this tactic is fantastic for clearing out the late-game’s more armoured and tanky targets, and that matches tend to be more plentiful than the game’s supply of bullets by that point. Another “problem solver” you come across is the Agony Crossbow, a weapon that has a variety of ammo to be used. If I had to compare it to anything, it’s similar to the Resident Evil seres’ grenade launcher, in that the weapon offers some surprising utility in its varied ammo. For example, the basic harpoon is a strong single target destroyer, while the flash-bolt (basically a flash bang on a stick) can be an amazing way to conserve bullets since it allows you to stealth kill any enemies stunned by its effects, or to simply grenade a stunned crowd out of existence. That’s not even getting into the ice-bolts or lightening-bolts. Basically, not only is the basic act of shooting through crowds nice and intuitive, the game offers plenty of ways to actually deal with the ravenous monsters you’ll come across, allowing the player to make their own strategies and methods for progress.

And you’re sure as hell going to need some strong methods, because this game is not pulling any punches. Even on normal difficulty, basic attacks against the player are going to knock a sizable chunk off their life bar, and even the common-garden mooks can take a fair amount of punishment (they won’t stop coming at you even when you’ve blown 40% of their head clean off). Bosses tend to also err on the side of being pretty damn difficult, hitting like trunks and taking just as many bullets. In particular, many bosses, enemies, and traps are actually one hit kills. This means, if you miss the warning signs, you could find yourself going from full health all the way back to the last checkpoint. Hell, there’s an enemy in the late game that does nothing but launch one hit kill attacks, and will often be guarded by a crap ton of mooks. This is definitely a game that requires you to stay on your toes to get through.

That all being said, I have to criticise one part of the game play. Namely, it’s not exactly what I’d call ‘scary.’ Filled to the brim with tension undoubtedly (either over concerns for ammo or if you’re going to suddenly die from one attack), but I wasn’t feeling jumpy at shadows or feeling like I had to turn all the lights on come nightfall after I finished playing the game. I think the main problem is that the player becomes really bloody heavily armed by even the midpoint: while ammo concerns never stop, it easy to forget that this is a survival horror when you’re having so much fun blowing up an entire horde with a well place grenade, and having crazy bus rides between mowing enemies down with a mounted machine gun. Basically, while The Evil Within is undoubtedly fun, it’s not really that horrifying. I’d even risk saying that it’s closer to a horror-themed action game with heavy stealth elements, rather than a direct survival horror game. I think one part of this issue actually lies in the game’s heavy use of instant death. I’ve talked about how the game over screen can actually take way more away from a scary experience than it adds, and ease of dying in The Evil Within only highlights this. Boss fights are entertainingly tense, and the game would be less enjoyable without its high difficulty, but the only thing the ‘game over’ screen is murdering is any chance of being truly spooked by this game.  It’ll be interesting to see if the sequels change in director has any effect on this set up, or if the balance is kept mostly the same.

Sound and music:

                Another feather in the game’s cap is its strong sound effect direction. Firing a gun feel weighty thanks to the sheer kick in the firing sound effect, and shooting a enemy’s head off feels satisfyingly chunky thanks to the almost ridiculously messy sound effect (and the huge burst of blood, but that’s a different area of the game). Likewise, the enemies’ various moans and groans are suitably creepy, with plenty of atmospheric background sounds to back them up. In particular, I want to commend the use of an almost painful ringing noise to denote when some particularly odd and unexplainable things are occurring, mostly because it makes me sympathise with the main characters complaint of his head hurting.

In terms of music, I don’t remember any one track really sticking out for me, though that isn’t to say that the OST wasn’t without its merits. There were a lot of songs being comprised of fairly tense ‘industrial’ sounds (i.e., screeching metal, unsettling rhythmic banging noises, etc), which certainly fits the tone of the game. I will give the game points for expert use of Clair De Lune, since I can’t think of a more appropriate song to use as save room music in a horror game.  I could honestly feel my heart-beat stabilising when I heard the distant echoes of that wonderful piano. To sum it up, The Evil Within’s soundtrack isn’t what I’d call fantastic, but it’s still fairly decent.

Fun fact: the opening song ‘Long Way Down’ was actually performed by Gary Numan, a fact that might explain why a Duran Duran song was chosen for the sequel’s trailer. It’s pure speculation, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if at least one member of the team was a fan of British musicians from the 70’s and 80’s.

Graphics and aesthetics:

On a technical side, The Evil Within does have something of an issue with texture pop-ins. It wasn’t too much of a problem for me (though that might be because I was running the game on a crappy old PC, wherein texture pop-ins are the rule and not the exception), but it’s going to be a bother to anyone who’s hoping for a smooth experience. Depending on your platform of choice, there might also be some stuttering on the busier sections of the game, which can be a real pain in the neck when you’re trying to not miss and waste precious bullets, though this is thankfully a rare occurrence. Other than that, The Evil Within maintains a decent resolution, and looks plenty pretty and violent enough.

The Evil Within had (and kind of still has) a pretty oddly specific design choice that I kind of go back and forth on, namely it’s aggressive letter boxing on the top and bottom parts of the screen. On one hand, The Evil Within does kind of remind a little of the campy, goretastic b-movies, and the letter boxing certainly adds to the feeling of being cramped and closed in. On the other hand, it’s pretty annoying how much of the view is cut offs, which can be a nightmare if your scrounging around to find the bottle you just dropped while also trying to keep an eye on the enemies that you definitely don’t want to be seen by. So while the effect is neat, it probably should stay as a movie device, rather than being applied to a video game wherein situational awareness is paramount. While the developers have added an option to turn the effect off, the mostly stable nature of the game starts to suffer some without the letter boxing helping it along. Though, again, this might just be because it’s a miracle my computer can run the damn thing at all.

Another point I kind of go back and forth on are the actual character designs in the game. On one hand, I don’t think they’re exactly the most imaginative in the world: you can tell mostly everyone’s entire characters from a single glance at them. The albino mysterious waif is, to the surprise of nobody, more important than he first appears. The main character is so much of a detective that he even wears the borderline comical trench coat at the beginning. And the scientist you have to help a couple of times through the game looks like he could have stepped straight out of Half-Life. Despite my complaints, there’s no denying that the designs are actually well executed, mostly because the game has great detailing and little touches that bring them together. The fact that the main character and his partner have such similar colour schemes creates a nice visual indicator that they’re close allies, while the third new comer to the team has a contrasting appearance to indicate the gulf of trust between them. Likewise, there a lot of important points you can figure out about the main villain just by looking at him, way before the game brings them up. So while I don’t think they’re necessarily much to look at, the characters have clearly had some careful thought put into them, which I appreciate.

On a more definitely positive note, I love the enemy designs in this game. There’s a crap ton of body horror to go around, from basic enemies being completely wrapped up in barbed wire to the abundance of unnecessary bolts and medical devices sown into people. Special mention to The Keeper, who’s basically just a big dude with his head replaced by a safe containing nothing but pulpy flesh, an image which is more unsettling then you’d initially believe. Like the above characters, the enemies have a lot of detail put into them, for example if you blow a hole into a enemy’s skull, you’ll see that the barbed wire motif extends even to the poor bugger’s brain. While it sure as hell isn’t subtle, The Evil Within has some strong designs for the various horrors you have to face, and the body-horror aspect is used to great effect.

Story and narrative:

As always for the spoiler free reviews, we won’t go into too many details. Additionally, I’ll just come right out and say that the usual assumptions made about Shinji Mikami’s games are mostly true here. Namely, while the story isn’t bad, it’s definitely taking second place to the gameplay. That’s a perfectly valid tactic to take, but it does mean that the overall narrative strength of the game is perhaps lacking in places.

Anyway, the premise: you play as one Sebastian Castellanos (or just Seb to his partner) a detective in the Krimson City police force. While riding back from a recent case Sebastian, along with his fellow officers Joseph Oda and Juli Kidman, are instead redirected to a nearby mental hospital, where reports of really bad stuff is going down. When the three detectives arrive, ‘Beacon Mental Hospital’ has been turned into a blood-bath, and the police personal already on scene are getting slaughtered by an enigmatic dude covered in burn marks. After Sebastian is knocked out and is forced to escape from a chain-saw wielding maniac, he beats a hasty retreat from the mental hospital, but quickly finds that the world outside of the building’s walls is not much safer than inside them. Indeed, entire districts of the city seem to be moving and collapsing, and people seem to be turning into horrible monsters. If that wasn’t bad enough, he finds out that Joseph is missing, and that the only survivors from the mental hospital are a singular doctor who is being suspiciously tight-lipped about the whole thing, and a young albino boy. In addition to all of this, the boy seems to be of particular interest to the mysterious man that Sebastian spied in the hospital…

Over the course of the game, you’ll have to dig into the mystery of just what the hell is going on, who the figure from the hospital is and how he’s connected to it all, and just how the heck you’re supposed to survive this nightmare. Along the way, you’ll have to piece together the characters’ various pasts, including Sebastian’s. The game’s story has a decent pacing, and is appropriately light on exact details for a horror game. Additionally, I quite like the characters: they have very engaging friendships and hatreds for each other, and while the dialogue and writing isn’t anything to write home about, it’s definitely entertaining.

The game also features a twist that explains just how the hell all of the crazy stuff you see is possible, but it’s going to be dependent on the player just how much of surprise this twist is. To the game’s credit, they don’t hold it too close to their chest for long, and around about the point where it’s starting to get pretty obvious what is happening, the game just straight up says what’s going on. This way, at least the characters are on the same page as the player. Honestly, the game’s strongest moments are after the twist has been dropped, since it allows the developers to really let loose with the potential of this new information. To some extent, I wish they had come forward earlier, instead of being all coy with the twist, since it wasn’t necessarily super well hidden to begin with, and only seemed to limit the developers.

(I’m not sure why I’m talking around this spoiler so much, considering that one of the trailers for The Evil Within 2 outright just states several major spoilers from the first game, but whatever.)

Besides that, one of the main weak points of the narrative is that the characters are fairly static throughout. I like these characters, but there’s no getting around that they stay much the same throughout the game’s events. Apart from one character’s surprise twist, you know exactly what to expect from each character after you’ve spent more than five minutes with them. In particular, while the main character is well executed, I think Sebastian isn’t the strongest lead I’ve seen. Sebastian isn’t the worst main character out there, not by a long shot, but the only thing that changes about his characterisation through the game’s run is how done he is with creeping through spooky locations. I’m not saying every story needs the main character to go through a drastic change (especially in video games, where even having the main character be completely silent is a perfectly legitimate tactic), but I feel like Sebastian is harder to empathise with since he’s the same character at the end as he was at the start. It just creates this feeling like he was merely a vehicle for the player to take part in the game, rather than being a character with his own growth. This is hardly a deal breaker, but it remains kind of a point against the story’s strength.

Another MAJOR weak point in the game’s story is that it leaves way too many questions un-answered by the end. It leaves several characters’ fates completely unknown, doesn’t properly fill in the blanks in several of the game’s subplots, and doesn’t adequately answer whether the player was actually successful in their endeavours throughout the game. The DLC seeks to close at least some of these points, but any game that needs additional content just to make a satisfying conclusion to the main story leaves a sour taste in mouth. Heck, even the DLC decides to not commit to answering all of the questions, despite having the room to do so.

In short, The Evil Within’s story isn’t exactly terrible and has some neat ideas, but is let down by some lacklsuter writing and not exactly great ending. Combine that with how thinly spread the story is compared to the gameplay, and it’s clear that the idea Shinji Mikami isn’t too focused on the story becomes fairly easy to believe.

Conclusion:

Despite all the problems I have with the game, I will admit that it’s had an odd effect of growing on me as time’s gone on. The gameplay is satisfying, and it’s really gratifying to go through the game’s harder difficulties and conquer the sometimes unreasonably one sided odds. Likewise, while the story ends on a really bum note, it was an entertaining ride, despite lacking in some areas. I would recommend getting the game while it’s on sale, and especially to go into it with no expectations.

I’m looking forward to seeing if the sequel lives up to the promise that it will expand on the story elements of this first game, especially since there’s room to grow. I’m hoping that this doesn’t come at the cost of the gameplay, however, since it’s definitely the strongest part of this first title. I’m not even sure if one can balance those two elements to be in perfectly harmony, but I’m hoping the next instalment can prove me wrong.

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