This is actually foreshadowing your experience with a few chapters of the game.
So, October has come and gone and we’ve since put the flagship horror title behind us. The hype for this game made it sound too good to be true. The creator of Resident Evil, free of Capcom’s bumbling clutches, at the helm of a brand new survival horror IP! The best survival horror game in almost a decade was sure to be upon us, right? That’s what I wanted to believe, anyway. Unfortunately, this year has been a grim reminder that buying too heavily into hype is a recipe for disappointment and The Evil Within was no different.
Possibly the most frustrating thing about The Evil Within is that it fluctuates so wildly in quality from one aspect to the next. It covers its basics adequately enough; your controls are clunky and somewhat unresponsive, as is custom for the genre. Despite the fact that your character is a seasoned detective, he has pretty awful firearm accuracy. Again, par for the course. The sprint mechanic could be a bit more believable (seriously, Castellanos? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen seventy year old emphysemics who can hold a sprint better, and they’re not even outrunning a crazy-ass box-headed butcher!), but I understand and even begrudgingly appreciate that it was a necessary limitation to create tension.
You’ll encounter more than the lion’s share of scripted one-shot-kills. I’m guessing this was to further create a feeling of helplessness, and in small doses it would do just that. However, when every chapter has at least one big baddie who will instantly delete you when you get within handshake distance, it doesn’t enhance the fear factor of the encounters. It’s just the established norm, and a little bit obnoxious. Take out half or three-quarters of my life bar and I’ll be more afraid, personally; not only is it fearsome, its fair. It will cause more apprehension in addressing the fight because I’ll blame myself for the death over a cheap gimmick. Certainly give some enemies and bouts of misadventure the instant-kill approach to keep us cautious, but every third room doesn’t have to have one.
Your pool of resources and ammunition is scarce enough that we aren’t venturing into action “horror” a la RE5, but rarely will you find yourself hanging onto that last clip for dear life. The game incorporates an upgrade system which smacks of drawing in the RPG crowd, but being a leveling fan in general, I wasn’t too put off by the idea. The horror game market has been so bastardized in the past decade or so that it’s difficult to get too bent out of shape over it. However, I will say that the inclusion of currency (in the form of green slime…yuck) and enemies that drop ammo often make the decision of fight or flight for you. “I’ve only got two bullets and a match to kill these three enemies but what if they drop shotgun shells?” This is more a statement on the evolution of horror games, but the inclusion of mechanics like this kind of killed the panic and flee options of some contemporary horror games.
Similarly, the story is pretty middle-of-the-road. You play as Detective Sebastian Castellanos, investigating a mass murder at a hospital. Naturally, things are not what they seem and things go south pretty quickly, with you piecing together bits of Castellanos’ angle through journal entries intermittently placed throughout the game. Without spoiling anything, veterans of the genre won’t be raising many eyebrows to plot reveals. Things begin to make a bit more sense after the pivotal reveal near the end, but nothing worthy of accolades. You certainly don’t grow attached to your character through dialogue, as Castellanos is as boring and one-dimensional as they come. His character takes no risks, shows little emotion or reaction to his circumstances, and doesn’t even try to cover it with awful one-liners. Leon may have been obnoxious in RE4, but at least he was an identifiable person and not a walking archetype. Oh wait, Castellanos says the F-word a few times. Eeee-dgy! Shena and I resorted to giving him the personality of a drunken stepfather, never without a beer bottle in his hand, who never opens a door when he can kick it down; consequences be damned. Still better than what we got from the game.
Now that the neutral stuff is out of the way, lets get to the great stuff! And the worst stuff! Because they’re the SAME GODDAMNED THINGS. The atmosphere, the mood, the designs. The game has some beautiful, terrifying models, and the creators of those models should be proud. Take your run-of-the-mill fodder enemy. Sometimes they look amazing! A corpulent bag of meat, wrapped in barbed wire with probably an entire houses’ windows worth of glass embedded in his everything. I don’t want that thing anywhere near me! You’ll come across a glaze-eyed plain farm girl, except she has a twelve inch railroad spike embedded in her skull (for some reason, head-shanking her with your dinky little pocket knife still instantly kills her). Some guys don’t have jaws, but bloody maws nonetheless.
But then, there are some people that are just…people. Boring, normal but oh no, he’s got a kitchen knife, shit’s getting real now. Or, worse yet, they’re wearing a porcelain mask in an uninspired attempt to look creepy, and it prevents the first headshot from killing them. More on that later. For every visceral, beautiful-in-that-horror-game-way enemy you come across, you come across two or three who’d be just as at home at a bus stop.
But the design of their bosses are top notch. In my opinion, this is the game’s chief redeeming feature. If you’ve seen the trailer for the game, you’ve set eyes on the freaky four-armed lady:
Yep, that’d be the one.
She is equal parts terrifying and grotesque when you get a good look at her, and her entrance is just amazing. She easily finds herself in my top 5 boss designs in horror gaming. Hell, likely in all gaming. If they had treated every enemy with amount of thought and care given to not only her model, but the shocking brevity in her graphic introductory scene, we’d have a much more successful horror experience. While other bosses don’t quite reach her level, they don’t disappoint; gargantuan trollish creatures with posts embedded through their shoulders attack you with anchor-like grappling hooks. A legion of mangled corpses and monstrous limbs utterly destroys a parking garage as it searches for you. Even the iconic Box-Head, who I initially wrote off as a Pyramid Head knockoff, is appropriately menacing in his simplicity. For the record, his appearance is justified when you view models in the post-game Model Viewer and are given a bit of backstory on not only him, but all enemies in the game.
Similarly, the setting is oftentimes spot on. Your safe haven is often glossed over in an eerie green light, making your only comfort area unsettling at times. Dark rural villages often feel as foreboding as they look, while sewers look as disgusting as they should. Despite its general graphical under-performance, the gratuitous pools of blood you sometimes find yourself thrown into can be stomach wrenching. The final areas of the game are amongst the most bizarre I’ve seen. With a few exceptions (most notably, boring villagers and chainsaw maniac du jour), the game fared remarkably well visually.
Despite all this, there were times where I couldn’t be more forcefully ripped out of the atmosphere. This is easily my biggest frustration with the game, and why it’s unlikely I’ll be playing it again a few years from now unlike my semi-annual returns to Heather and James’ Silent Hill journeys. It’s indicative to me of an industry that flat-out does not learn from its mistakes. I’m of the common opinion that the melding of genres since Resident Evil 4 has reduced the quality of big budget horror games by trying to be something it has no rightful place being; a god-damned cover based shooter. It starts in Chapter 7, where you’re carrying out business as usual until you come across an outdoor area where the not-zombies are manning harpoon turrets. So you have to duck behind cover and throw grenades into their turret boxes before you get rained on. It didn’t sit well with me, but I thought little of it. Later on, as we approached the end of the game, we encounter a post-apocalyptic city where we have to fight SWAT team members with fully automatic machine guns and bullet proof armor. What part of that is horror, exactly? Critics couldn’t have roasted Resident Evil 5 any harder for taking that approach; why in God’s name would you subject the fanbase of a brand new IP to that, after branding the FATHER OF SURVIVAL HORROR all over your ads? Sure enough, an hour later we were on the back of a jeep, firing a mounted turret at swathes of enemies.
And that, ultimately, is why I can’t recommend the Evil Within to people looking to recapture that old horror feel. It’s falling in to the same trappings that led us to where we are today, and it’s only on its first installment. I may be being a little harsh on the game, but that’s only because there are areas and moments where it really shines, shows its potential. Moments where you see a four-armed deformed monster explode out of a pool of blood and can’t put enough rooms between you and her. Moments where you watch this unstoppable behemoth tear his own head off so that he can possess one of the boxes in the same room as you.
But then, you go duck and weave through a goddamned SWAT team firing machine guns, sprint to the back of their Humvee and unload on them with a turret, and the magic is lost.