Escape from a terrifying, ever-changing nightmare world.
PC Release: October 14, 2014
By Ian Coppock
Welp, there’s no more putting it off; it’s finally The Evil Within‘s turn for a review. I’ve been getting bombarded with requests to review this game for years (and given my oft-professed love for horror games, it’s no surprise), but with The Evil Within 2 right around the corner, what better time to finally visit this most curious horror-verse than now? The Evil Within bills itself as a horror game that focuses more on action than survival; it’s time to evaluate that and other claims right here, right now.
The Evil Within is a third-person horror game directed by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil. Released as the debut title of Mikami’s studio, Tango Gameworks, The Evil Within‘s stated mission is to return horror games to being about survival instead of action. Tango Gameworks is wrong to imply that no one makes survival-horror games anymore, but to be fair, nearly all of the proverbial Amnesias and Outlasts are indie productions. If games like Dead Space 3 are any indication, bigger-budget devs have indeed forgotten how to do horror. So go forth, The Evil Within; go forth.
The Evil Within casts players as Sebastian Castellanos, a down-on-his-luck police detective who couldn’t be anymore the stereotype of the hard-drinking noir gumshoe if he tried. The game begins when Sebastian and his partners get a call about multiple homicides at the local insane asylum; when they arrive, a disfigured man in a white robe teleports behind Sebastian and knocks him out cold. When Sebastian wakes up, he beholds an unfamiliar world teeming with blood, gore, and all sorts of creepy monsters.
After eluding a particularly tall butcher who has a particularly strong enthusiasm for chainsaws, Sebastian realizes that his partners and a few of the asylum staff have ended up in this world as well. Between him and them stand an army of horrifically disfigured ghouls that are only too happy to try to take a chomp out of the detective. Armed only with his wits and what few weapons can be found in this nightmare world, it’s Sebastian’s mission to find out what this place is and, more importantly, how to escape from it.
As Sebastian sneaks his way through the world stabbing monsters and avoiding danger, he can’t help but notice that certain portions of the place seem familiar. What few friendly faces he does find make similar observations. They all agree, though, that this world is not a realm friendly to them. Meanwhile, the aforementioned man in a white robe watches from a distance as Sebastian and co. try to find a way out… if there’s even such a thing.
Like most of the Resident Evil games, The Evil Within is a third-person shooter. As Sebastian, players can run (or sneak, sneaking’s better) around a foreboding landscape in search of resources and in avoidance of enemies. Sebastian can find guns and grenades out in the world but ammo is a finite resource, so it pays to either avoid enemies entirely or, if that’s not possible, be a headshot afficionado. When weapons aren’t an option, Sebastian can always find a bed to hide under or a wardrobe to silently weep in. He can also heal himself with syringes, but players are best off saving those for when he’s seriously hurt (they don’t exactly grow on trees).
The Evil Within also incorporates featherweight role-playing elements. Every so often, Sebastian can whisk himself away to a medical ward not unlike the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. Players can use this hub to heal themselves, upgrade their weapons, and strengthen Sebastian’s abilities. Everything from Sebastian’s sprint duration to the damage he does with certain weapons can be beefed up using this system, provided players can find enough jars of brain goo. Brain goo can be found in everything from ceramic jars to the heads of monsters, so go wild for those upgrades.
A lot of critics are quick to point out how similar The Evil Within is to Resident Evil 4, and with good reason: the game features similarities ranging from the over-the-shoulder camera down to the creepy doctor with a Hispanic name. For all those similarities, though, The Evil Within actually feels much more like The Last of Us. Think about it; the protagonist sneaks around, has limited ammunition, and can throw bottles or bricks to distract monsters so that he can stab them. The resemblance is uncanny, and given The Last of Us‘s huge success, it’s probably not a coincidence.
Funnily for a game designed by the creator of Resident Evil, The Evil Within also shares many design similarities with RE‘s arch-rival, Silent Hill. Creepy nightmare dimension? Check. Worlds that shift randomly between different paradigms? Check. Monsters that, for all their spookiness, have a grotesque beauty to them that is worthy of appreciation? Check. There’s even a metal-headed creature wielding an over-sized weapon that pops up every so often to chase our hero around.
Even though The Evil Within doesn’t really pioneer any new horror mechanics, it can be a fun package for players who like The Last of Us, Resident Evil 4, or the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. There’s nothing new in The Evil Within‘s tourney of third-person shooting and sneaking, but the game does manage to clothe those old bones in silky smooth new flesh (don’t cringe at that metaphor, this is supposed to be a horror game review). The Evil Within is also quite a challenging game; players can expect plenty of bullet-resistant foes and to be introduced to new, scarier monsters at a steady clip.
Unfortunately, players can also expect some much more frustrating design decisions that The Evil Within 2 will hopefully correct. The first is the game’s camera, which is god-awful. The Evil Within takes the over-the-shoulder camera to a whole ‘nother level, putting it so close to Sebastian that it feels like the player is resting their chin on his shoulder. Not only can this make the game nauseating to watch; it’s often difficult to tell where Sebastian is whenever he gets mobbed by enemies. Over-the-shoulder camera? More like over-the-ear camera.
The next fumble in The Evil Within‘s lineup of design missteps is its frustrating placement of traps. This game is absolutely lousy with trip wires and bear traps, to the point where players have to maintain a schizophrenic level of vigilance to avoid getting blown to smithereens. It’s a prime example of the “bulls***t death” phenomenon, in which the game tries to create environmental tension but ultimately ends up punishing even reasonably careful players. Dark Souls fans will do well in this game.
Finally, there’s the boss battles. Japanese games have an unfortunate habit of including overly long boss fights whose order of difficulty is completely scrambled, and The Evil Within is no exception. Sebastian faces giant creatures with several bars of health and a retinue of frustrating attacks, making such confrontations in The Evil Within a test of patience rather than skill. What’s more, this game’s boss battles are arranged in a random order of difficulty; one big baddie toward the middle of the game is teeth-gnashingly difficult to kill, while the game’s final boss is basically a glorified cutscene.
A lot of Japanese games also tend to skip out on essential story details. The Evil Within‘s plot is only barely comprehensible; as a study of how people would navigate a series of horror environments, it’s not bad, but as a coherent story it’s pretty messy. There’s no meaning behind most of the environments that Sebastian visits. Indeed, The Evil Within‘s levels could be shuffled into any order and the game’s plot would not suffer for it. Not to get too spoilery, but The Evil Within doesn’t even really explain why Sebastian is in this world to begin with! Sure, it explains why some other characters might be there… just not the main one.
Oh well; it’s not like any of the characters in The Evil Within are all that memorable or interesting anyway. Sebastian’s character has the alcoholic cop stereotype down to a T. He spends most of his time musing about the weirdness of the world or kicking back whiskey instead of developing as a person. Even the voice talent of Anson Mount (Cullen Bohannon on AMC’s Hell on Wheels) can only do so much against such mediocre character writing. This game’s other characters fill similarly stock niches; Sebastian’s partner Joseph, for example is the stereotypical straight-edged detective keeping his partner afloat.
If The Evil Within can’t provide memorable characters or a coherent story, at least it looks cool and runs pretty well. The game’s visual design presents a steady series of hauntingly beautiful worlds ranging from destroyed cityscapes to bleak countrysides. Since this is a horror game, players can also count on finding plenty of gory laboratories and an antiquated church or two. The Evil Within relies on a diverse palette of muted colors to telegraph its haunted atmosphere, as well as some admittedly well-placed lighting and fog effects.
The Evil Within runs pretty well on default options, but players can always tweak any performance problems with the game’s outstanding options menu. Some players may find that The Evil Within has an unsteady frame-rate, no doubt a by-product of porting this game to PC and doing away with the 30 frames-per-second cap endemic to consoles. The Evil Within also features those stupid black widescreen bars for a more “cinematic” experience, but players can learn how to turn those off right here.
The Evil Within is not the horror opus that its small but dedicated fan base claims it to be. It has fluid third-person shooting and an interesting world, but its boss fights are awful and its story is incomprehensible. None of this means that that game doesn’t have its moments of fun or an absorbing atmosphere, but the title is ultimately brought down by a handful of massively consequential design mishaps. It’s a game that’s bursting at the seams with interesting ideas… but those ideas have no organization whatsoever.
Additionally, players who are interested in The Evil Within but want Amnesia-style survival should check out The Assignment and The Consequence, two DLC packs that force players to sneak around sans weapons. Starring character Juli Kidman isn’t all that interesting and it’s cringe-worthy to watch her run around this nightmare world in six-inch heels, but the DLC’s gameplay is much more in line with hardcore survival horror games. Meanwhile, players in the mood for something a bit more lively should check out The Executioner, a DLC that lets players smash heads and take names as the aforementioned Trapezoid Head.
To recap, The Evil Within is a meh game, one that horror fans won’t be lesser for missing out on. The universe that the game presents is fascinating, but it’s just so… jumbled. Hopefully The Evil Within 2 will introduce some much-needed refinements to the series: putting the boss battles in a gradually ascending order of difficulty wouldn’t hurt, and neither would including some more interesting characters and a more focused plot. That over-the-shoulder camera also needs to be pushed back; way back. And please, Shinji, for the love of Cthulhu… cut back on all those damn bear traps and tripwires. Please?
You can buy The Evil Within here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.