Game Review

by Dave Riley,

The Evil Within

PS4 / Xbox One / PC / PS3 / Xbox 360

The Evil Within
The Evil Within is Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami's return to survival horror.

The Evil Within introduces its first enemy in a perfect recreation of Resident Evil's iconic zombie reveal, as if it wants to be certain you know it is a Shinji Mikami game. This is a game with a lot of promise, one made by the man who effectively invented survival horror and then went on to ruin by creating one of the best games in the genre. Resident Evil 4 sounded a death knell for survival horror in its traditional form, inspiring a new generation of games like Dead Space where vulnerability, limited resources, and fear of death were atmospheric garnish in the face of your flamethrower and electric rocket launcher, your character upgrades and frequent checkpoints.

The Evil Within feels like a genre reboot, Mikami's suggestion that everything following Resident Evil 4 might've focused too much on the fun and not enough on the tenacity. It marries fraught tension and obsessive resource management with a contemporary glaze of better controls, weapon upgrades, and the feeling of battlefield control that Resident Evil 4 imbued in us. Big budget titles have a way of scrupulously sanding down rough edges, any place where a player might not be able to use their favorite weapon, where their preferred technique isn't as exactly as efficient as any other player's preferred technique. The Evil Within is not sanded down. It is difficult in that way that often means unforgiving, and sometimes unfair. It has many one-hit kills, some that will get you more than once, and the load times between are long enough to pick up your phone and check what Twitter's up to.

These are The Evil Within's harshest moments. Between them you duck and crawl through free-ranging stealth sequences, farmhouses packed with more enemies than your half dozen bullets could possibly kill, and hold-out points, where you have to work crowd control with as many tools as you can manage switching between. Shoot a trap arrow against the north window so you have time to deal with the group streaming through the east window. Remember where you left that live bomb so you can lure a group and blow them up all at once. Tempt fate and stand over the guy you just downed so when his buddy's almost got her hands around your neck you can drop a match and burn them both alive. Survival horror has always been about weighing ammo against health. Time and again The Evil Within forces you to risk your healing syringes by letting the enemies encroach into pistol range or else waste sniper ammo and crossbow bolts on cannon fodder when you might need them for stronger enemies later on.

For much of the game a single shotgun shell in a desk drawer is a bounty. Ammo is precious. The uncertainty of whether your first shot, which is also your last shot, will kill an approaching monster is something you'll face throughout the first half. The second half succumbs to the same late-game problems as Resident Evil 4. Gun-wielding enemies are a pain in any game with fussy movement and ponderous aiming. They're even crueler here, where a bullet can shear off half your health bar in one go and you've got, at best, three healing items on hand, and that's only if you spent your upgrade points, represented by green brain goo, on carrying more syringes instead of more attractive upgrades like handgun critical hits or flaming harpoon bolts. The Evil Within's wrinkle is making you spend currency you'd rather use for stronger weapons on an increased reserve of bullets, healing, even matches. Buying space for two extra shotgun shells when you'd rather have twenty percent extra shotgun damage hurts, but hurts more to leave two shotgun shells behind because you have no space for them. Strange game, that makes upping your maximum reserve of pistol bullets from six to ten more exciting than any other stat buff.

The scenery goes hard at the grimy and the gross. Every shack is a charnel house, every sewer canal filled with blood. Bosses are more cancerous pustules than human or animal. Sometimes the game lacks confidence; unsure if it's creeping you out, it also tries to sick you out. But the giant chainsaw maniac would be just as frightening if his body weren't made of sores and if his head weren't stapled together with rusty metal--Resident Evil 4's Doctor Salvador's suspenders and potato sack mask were plenty intimidating without the need for 1080P ichor and pus. The Evil Within has other arrows in its quiver, but more often than not these respites are brief, and you know the next blood sewer, or the next fleshy hospital, or the next decaying corpse swamp is just around the corner. There are other ways to convey rot and the profane, sometimes the game uses them, but it's more interested in the icky than anything else.

The story, which eschews the campiness of Resident Evil for hard-boiled grit, hardly bears mentioning. Even the game thinks so, given the way it will sometimes go entire chapters without a shred of new information. Down-on-his luck Sebastian is drowning his detective career a bottle--or so we're told, he barely even touches the stuff when we're controlling him--and now he's trapped in this constantly shifting hellscape, which may or may not exist solely in someone's mind. That would explain why you seemingly teleport from horror set piece to horror set piece, warping to the gothic mansion after the medieval mausoleum has run its course. The usual twists of identity disorder and paranoia follow, but none are capitalized on, most aren't even resolved. In-game diaries try to display some personality, but it's the usual tired pathos built on a dead wife's body. The greater plot, centered around unethical brain experiments, barely even goes for the what-has-science-wrought angle that's worked for survival horror for almost twenty years. Not everything needs a perfect plot and non-linear and dreamlike story-telling is a particularly suited to video games, but too often the unreality here is just window dressing, interstitial stuff for the cutscenes, when they even remember to bring it up.

At its best, The Evil Within balances anxiety and empowerment. Invisible enemies cause panic, then frustration, until you calm down enough to recognize the ripples their footsteps make in pools of water and the detritus knocked around the room by their ungainly bodies. Once detected, a shotgun blast will make them visible and that's all she wrote. The crunch of the hit, and the recoil of the now-seen thing's squiddy, damaged head fills you with satisfaction every time you do it. What was once strong has become vulnerable. You are the one in control here.

But only ever for a moment. What The Evil Within excels at, and maybe the reason they didn't sprinkle it with Leon Kennedy's dopey wisecracks, is building an overpowering disquiet in you. The camera is always zoomed in too tight. The super wide letterboxing is a brilliant device, maddening, it limits your sight and primes you for panic. You never have a good feel for what's going on around you. It's as if something dangerous is always out of view, and so you pan the camera constantly, terrified of being surprised. The sound design is at its best when it's subtle. There are the big moments, too-loud rock music while a zombie-manned machinegun fires at you from a zombie-driven APC, but you'll also go twenty minutes without hearing a single word, without seeing a single cutscene, just listening to the atonal reverberation of the world itself, like the breathing of something massive creeping just behind you. It compels you to move precisely, analog stick tilted just a hair, stuck in a crouch even when there's no explanatory cutscene zooming to the battlements in the distance, reminding you there are enemies here, and now would be a good time for stealth. It's almost always a good time for stealth. Stealth is how you avoid waking the sleeping swarm. Stealth is how you don't stumble feet first into the bear trap at your feet.

The oppressive tone conveys such pervasive unease, a sort of constant, nervous laughter building inside your chest. It's only ever safe inside the sanitorium that serves as your save point, your equipment slot machine, and your upgrade station. Eventually, like a callback to the much maligned Silent Hill 4, they start making even your sanctuary feel unsafe. Whether it ever becomes truly dangerous is something to find out for yourself, but even the tease of flickering the lights as you head to pick up a leftover shotgun shell or spend your upgrade points will trigger the hairs on the back of your neck. They harry you at almost every moment and now they want to take away the one place where you can take a breath?

Crawling through your third dark sewer, this one gated by huge tendons and muscle, its walls blistering with flesh, you feel as if you're descending deeper and deeper into the belly of a titanic beast. The environments stake their claim on you: the trepidation of navigating stealthily around a blindfolded madman; the eeriness of a silent hospital; the anxiety of constantly looking downward for fear of some tripwire, some land mine, some noisemaker that will summon a zombie horde. The apprehension this game drills into your core isn't from the story, or characters and it isn't from not knowing what happens next. It's from knowing exactly what will happen next, because the game is speaking a language you understand from two decades of modern horror games. This can manipulate you in powerful ways, as if the game is rooting around in your own head. It knows what you expect, and it provides, but never fully, like a half-understood purpose driving you through a dream, and nightmares leaving you fully terrified without understanding why. Sometimes this game does just that, but often its imagery is too obvious to claim it's going for the surreal. It's been almost fifteen years since Silent Hill 2 made you walk down endless staircases, jump down pitch-black holes, and run across the walls of a prison shifted ninety degrees on its axis. The transitions between stages here may be abrupt or unsettling, but most of the scenarios are practical, not phantasmagorical. They're more gunning down zombies on a rickety gondola than running through a labyrinth of gigantic mannequin heads. The Evil Within's levels are fun houses, not waking dreams. They're creepy locales that speak with a vocabulary horror fans have hard coded into themselves, such that they know what's lurking under that murky water, they know who's speaking to them behind the sanitarium door, and they know that every corpse they didn't personally put down will likely get up and grab them at the least convenient time.

The Evil Within refines more than experiments, giving you familiar settings and mechanics polished to a spit shine, but very little you haven't seen somewhere else--although, in its defense, you probably saw it first in another Shinji Mikami game. The guy who gave us the best survival horror games of all time still clearly knows how to make a tense action set piece, a magnum with the perfect amount of recoil, and a slew of unlockable bonuses that most contemporary games would relegate to paid DLC. What's missing is what was exciting and different about Resident Evil 1, about its 2002 Remake, and about Resident Evil 4. Compared to them, when does The Evil Within feel bold, dangerous, or unknown? It may be in the way the game rejects most of what's come after Resident Evil 4, as if it's saying "you all took the wrong lessons." It's hard to blame Shinji Mikami for going back to the well, especially when everything else, from Gears of War to The Last of Us, has spent the past ten years stripping Resident Evil 4 to its bones.

Survival horror was unique because it wasn't about making sure you knew you were a god of destruction, it was about prescribed challenges that left you feeling like you were only barely hanging on, no matter how many acid grenades you had in your inventory. The first third of the Evil Within keeps you at odds with its systems, always out of ammo, always close to death, always afraid that the zombie you're sneaking up on will turn around at the last second and alert the horde. That fragility never goes away, even after they start doling out extra shotgun shells. The Evil Within echoes old survival horror deep inside its contemporary shell. There are never enough guns to make you feel like you're ready for what's around the bend, something more deadly than a zombie, something the game hasn't trained you to deal with yet. And it may train you by killing you in one hit, but its frequent and sudden deaths are less wearisome than the times it pollutes its dense atmosphere with stilted cutscenes. Or how it dilutes its weighty gunplay with ho-hum turret sequences and fixed-camera sprints, time-efficient artifacts of budget-conscious development that will always be at odds with survival horror's clumsy and idiosyncratic game design no matter how many Resident Evil 6s and Dead Space 3s they show up in.

Resident Evil 4 started with a hold-out battle made to teach you a new language for action games: you can be powerful, but it requires proper application every tool you have on hand. This is the extension of that lesson: no matter how strong your tools, you will always feel weak. It's a startling message in a consumer medium whose artistic expression often takes such a rote and strictly vertical path. This is the strange progression of many video game genres, their disproportionate focus on brute force graphical or technical improvement leaves little room for expanding the experience, or the array of emotions the experience can evoke. "More is better," whether that be more bullets and more guns, more pixels and more polygons, or more multiplayer modes and more DLC. More is the word that transformed survival horror. In The Evil Within even Sebastian is surprised when you fire an empty gun. "Huh? Out of Ammo?" He grunts, as if he is the surrogate for your astonishment, shocked that such a thing is possible in a game made in 2014.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B-

+ Weighty gunplay, weapons all feel like they have a lot of purpose, dream-like sequences show promise
Goes hard at guts and gore, story hardly worth bothering with.

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