Survival Horror at its best is a tug war between two different design philosophies: tension and action. Tension focuses on frightening situations, adversaries, and themes that cause the user to think about their virtual mortality (and on occasion their actual one) while action offers a way to fend off said tension. Simply put, survival horror is a genre built on looking fear in the eye and conquering it. The Evil Within (TEW) marks the return of veteran game designer and architect of survival horror, Shinji Mikami, to the genre that he help create. Will The Evil Within recapture the primal fear and white knuckle action that the genre deserves? Or will it be a lesson in self parody?
In The Evil Within, users take on the role of Sebastian Castellanos, a veteran police Detective called in to investigate a series of spree killings that occurred at Beacon mental hospital. Soon after arriving at the hospital, the good detective becomes ensnared into a maze of madness. The Evil Within’s plot has some very interesting twists, but I felt that the story lack clarity. The cut scenes and gameplay didn’t do an adequate job of conveying the narrative to the user. In fact, most of the real story is told through journals that are scattered throughout the environment, and can be missed if one isn’t careful. I also found that the rate in which you change environments to be erratic. Literally, one minute you would be buried in a underground cavern and the next you would be exploring a gothic mansion. The voice acting was very wooden, and lacking in any real pathos, which is interesting given that the developer recruited Hollywood talent to portray its lead characters. Overall, despite these flaws I was somewhat entertained by The Evil Within’s story. In fact, I would argue that the lack of clarity and sporadic environment changes contributes to the overall theme of madness that the game is portraying. However there really isn’t any excuses for the poor quality of the voice work.
The Evil Within’s gameplay is very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 (Mikami’s last survivor horror game before his exodus from the genre). TEW employs an over the shoulder like perspective during combat, similar to the modern Resident Evil games. However, the aiming reticule is closer to the gun, which takes some getting used to, but nonetheless offers a more personal view of the carnage Sebastian (and the user) are causing. The weapons are scarce, but effective in the right situation. For example, I wouldn’t recommend the service revolver for dealing with a charging mob of enemies (spoilers: use the shotgun). My favorite weapon in the game was the agony crossbow, a sort of utility weapon (think the grenade launcher in the early Resident Evil games) that fired a variety of rounds ( from incendiary bolts to poison ones). Enemies don’t go down easy in TEW, and can only be permanently killed through headshots or burning their corpses with matches. Ammunition and matches are both severely limited, and users must burrow through environments to replenish their dwindling resources. Despite the lack of ammunition, TEW often encourages user to face their enemies. A stamina gauge limits Sebastian ability to flee enemies, effectively given him the stamina of a senior citizen (even though his character model looks to be in his late thirties). Luckily the game allows for users to use stealth kills to silently cull the numbers of their foes.
The Evil Within also has light RPG elements. Users collect green gel, which is scattered throughout the game world, to improve key skills. I recommend that users be selective on the abilities and attributes that they choose to improve; in that the green gel is a finite resource (you can’t improve every attribute and ability in one playthrough). You will definitely need these improved abilities if you wish to survive the terrifying and challenging boss encounters that are spread throughout the game. TEW bosses are fun to engage with and offer a fair amount of challenge. There are a few bullet sponged behemoths in the mix; but for the most part the bosses are well design and have unique idiosyncrasies that users must exploit if they wish to best them. The Evil Within is a hard game. At times, I almost felt as if I was playing through a macabre version of Groundhog Day due to the amount of times I died and had to replay entire sections. TEW is stingy with checkpoints, and many of the enemies can smite poor Sebastian with one hit. However, many of my deaths were due to my own carelessness; and I felt the stringent difficulty molded me into better player.
Even with the added bonus of 1080p resolution, TEW graphics aren’t as groundbreaking as they could be. Clipping, preloaded textures, and the occasional frame-rate dip slightly mar the experience. What saves TEW visually is its unique art style that is greatly inspired by North American and Japanese cinematic horror conventions. Barring the aforementioned wooden voice acting (mention above), the sound design superbly exemplifies the tenets of survival horror and creates a auditory experience that is both extremely hostile and terrifying , yet in parts empowering. Particular sounds that stood out to me were the meaty pop of a well executed headshot, the banshee like of howls of the Ju-On inspired Laura, and the eerie, but strangely calming, rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune that emits from a old phonograph in the save room.
Despite some minor foibles, I found The Evil Within to be the “back to basics kick in the pants” that genre desperately needed. TEW, though terrifying in its own right, is not content with merely scaring the player into submission, like so many of the other “so called” modern survival horror games(read: fleeing simulators). TEW requires the user to fight against undying terror. Fighting through the fear, in my opinion is the essence of survival horror, and The Evil Within almost perfectly encapsulates that idea. I highly recommend The Evil Within to third person shooter fans or folks looking for a good scare.