The Evil Within is one part Silent Hill to two parts Resident Evil: it has the spooky shenanigans of the Silent Hill franchise with terrifying enemy designs and reality warping goodness that we know and love, while also incorporating the gunplay of modern Resident Evil titles: over the shoulder aiming with movement, sprinting and being able to interact with the environment.
The plot is the usual fare of convoluted Japanese horror games I personally enjoy, told both through cutscenes and archive files scattered all over the place. The intrigue is enough to pull you through The Evil Within as you start to make sense of what is happening around you. Sadly, the characters are incredibly unlikable with about as much personality as a plastic bag (and almost as suffocating to play with).
As a side note, if I have to look up the main character’s name after playing a game for 12+ hours, there’s a problem with the characterization. The main character is hilariously bland and gives less of a shit about what’s going on than the player does. There’s a scene where the big bad hooded Assassin’s Creed-looking zombie levitates him in the air, throwing him down a hole for him to essentially teleport from one plane of existence to the next. How does he respond to this incredible otherworldly experience? “I better find my partners.” That’s a sample of the believable dialogue this game throws at you.
There’s a fair few respectful nods paying homage to Shinji Mikami’s previous work littered through the game. The reveal of the first zombie is almost shot for shot for how it played out in the first Resident Evil, it tugs on the nostalgia strings quite nicely and is a moment where you think: “Christ look how far the genre has come since the early Playstation days”. That said the very next area has you running around an enclosed village surviving a pissed off zombified populace before being chased around by a chainsaw wielding baddie… There’s paying homage and then there’s retreading the Resident Evil titles.
The game comes off as rather schizophrenic: there are areas that are enjoyably difficult, full of enemies and devoid of ammunition… while anything that requires any real thought is extremely guided. The protagonist thinks out loud regarding every ‘puzzle’ he comes across: “Damn, I can’t break this chain. Maybe I need a chainsaw.” “Damn, the door is locked. Guess I have to sneak around and grab that key.” I’d have liked the game to challenge me both through play and problem solving, but sadly that’s not the case.
The biggest gripe I have with The Evil Within is how it often segues into ‘cinematic moments’ which make the action more linear than an on-rails shooter. There are many moments where you’re escaping from some form of big bad monster; you’re running towards the screen as this beast squeezes its way towards you. The wall cracks and moans with this beast hot on your heels. It looks incredible, but it’s completed by merely holding the D-pad in one direction. These segments are an absolute bore to play through and require less player agency than a Quick Time Event.
The majority of the game plays out in a linear, mundane fashion: some levels require you to run down a corridor blasting the heads of any nightmarish creatures you encounter, and others have you running around a spooky mansion collecting keys to doors while using your revolver to turn zombies heads into canoes. If you’ve played any modern Resident Evil title (or Shadows of the Damned), it’s nothing new.
However, and this is certainly important, there are some segments in the game that are honestly some of the best sequences of third person horror I’ve ever played. From a design perspective, the battle with The Keeper is one of the single greatest boss fights I’ve come across in a game. You’re locked in a morgue with him, and the room in filling up with poison gas that clouds your view, making him harder to see (and shoot). When you stumble across another corpse after killing him, he respawns out of them with full health. Due to the poison, you have to run around and shut off valves before your pressure gauge fills, adding a ticking clock element to the fight. When turning the valves your view is obstructed, really ramping up the tension, and the nightmarish musical score certainly helps amplify this.
I’d wager this is the main cause of my disappointment with The Evil Within: This game has these moments of genius where the theme, aesthetics, sound design and mechanics meld together to really deliver this terrifying experience. Sadly, these show stoppers are sprinkled lightly among the 10+ hour slog through mediocrity.
Graphically, this game is astonishing. Dust hangs in the air as you make your way through the different locations, and due to The Evil Within’s narrative location hopping (or dimension hopping), you’re thrown around into some amazing environments. Some of these are enjoyably unsettling and otherworldly, but you’re mainly thrown into either a spooky hospital, spooky countryside or spooky ruins. In the narrative it all (eventually) makes sense and the locations are diverse and detailed enough to keep things interesting.
The character animations are spectacular; something that’s needed with this game’s heavy cinematic approach. Enemies wince and snarl when shot and their models are fully destructive, allowing the player to blow whole chunks out of their face as they shamble, cackling towards you.
Sadly, it’s very hard to appreciate the fantastic scenery at times: The Evil Within seems to have been pushed through more filters than a picture of food on a teenage girl’s Instagram. There’s so many of these interlaced over one another after a few hours of play it becomes more than just headache worthy. Combine this with the terrible FOV and it becomes almost seizure inducing after a while, something the game itself warns you about upon booting it up.
This is where we fall into the biggest problems The Evil Within throws at us. None of the zombies, demons or whatever the fuck this thing is hold a candle to now nightmarishly bonkers the game’s FOV and camera are. The FOV is such a bizarre choice, it renders certain weapons almost unusable as the camera swings behind the protagonist.
Top this off with the nightmarish choice of having a letter box and it feels like the title was dumbed down from consoles. The letterbox actually impacts the play: throughout the game you face enemies that are essentially invisible, and you have to work out where they are from them bumping items or walking through puddles. Since the black bar across the bottom of the screen obscures this, it makes these encounters a clumsy experience to say the least.
The Evil Within has more of a focus on style and spectacle rather than substance: it’s incredibly hit or miss. When it does hit, it knocks it out of the park with some of the greatest action survival horror you’ll ever play, but it strikes out so often that working towards the better moments feels more like a chore than a fun challenge. If you must, get it cheap and on PC: at least the bizarre frame rate and letterbox issues have been patched out to make the game playable. Far more mediocre than you’d expect.