If you don’t immediately know the name Shinji Mikami, he and others at Capcom are the reason why we have survival horror games in the first place. Credited as the force behind the Resident Evil series, Shinji-san went on to help build the likes of Devil May Cry, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Viewtiful Joe, Dino Crisis, Killer 7, and Shadows of the Damned. Disappointed with the way horror games have devolved into shooting galleries, Mikami and his team at Tango Studios have brought us The Evil Within, his return to the horror genre. Could he succeed in bringing his special brand of terror to a new generation, or will this end up as Resident Evil by another name?
The game starts with Detectives Sebastian Castellanos and Joseph Oda, joined by Jr. Detective Juli Kidman, speeding through the city to respond to a multiple homicide reported at the Beacon Mental Hospital in Krimson City. Entering the facility they find blood and gore everywhere. As Castellanos investigates the scene, a heavily burned apparition appears behind him, cutting him down. He awakens hanging from a meat hook as a hulking beast of a man proceeds to butcher human beings on a blood-strewn table. What happens next is one of the best horror levels I’ve played in recent memory – an excellent start.
The Evil Within’s first chapter feels like the new school of horror, where the evils you face are so much more deadly. They will pursue you, and if they catch you it is very likely you will meet a swift and gruesome end. You can’t hope to defeat them, you can’t even stun them – your only chance to outsmart them and remain hidden. By the second chapter we fall directly into what I’ll call “traditional” or “classic” survival horror. That is to say, patrolling zombies that are easily outwitted with far too little scares. Or put more simply, the first chapter is Amnesia, and the second chapter is Resident Evil. In fact, out of the 15 chapters (roughly 13 or so hours, plus collectables) in the game, chapters one, nine, some portions of the last three levels are absolutely incredible psychological thrillers and truly horror inducing, leaving the remainder as a standard zombie-shooting game we’ve played before. Much of the hype train before this game hit was that it would combine the best of Resident Evil and Fatal Frame, but clearly the tilt is more to one side than the other.
Having a relationship with Bethesda gave the team access to the id Tech 5 engine to build this game. Modifying it heavily, the team has delivered a gorgeously disgusting world. Particles of stuff you’d rather not think about floats in the air, blood and gore coats you if you blast a creature with a shotgun at close range, hundreds of bugs climb the walls. The vast majority of the heavily-varied environments look incredible. There are some exceptions, and that’s unfortunately the main characters. Ruvik, the true evil in this insane universe (and excellently voiced by Jackie Earle Haley) looks fantastic, but you don’t see him that often. On the other hand, you see Sebastian every second of the game, and his facial textures look somewhat flat. Joseph, Kidman, and Nurse Tatiana also come across as more Xbox 360 than they do Xbox One in their faces, even if their clothing looks spot-on.
There are a handful of technical issues that do mar the experience a bit. There is plenty of mipmapping, especially during cutscenes. Also during cutscenes, an audio issue rears its head. Likely an issue with surround sound encoding, voices are almost drowned out entirely, stuffed into the back channel. There is no setting to shift to stereo or even mono, so I’m just guessing here, but the results are the same – you’ll need subtitles. That said, the sounds in this game are certainly horror-inducing. Every creaky door sets your nerves on edge, and the sound that precedes a visit from Ruvik immediately raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
A step into the past
As I mentioned before, the horror sections in The Evil Within are a masterstroke. The remainder is rife with technical issues that, frankly, the industry has fixed a long time ago. They don’t necessarily ruin the experience, but it hearkens back to design styles that have been improved for nearly a generation.
During loading sequences the game advises that sometimes the best course of action is to run. Somebody should tell our protagonist, as he’s happy to take a leisurely jog when enemies are pursuing at high speed. Sure, you can sprint, but it’s for less than three seconds before our hero is hands-on-knees panting. At max level he can push that up to ten seconds – I’m frankly ashamed at how far our police fitness standards have fallen.
See that sickle stuck in the fence? You can’t have it. The knife dropped on the ground? Keep walkin, bub. The pitchfork taunting you from the bale of hay? Not for you. Hey – you found the axe? It’s single use, just like the torch, the bottle, and most shockingly the hard-won chainsaw which is haphazardly discarded after its use in a cutscene.
Enemies attacking you are an entirely separate cutscene-like animation. They pull you away from whatever you are doing. Even if you are mid-strike, if the game decides the enemy has ‘caught you,’ you’ll be pulled into a separate animation for the enemy to stab you for about a third of your life. Similarly, you can’t aim while crouched, or really do much of anything but creep in that position. I was once beheaded because Sebastian stands straight up to use a syringe. In the days where memory was tight, these sorts of things were a necessity – those days are over.
One of the hallmarks of the horror genre is resource restriction. It means you may get a pistol, but you’ll have very few bullets to keep yourself safe. The Evil Within takes this to an extreme. Most of the time when you’ve slain an enemy, or randomly deposited around the game, you’ll find jars of green goo. For reasons completely unexplained, Sebastian will inject these into his own brain via a chair straight out of the horror series Saw. This will allow him to upgrade his abilities in various ways. You can bump up your pistol accuracy (which somehow doesn’t translate to the other pistol you eventually get), shotgun damage, fire and reload rates, and more for your weapons. It is also possible to upgrade your run speed (although not by much, topping out at 10 seconds), life, and melee damage. All in all, nonsensical, but pretty standard fare. There is one area that doesn’t make any sense at all though – carrying capacity. Do you know how many matches fit in a standard matchbox? I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t five. Since you need matches to burn the zombies or they’ll get back up, this is pretty critical. Similarly, do you know how many rounds of 9mm ammo you can put into your pockets? I’ll spare you the rest – you get where I’m going. I’m fine with restricting the things you pick up, I’m not when it doesn’t mesh with the reality of pocket depth.
There are traps throughout the game in the form of tripwires and spiky explosives. You can snip the tripwires when you spot them, but disarming the explosives are a little tricky. You’ll get exactly one shot at the ‘stop the needle at the right moment’ minigame or it’ll blow you into small chunks. Paired with the hard save points and oddly-placed checkpoints, it can be unnecessarily frustrating.
The hard saves come courtesy of a central hub that looks like a disgusting mental asylum. It’s where the aforementioned chair is located. You’ll end up here a lot as you do a bit of save-scumming to force a checkpoint where one doesn’t exist. When that option isn’t available you’ll be repeating large swaths of content, complete with unskippable exposition. Since the game is linear, the gameplay during the non-horror sections quickly turns into trial and error, requiring that you die repeatedly to succeed.