What do you fear, little one?
Ever since classic franchise Resident Evil opted to abandon its ways for an action-centric experience, fans of the horror genre have hungered for a thrilling, survival experience. Creator Shinji Mikami re-entered the scene with his new studio Tango Gameworks. Their new creation, The Evil Within, borrows a little too heavily from Mikami’s Resident Evil 4, but remains a unique, suspenseful experience nonetheless.
The story focuses on Detective Sebastian Castellanos, a cliché alcoholic cop who hardens after suffering personal tragedy. He is called in to investigate mass killings at Beacon Mental Hospital before experiencing a series of mind-altering events that land him in a mysterious, terrifying environment. What happened to fellow cops Kidman and Joseph, and more importantly the strange mental patient Leslie?
As the player journeys through the new landscape, he or she can utilize strategies of stealth or direct combat to conquer enemies that fall somewhere between zombies and Resident Evil 4’s Los Plagas. You can utilize a variety of weaponry such as pistols, shotguns, crossbows with customizable bolts, and various other weapons to conquer foes. Ammo remains hugely scarce, however, as per the mandatory survival horror script. The twist is that enemies can never be assuredly dead unless you remember to incinerate the corpse. Sebastian can utilize matches or lit torches to burn the remains of slain enemies. Players can also opt to destroy the head (Zombie 101), but this doesn’t always work on later enemies. Sebastian’s health is restored by injecting himself with various syringes that can be acquired.
The game finds its greatest strength when it abandons its reliance on previous Resident Evil successes. Players can be turned on their heads when these mysterious mind-bending effects take place, often forcing you to take dangerous passages or confront a challenging group of enemies. Take it from some of the horror genre’s greats in both film and games: playing on a person’s fears and expectations creates more terror than excessive gore ever will. Personally, I will never forget a particular chapter which forces you to trek through a dark, abandoned mannequin factory. Old dolls and mannequins are a particular fear of mine, and the inclusion of supernatural events left me questioning whether or not it was possible for these terrifying objects to come to life. While the factory was crawling with actual threats, I frantically ran through, barely able to see where I was going, desperately hoping I would make it to the light on the other side. Moments like these are where The Evil Within shines and makes moments that are legitimately unsettling.
Players will also encounter bizarre areas such as the safe room (which never actually feels safe) by entering glowing, cracked mirrors scattered throughout the game. The room is actually the main lobby for the mental hospital where Sebastian can occasionally listen to mysterious voices or read old newspaper clippings. These nebulous clues often shed light onto the game’s even more mysterious plot. While there, players can also upgrade the detective by strapping him to a torture device and injecting acquired brain juice into his skull. These upgrades include things such as increase gun damage and total ammunition amounts. I have to give a big wag of the finger to increased sprint speed, which the game unfortunately forces you to upgrade immediately. Rather than moving like a seasoned police officer, Sebastian sprints with the intensity of a morbidly obese man diagnosed with lung disease. His beginning sprint time of maybe three seconds is increased very slowly until you max the stat. Seriously, lay off the smokes, Detective.
Another area where The Evil Within succeeds is its variety of terrifying boss battles. In many cases, Sebastian’s initial encounters with these enemies will see him trying desperately to escape their wrath while running through various obstacles. Enemies seemingly do not forget in this game, however, as players will be forced into a showdown sooner or later. Particularly chilling are characters such as the human-spider woman, and the already iconic Keeper. The Keeper, similar to major monsters like Pyramid Head, recurs throughout the experience. You will learn to fear the appearance of a safe.
Unfortunately, while the game has interesting moments surrounding the bizarre world, the plot never quite hits a high point. It is symptomatic of a game that lacked direction, trying to one hand to focus on shock moments filled with gore, and trying to create a complex journey of psychoanalysis on the other. The game, while entertaining, ends up feeling very confused.
One of the hottest topics spread upon The Evil Within’s release was the decision to make the game locked to a 2:35:1 aspect ratio. In other words – black bars. The letterboxing is said to make the game a more cinematic experience. While I got used to the widescreen setup, it honestly did nothing to improve the experience. The decision became even more trivialized when the developer patched in a full-screen option later. Aside from questionable design choices, the game looks beautiful, but suffers from the occasional frame drop. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions run at or close to 30 FPS, while the PC version hits a steady 60 frames. The sound also fits the bill, but serves as nothing memorable in terms of music or voice-over work. The best term to describe it is serviceable. Castellanos remains a weakly written character. It’s hard to empathize with his experience as the plot takes shape as well as his role in it. Kidman, voiced by Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) is equally flat. A lot of this blame falls on some bizarre dialogue choices that never seem to ring naturally.
The Evil Within is an enjoyable horror experience that ultimately suffers from lack of confidence. While it boasts many original moments of psychological suspense other sequences like the early village raid feel ripped straight from Resident Evil 4. It’s as though Mikami tried to create a new entity, but also wanted to appeal to long-time Resident Evil fans. Unfortunately, it falls somewhere in the middle, never being fully realized as either. There is certainly potential for future titles, however, if it simply embraces what makes it strong and abandons things fans have already seen.