Death is just a moment away.
Last month, we did a piece on the resurgence of Survival Horror and the promising lineup of upcoming games that seek to revive it. Out of the handful of anticipated releases, one of the focal points was The Evil Within, acclaimed director Shinji Mikami's latest take on a beloved genre that has seen better days. Though there have been some gems over the past couple of years, Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent to name a few, Survival Horror has suffered a severe lack of titles over the past decade. If The Evil Within is any indication of what we should expect in the near future, fans of the genre should rejoice because we may be entering another golden age.
From the moment you're given control over protagonist Det. Sebastian Castellanos, an overwhelming feeling that something terrible is about to happen takes over as you investigate the scene of a mass murder. It isn't long before you find yourself hanging upside down among a group of human carcasses while a monstrous maniac hacks one of them into tiny pieces. You're prompted to shake the left thumbstick while Sebastian sways towards a knife which he uses to free himself. Shortly after, you run and hide, desperately avoiding the chainsaw wielding murderer as you try to escape with your life. It's one of the most intense moments you'll ever experience in a video game, and it's only just the beginning.
A New Level of Horror
Moving forward, you soon find that this isn't your typical horror story. Things take a turn for the weird in a surprisingly complex narrative where you slowly unravel whether you're going insane, or if the universe is really transforming before your eyes. The superb pacing keeps you hooked, making it difficult to stop playing until you reach a conclusion you could never have guessed. It's a shame that the characters themselves couldn't be as intriguing - the antagonist Ruvik being the exception. Despite this, the voice acting is better than you'll hear in any other Survival Horror game with some great performances from Jackie Earle Haley and Jennifer Carpenter.
A compelling story is nothing without the gameplay to back it up. The Evil Within delivers on this with horrifying enemy encounters that will pressure you to make quick decisions on whether to fight or flee. At times, the game will even force you to run away in order to progress. Staying true to the genre, ammo is scarce, making you think twice before unloading a clip into the face of an enemy pawn. However, a depreciating stamina bar requires you to lay off the sprint button or suffer the consequence of being temporarily incapacitated while catching your breath.
Gunplay is fluid and reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 with the over-the-shoulder aiming. Melee attacks are extremely weak unless you find an axe and torch, both of which deliver one hit kills, but are only good for one use. This is a perfect balancing mechanism, making you feel vulnerable without firepower and influencing you to use the refined stealth mechanics more often. Hiding is an option, but unfortunately, you won't find yourself using it too often. You're put in one situation where you need to hide in the beginning, but end up forgetting it's an option later on because there is no need for it. It would've been nice if this feature played a large role in the grand scheme of things.
A welcomed upgrade system adds an extra layer of depth, allowing you to improve on abilities, weapons and inventory space. You're frequently taken to a safe haven where you can save, and spend Green Gel you've collected to strengthen Sebastian. You'll want to spend your points wisely, however, as enemies become stronger and more armored towards the end. This hub also offers rows of lockers which can be unlocked with keys scattered across environments. Each locker holds some kind of resource that will benefit you in your mission.
Moving throughout the gritty, weathering environments, it's necessary to exercise caution. Traps set by enemies can be devastating, sometimes resulting in instant death. If spotted, they can work to your advantage as you can turn them against their creators, or dismantle them to earn parts that can be used to create Agony bolts for the Agony crossbow. The most versatile and unique of any weapon in the game, the Agony crossbow can fire off bolts that can freeze, shock, explode and stun. These are much needed against smart, resilient enemies who are equipped with everything from rifles to dynamite. They'll flank you, set alarms and even play dead, scaring you into using your matches to burn every corpse you see.
If Mikami's ultimate goal was to create an experience where you constantly feel tense and uncomfortable, he succeeded.
Each foe is so frighteningly disfigured that you'll wonder whether they look better before or after you paint the walls with their brains. Most environments are dark and gloomy with some of the best lighting effects you'll ever see seeping in. Textures on walls are finely detailed from cracks running through them to paint chipping off them. To add to the creepy ambiance, music from the early 20th century blare through phonographs after long stints of silence accompanied by the groaning and snarling of enemies. One of the coolest aspects is how Ruvik can literally shift the environment, seamlessly throwing you from one to the next. Witnessing these transformations is one of the most visually impressive aspects of the game.
However, the visuals aren't all as glamorous. Cutscenes look no better than gameplay and are slow to render at times. This is at the forefront of other presentation issues that stop this game short of being flawless. In close quarters, the camera becomes a bit difficult, struggling to keep track of Sebastian and leaving you slightly disoriented as a result. On top of that, enemies move through stationary objects and sometimes fall through walls. After being grabbed by a monster, you'll even find yourself within a wall if you're close enough to one. Though this lack of polish makes the game look sloppy, it isn't prevalent or prominent enough to affect immersion.
As expected, you're going to die a lot while playing The Evil Within. At first it's frustrating, especially due to annoyingly long load screens, but you eventually get used to it and learn from mistakes. You begin to take slower turns around corners and avoid getting close to enemies, as one can hit you. Boss encounters are creative and entertaining, challenging your aiming and evasion skills. Faster bosses are frustrating due to the lack of a roll mechanic, making it nearly impossible to walk out of the fight untouched. The final battle is visually stunning, but disappointingly easy and short-lived. The implementation of a Game+ mode unlocks new weapons and another difficulty mode, providing more incentive for another playthrough.
The Evil Within isn't groundbreaking, but that's okay; it's not trying to be. During the 16-hour campaign, you'll walk through many dilapidated hospital and mansion corridors, activate numerous switches and fend off countless enemy hordes as you have in previous Mikami titles. Ultimately, this game was created to give Survival Horror fans what they've been craving for years, and it has succeeded. Because of that, it's only right for it to usher in what could potentially be another classic era of Survival Horror.
This game was reviewed with a copy of the PlayStation 4 version provided by Bethesda.
Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.