The importance of a fantastic concept cannot be denied. A developer that does its damndest to scare the ever-loving crap out of you, and utilizes multiple successful methods to do so, deserves credit. For these reasons, Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within is a laudable effort with plenty of thrills and chills, and survival/horror veterans will appreciate such effort. Unfortunately, without the requisite execution, you end up with a somewhat disappointing and ultimately frustrating production; all the more frustrating because you know what it could’ve been.
I have to say, I expect more from a PlayStation 4 title. On the plus side, there’s plenty of amazingly freaky and grotesque imagery, and the detailing found in certain demonic foes is mighty impressive. The backdrops and environments aren’t as slick, though, and the cut-scenes aren’t as polished and refined as I would’ve anticipated. The effects are appropriately gory and in-your-face but again, there’s an inexplicable roughness to these visuals that drags down the overall presentation. I won’t discount the atmospheric efforts, though, because these drive the experience forward and have the most significant effect on the player.
The sound is hit or miss. The music is fittingly creepy but too often, we’re wandering about in almost complete silence. One could argue that this silence increases the fear factor but I believe a carefully selected score contributes to the tension and sense of urgency (or hopelessness). The effects are definitely on-point, as the gut-wrenching sound of a knife plunged into decaying flesh or the terrifying screams of your hellish enemies continue to prick your ears. The voice performances are uneven; the main character is pretty good but the rest are decent at best. Japanese games are getting better in the acting category but they’re not quite there yet.
You play as Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who first investigates a psychiatric hospital. Unsurprisingly, Castellanos encounters some otherworldly mystical force while he’s in the hospital and when he leaves, all hell breaks loose. After that, you’re embroiled in a dark, sinister plot that will test your mettle (and your patience). It’s a well-paced adventure that doesn’t rely on the same scare tactic over and over, as you’ll be exploring both outdoor and indoor environments and facing off against a wide variety of foes. Some can be killed easily while others require a fair amount of strategy, and still others can’t be killed at all.
It’s what you want from a game in this genre. The boss battles are a big highlight, as you might expect, and they’re hardly all the same. For each, you’ll be tasked with using the environment, the tools in your bag, and your own ingenuity to bring down the intensely horrifying opponent. Throughout, you will sneak around, gathering as many useful items and tools as possible, seeking ways to pass through the rampaging hordes of freaks without getting slaughtered. We’ve got everything from full-on action scenes to cerebral puzzles and other adventure elements so in this respect, you’ll be more than satisfied.
But as I indicated in the intro, the execution just isn’t there. We can’t look the other way just because of who Mikami is; we can’t simply embrace his legacy and give him and his team at Tango Gameworks a free pass. The game plays much like the Resident Evil s of old and from a conceptual standpoint, that’s great. From a mechanical and control standpoint? Not so great. In fact, this is by far the game’s biggest downfall, as it seems as if all the strides we’ve made in third-person video games have disappeared. The eccentric kinks we often saw in the genre a five, ten, even fifteen years ago are here, and you just can’t defend that.
The AI is old-fashioned and inconsistent. Sometimes, enemies are completely oblivious to your presence while other times, they’ll suddenly and inexplicably sense you creeping around behind them. In facing the first chainsaw-wielding boss-like creature, he got stuck in a corner when coming after me, and couldn’t move thereafter. The basic control and combat system is unrefined and even clunky, as stealth is simplistic but unreliable and the weapons can be difficult to use. I don’t mind if the hero is more human than superhero (in fact, I prefer it), but as a hotshot detective, Castellanos should be a lot handier with a firearm.
The one thing I really didn’t want to see in this game was cheap deaths. And lo and behold, they’re here. Instant-death traps are no fun and avoiding them relies almost entirely on trial-and-error. If you’re not immensely careful, you’ll find yourself in an almost impossible situation, facing a boss with little health and few tools. The game might even lock you into a checkpoint area, leaving you totally screwed. I’m not a fan of handholding or lengthy tutorials, but at least give me some idea of what I can and can’t do. For instance, tell me I have to be standing to disarm this trap and that if I get too close while crouching, I’ll simply set it off.
Now, let me add this: In the review packet I received from Bethesda, they recommended that critics play the game on Casual, which is basically Easy Mode. On top of which, I got this Survival Guide that admittedly came in awfully handy. In reading through that guide, I had to ask myself: “Why am I getting this? I’ve played games before; I’m sure I can figure it out.” Then, when playing, I realized why such a guide was so useful; it’s because the game doesn’t really tell you anything . Giving the player the freedom to discover the game on his own is one thing; tossing the player into a meat grinder and expecting him to emerge clean on the other side is just plain cruel. It’s also poor design.
That all being said, there’s still a lot to like. The upgrade system works extremely well and rewards those who diligently explore their surroundings. Locating jars of green gel allows you to power up in a strange limbo-like area, where you strap into a chair that looks like a torture device and amp up. The only downside is that upgrades become very expensive very quickly and you really need those upgrades for certain weapons. However, if you’re careful about exploring, you should be able to get enough gel to remain competitive against the freaks of nature. Plus, there’s my personal favorite: The Agony Crossbow, which is arguably the most useful weapon in the game.
I should also reiterate the game’s dedication to remaining fresh. It’s very easy to fall into the repetitive scare trap in horror productions, and Mikami and Co. work hard to keep throwing new stuff at the player. Some sections are more irritating than others (invisible enemies come rapidly to mind) but once they’re cleared, you know you’re moving on to something new. Tango really does a great job keeping you involved and interested in the dark, often sadistic environment and you never feel shortchanged in regards to imagery. There’s some seriously freaky sh** in this game and horror aficionados will love it.
I must also point out, however, that many of the game’s more challenging parts aren’t scary; they’re merely aggravating. Furthermore, because you invariably have to attempt them multiple times, they get less and less scary with every new attempt. If it didn’t start off that frightening to begin with, this becomes a big problem. There are too many things that seem impossible to avoid, virtually nothing in the way of instruction, and above all else, an outdated system of control and combat that bogs everything down. Toss in a mediocre camera and you’ve got all the good and bad from old-school horror games.
The Evil Within is an example of a great idea that lacks execution. There are scares a-plenty and very often, the fear factor is sky-high. The pacing and variety we see in this adventure are worthy of praise as well, and I appreciate how the atmosphere continually drags you into the experience. But with a decidedly outdated feel, difficulty that too often feels cheap rather than fair, old-fashioned AI and a sub-par camera, one can’t help but be moderately disappointed. Developers have long since mastered the third-person viewpoint and we’re not seeing a mastery of that here. We’re stepping back in time and that includes both nostalgia and frustration.
The Good: Ghastly visual effects and creepy, effective audio effects. Good pacing and plenty of variety in the adventure. Forces you to think from start to finish. Upgrade system encourages exploration and strategy. Agony Crossbow = Bad-Ass.
The Bad: Overall graphical presentation is underwhelming. Spotty voice acting. Outdated control and combat mechanic. Questionable AI. Too many parts aren’t actually scary; they’re just annoying.
The Ugly: “A wonderful concept lost in a 2004 construct.”