The Evil Within Review: Survival Horror Revival

This definitive, essential review of a 6 month old game was conducted on the PS4

If you were inclined to count the number of ‘homages’ The Evil Within pays to the past of Shinji Mikami, you might start to wonder if you accidently bought a HD remake of any of the Resident Evils. The guttural revs of a chainsaw, the looming mansion and, of course, disfigured monsters who routinely try to discover what your insides look like. For horror fans, it’s like stepping through the front door at Christmas and having childhood memories flood back. But this isn’t a mere greatest hits throwback, The Evil Within is an attempt to drag the survival horror genre into the future.

Hmm, don’t suppose you know a Mr. Pyramid Head, do you?

Part of that is moving towards a more psychological type of terror than the Resi games attempted. Slipping into the scuffed loafers of Sebastian Castellanos, a Krimson City homicide detective, you start the game investigating the many mutilated corpses that are cluttering up Beacon Mental Hospital. What happens after is designed to confuse and unsettle you, but the game just doesn’t have the right characters to support its frustrating narrative.

Sebastian is a walking cliche, an alcoholic cop who spends the entire game questioning everything that’s going on, except why anyone would have sympathy for such a bland slab. It also doesn’t help the story lurches between incidents without giving you much of a clue what’s going on. Only at the end does a rough outline emerge of what you’ve just played through, but there’s little in the way of actual payoff.

That doesn’t have to be a problem necessarily – David Lynch has made quite the career from abstract tales – but the way the game presents its story feels more like a contrivance to funnel you through levels rather than build an engaging narrative. It’s a jumble of hackneyed tropes that don’t work and grotesque designs that do. Everything you face is unnerving and worthy of nightmares, but the story they populate is not. Fortunately, the gameplay creates the scares that the art style is worthy of.

Still not quite Peggle 2 levels of terror mind you.

Still not quite Peggle 2 levels of terror mind you.

While the game may be a linear experience – levels are essentially just about getting from A to B – the journey is overflowing with bends in the metaphorical roads. Survive a boss who constantly respawns, perform brain surgery to unlock a door, trick a disfigured spiderwoman into an incinerator… In almost every aspect the game is chucking a new, usually disgusting, concept at you, with a single chapter having as many ideas than many comparable Triple AAA explosion-a-thon. Plus, that’s just the moments between the main attraction of surviving the grizzly not-technically-zombies – aka ‘Haunted’ – who want to stop your existence.

Over-the-shoulder shooting that Mikami introduced in Resident Evil 4 is the rock the game is built on and it’s a foundation that serves the gameplay well, with minor changes that are subtly effective. You now have the ability move while aiming and the trusted combination of pistol, shotgun and sniper rifle are supplemented with the Agony Crossbow. Easily the most gratifying weapon, it spits out arrows that can zap, bellow fire, explode or turn your enemies into something that isn’t knee tremblingly horrifying. Okay, that last one is a lie, but still, shooting things is on the right side of tense. You never feel utterly powerless or powerful, every shot a calculated gamble, every a miss a lamentable pain .

One fantastic addition to the Resi formula the game mines relatively well is matches. You see, an enemy might drop dead, but you can only be sure they’re not getting back up once you’ve dropped a match on them. The added tension of deciding whether you can trust a creature to stay down is excruciating and micromanaging your collection of matches harkens back to the headache inducing dilemmas of sorting out Leon Kennedy’s suitcase. Alas, as the game ramps up to its conclusion, you’ll end up with an abundance of matches, deflating the tension quicker than the monsters go up in smoke.

One fantastic addition to the Resi formula the game mines relatively well is matches. You see, an enemy might drop dead, but you can only be sure they’re not getting back up once you’ve dropped a match on them. The added tension of deciding whether you can trust a creature to stay down is excruciating and micromanaging your collection of matches harkens back to the headache inducing dilemmas of sorting out Leon Kennedy’s suitcase. Alas, as the game ramps up to its conclusion, you’ll end up with an abundance of matches, deflating the tension quicker than the monsters go up in smoke.

It’s refreshing rather than overwhelming for the most part until the game starts approaching it’s end. You’ll suddenly notice the difficulty start to spike in some ways that turn the horror into frustration. Bosses soak up every ounce of ammo, in turn forcing the game to chuck more at you, rather than have you scavenge for it. Enemies are dropped into arenas for you to fight in a prescribed way, rather than you having the ability to use the environment to your advantage. Instead of a crescendo, it’s a tedious drone as it drags itself over the finish line.

It’s also around the final third that the frame rate starts to drop to Powerpoint-esque levels. Even after 7GBs of patches, the game suffers from plenty of technical issues. Some unintentionally hilarious – the video below is just one example – and others like the texture pop-in or chugging frame rates only start to break the uneasy atmosphere the game manages to cultivate.

They weren’t enough to break the nervous, sweaty palmed tension The Evil Within can create. For every failing the story has – and indeed, there is a lot wrong with it – the gameplay is a timely reminder of how much fun experimentation with play styles can be. Mainstream game design has become so risk averse that despite the game’s frequent one-eye-on-the-past design, it feels more forward thinking than most action games from the past twelve months.

TL;DR The storytelling leaves plenty to be desired but The Evil Within is a petrifying return to survival horror’s glory days. Not as essential as its forebearers, but the hyperactive gameplay will appeal to players who have tired of safe game design.  3.5/5

Things You’ll Love

1) Gameplay that’ll test your wit

2) Agony Crossbow

3) Grotesque monsters that’ll be invading your nightmares

Things You’ll Hate

1) Messy Story

2) Copious amount of bugs and glitches

3) Grotesque monsters that’ll be invading your nightmares

 

 

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