It’s somewhat ironic that Shinji Mikami, a man who pioneered survival horror in 1996 and reinvigorated the genre years later with the seminal Resident Evil 4, has returned to the horror space with a game that refuses to embrace some of the staples of modern gaming. Indeed, The Evil Within feels like it has been crafted in 2005, obstinately refusing to adhere to contemporary design choices and as such, encapsulates everything about old-school survival horror that you could hope for—the good, the bad, and the ugly. That’s not to say The Evil Within is a bad game; far from it, and if you grew up on a diet of classic Resident Evil or Silent Hill, you’ll be more than happy to indulge in its twisted, blood-splattered tale of mad doctors and chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Just don’t expect a sleek, modern, action-shooter that offers to hold your hand throughout.
The Evil Within plonks gamers in the shoes of Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who alongside partners Joseph and Kidman, attends the scene of a grisly mass homicide at a local mental hospital. After wading through the broken mess of bloodied corpses, Castellanos quickly finds himself transported into a hideous, twisted reality inhabited by malevolent creatures—zombie-like foes known as ‘the Haunted’—where the game really kicks off. Taking influence from the likes of Saw as much as Resident Evil, The Evil Within’s plot is an ambiguous mess of dodgy voice acting and cardboard cut-out characters, but hidden beneath its poor execution is a semi-compelling tale that you’ll ultimately want to fathom—even if it won’t win any awards for originality.
In many ways, Mikami-san’s latest plays like a Greatest Hits package of his most influential survival horror works. There’s the methodical, slow pacing inherent of the earlier Resident Evil titles, though you’ll also encounter many of RE4’s modern sensibilities slipping into the net, such as the over-the-shoulder camera, Ganados-like enemies, and the chance to upgrade your weapons and abilities. In fact, despite its obvious inspiration from multiple sources, it’s the upgrade element that remains one of The Evil Within’s most endearing idiosyncrasies, taking place in a hub area that resembles a mental hospital.
Here, you’ll use jars of green goop—gained from dead foes and found in the environment—to increase everything from weapon power, overall health, to how much ammo you can carry. And it’s all done by strapping Seb into an electric chair and giving him a firm jolt to confirm the upgrade. You can also use this area to save your progress and use small keys found in the game world to unlock morgue drawers to scavenge for essential supplies. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to say the least, finding solace in an area that is otherwise associated with suffering and death, yet it’s a place that you’ll be frequenting the most for temporary sanctuary. Needless to say, you’ll need to think about what to upgrade and when; do you want to deal more damage at the expense of extra health? Do you carry more ammo or healing items? The trade-off is something that is perpetually on your mind, and it’s a rewarding feeling knowing you can shape your destiny depending on how you apply upgrades. You could make things difficult for yourself without a fine balance, and that feeling is palpable throughout.
Elsewhere, The Evil Within’s pacing has all the staples of a Mikami-san romp. You’ll encounter quiet, gut-wrenching moments where exploration and exposition are pushed to the forefront, while other times, you’ll be mobbed by legions of Haunted and other monstrosities. Speaking of foes, the bestiary is as eclectic as any of Mikami-san’s previous efforts, with Chainsaw-wielding bad guys, safe-headed giants, multi-limbed creatures, and ogre-like beasts all baying for your blood. Hulking boss fights punctuate the bread-and-butter combat, popping up all over the place and forcing you to put your thinking cap on in an effort to fell them.
Fortunately, gunplay remains solid, and you’ll soon be popping heads like no tomorrow; just as well too, as ammunition is a rare commodity, forcing you to think about when to fight or when to run. Burning foes with matches is essential for saving ammo, ensuring enemies don’t get up to have another crack at your skull. This is one area where The Evil Within really recalls its early influences; conserving ammo is paramount to your survival, and there’s always an undercurrent of strategy to encounters, where you must carefully consider your options as not to leave yourself without a pot to piss in. Along the way, you’ll have to disarm traps, which rewards you with weapon parts to craft ammo for the Bow of Agony. This device can fire all sorts of ammo, from flash and explosive bolts, to standard arrows and freeze-inducing rounds, and acts as a nice fallback to your existing arsenal of pistols, shotguns, and sniper rifles.
Yet despite its competency in the shooting department, The Evil Within employs number of frankly oddball design choices that hinder proceedings. Melee combat is awful, and with no lock-on system, having Seb flailing his arms about hoping to score a hit becomes an exercise in sheer frustration. Furthermore, the erratic camera doesn’t help, which crumbles under pressure in close proximity. However, the most egregious offense that Tango Gameworks employs is the inclusion of a stamina meter; a seemingly arbitrary way to slow the action down and make things all the more difficult—not to mention incredibly frustrating to boot.
Castellanos gets winded after dashing for just a few seconds, and while you can upgrade its duration, the amount of times I’ve died in the middle of a scuffle or boss fight because the poor chap decided to casually stop and gasp for breath is more than I care to recall. Considering even the original Resident Evil didn’t have such a limitation, its inclusion here is just dumbfounding. It’s also bizarre how Seb possesses a knife for stealthily silencing foes, yet can’t use it as a melee weapon. Yes, there’s no denying these niggles are perhaps inherent of the survival horror genre, but modern offerings such as Dead Space and the last few Silent Hill games have modernized without compromising the meat and potatoes of the experience.
That aside, The Evil Within excels in one area that any decent horror romp should—providing ample chills and thrills. Creeping around a mansion only to be hunted by a ghostly figure, Ruvik, forcing you to hide under a bed or cupboard, definitely sent chills down my spine. Likewise, some distorting visual effects and shifting environments really shake things up at the most unexpected time. Speaking of locations, these are undoubtedly one of The Evil Within’s strongest points. You’ll visit villages, graveyards, underground catacombs, hospitals, spooky forests and much more, and no area outstays its welcome. This isn’t a game for the faint hearted either; blood will spill by the bucket load, from gruesome headshots to claret-covered walls and floors. In fact, one area has Seb waist-deep in malodorous goop created by dozens of decomposing corpses. It’s grisly, and clearly shows Mikami-san has lost none of his touch when it comes his penchant for the macabre.
While the design of the enemies and environments are definitely something to write home about, it’s abundantly clear that The Evil Within is a last-generation game at heart. Flat textures, dodgy lip-synching, and other visual slip ups prevent it from being the eye-opener it could have been, although some areas possess a certain aesthetic brilliance to them, particularly one part where you’re gazing off a sunset-bathed cliff top. Sadly, the game has a few hiccups too, with visual clipping and pop-up rearing its head a few times, at the cost of player immersion. Sound effects fare much better, with meaty weapon blasts and grotesque sounds emanating from foes acting as the perfect complement to The Evil Within’s twisted realms, while the soundtrack bolsters the momentum admirably.
The Evil Within is everything an old-school survival horror game should be: tense, engaging, and frustrating. For those who clamour for the Resident Evil games of old, Mikami-san has delivered a personal love letter; for those who don’t, you’ll likely lament its lack of new ideas and sometimes archaic design choices. For me personally, it’s a gripping adventure that any self-respecting horror fan should snap up, and an authentic return to survival horror after too long an absence.