Sebastian Castellanos has been called into a mental hospital to investigate a murder. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you: almost everyone gets taken over by an evil force which turns them into crazy non-humans who quite enjoy snacking on the occasional tasty living person. Yup, it’s another horror game, but this time it’s from the mind of Shinji Mikami, the guy behind the first few Resident Evil games. The Evil Within, therefore, has plenty of hallmarks and qualities of traditional horror games, so maybe this is the horror game the new consoles needed…
One thing is for sure: when The Evil Within gets things right, it totally gets them right. Enemies are varied and genuinely creepy, environments are well designed and serve well to make things even more tense, and the way weapons are used gives very little room for error or erratic aiming. But it also frustrates in equal measures, and with a storyline which is decent but hardly rip-roaring it does sometimes get tough to keep going through the annoyances. Keep at it and you’ll be rewarded, but it’s definitely tough going.
So looking at each point by itself, let’s start with the characters themselves. Castellanos, the main guy who sports a stereotypical gruff voice and fairly challenging past, is brilliantly drawn and animated, but hasn’t got a great deal of character. Maybe being stuck in a world where everyone else is out to kill you would flatten your mood a bit, but there’s more joy to be found in his two main sidekicks who come and go throughout the game, usually at entirely unexpected moments which can either help you immensely or totally screw you over and make you feel incredibly alone. It’s during the moments when you’re not alone that the characters feel more likeable, but considering the game wouldn’t work with a partner throughout that’s something I’m prepared to forgive.
Enemies are well mixed up, ranging from smaller and more agile creatures to huge lumbering chainsaw-wielding badasses, each with their own weaknesses and ability to soak up bullets. Choosing when to sneak, when to shoot or when to just run like hell will be a decision you have to make on a regular basis, and making the right one won’t end well. You need to be careful too – ammo for your pistol and shotgun are exactly in full supply, so send too many pointless bullets at your enemies and you’ll be screwed when the next one leaps at you from a dark corner. On several occasions I emptied a whole clip of pistol ammo into a nasty guy’s face and he still staggered at me, seconds away from separating my face from the rest of me. Some enemies don’t really pay any attention to being shot with a shotgun either, and even exploding bolts from your crossbow fail to make the bigger bosses flinch. You’ll even find creatures that can’t be killed, put in place just to make you run away while they snarl behind you and the awesome music builds to the point where you’d quite like to scream a little. These bosses are often overpowered and feel quite unfair to come up against, but more often the combat is extremely good. Learn which creatures suffer more from which weapon and ammo, and you can start feeling a bit more prepared and have more of a fighting chance.
On the numerous occasions you get killed (be it through your own mistake or one of the occasional unfair unavoidable deaths) you’ll be sent back to do the last chunk again. Checkpoints are generously if not inconsistently positioned, but when you can’t work out why your killer didn’t die despite your best efforts you’re likely to have the same issue again when you get back. And that’s what’s often annoying. Get killed, realise how to hurt them a bit, get killed again, get slightly further, get killed again… you’ll get there eventually, but after dying in the claws of the same weird thing five times over, the desire to carry on starts to dwindle a bit. There’s nothing wrong with making a game tricky, but a reasonable chance mightn’t go amiss. That’s especially true when you see how much this game has a cinematic feel, with a widescreen letterboxed setup, very little HUD and slight film graining you could easily be sat watching a film, but the loading screens after getting killed draw you away and back to the real world. It’s a shame, but an unavoidable one given the developers wanted the extra challenge. Not everyone will enjoy that though – it didn’t appeal to me all that much.
Away from the enemies though you’ll find some of the creepier parts of the game. As is often the case, it’s the silence which haunts you the most. Sneaking round run-down farms, towns, houses and hospitals, never sure what’s about to leap at you and trying to notice traps before they take your shins off or explode in your face, that’s when you’ll be on the edge of your seat, holding your breath in case you miss a tell-tale sound of shuffling feet. You’ll come across invisible enemies too, which sounds incredibly unfair but they’ll still bump into chairs, walk through puddles of water and open doors… the clues are there, you just need to spot them, which usually means your blinking stops not long after your breathing and doesn’t start again for another half an hour. As tension goes, this is right up there, maybe not quite on par with Alien Isolation, but it’s a different type of horror.
There’s a huge amount to commend about The Evil Within. It has tension by the bucket load, looks fantastic and uses lighting and audio perfectly to create a genuinely skin-crawling experience. It also uses a close-up over-the-shoulder third person view which puts you constantly on edge that something is creeping up behind you, but this view makes some of the fighting and sneaking trickier than it ought to be and the camera will occasionally block your view at the sort possible time. It’s also intensely frustrating at times, making you retry the same section over and over, never really knowing what you’re trying to do. If the storyline was tied together better then the annoyances might be easier to take, but they take the shine off what could’ve been a fantastic title.
Horror fans will love it, and Resident Evil fans will love it. As for everyone else, it’s tricky to judge. I enjoyed it through the irritation, but I won’t be going back to it any time soon. Maybe keep an eye out for a price drop and pick it up when it’s more affordable – at a lower price it’s a worthwhile gamble.
Reviewed on PS4