The Evil Within: The Kotaku Review

The Evil Within: The Kotaku Review

Before The Evil Within came out, I knew that I had to steel myself to be scared by it. But I'd also been nagged by the idea that I should be scared for it, too. As in, fearful on its behalf. It's one of those games that's so heavily freighted by genre and pedigree that expectations were massive.

The Evil Within tries its best to deliver in proportion to those anticipations. And that's probably where its problems started. Evil Within producer Shinji Mikami made his name on the Resident Evil games. The series he once spearheaded has devolved into an action-heavy popcorn movie shootfest, a parody of itself that's barely capable of terrifying a second-grader. So, the arrival of an all-new Mikami title was anticipated as just the kind of reinvigoration that the survival horror genre needed.

You can feel the load of all those hopes and dreams in The Evil Within. It's a burly example of horror game maximalism, one that tries to take all the ways you can make a game scary and boil them over into a blood-red gumbo. Hallucinations on top of hallucinations, weird phenomena, tucked-away hamlets filled with homicidal residents, helpless, child-like weirdos… if it's something that scared someone in a movie, TV or video game once, The Evil Within tries to cram it in there.

It's not enough to have once-dead people get up and attack you, for example. They're also wrapped in barbed wire, stabbed dozens of times over with knives, spikes and other sharp implements left sticking out of them. And some of them will get back up yet again, even after you've unloaded a clip into them. These particular flesh-eaters need to be burnt after you've beaten them or they might try to take you down once more. So, they're not twice-dead but thrice-dead. That's just lower-rung foot-soldiers, too. Some of the boss characters will need to be snuffed four and five times before they finally stop bothering the game's lead character, police detective Sebastian 'Seb' Castellanos.

That's just a small example of how the game's creators try to blow out the scale of the proceedings in The Evil Within. It's a game that feels like it's trying to hit its marks in as many ways as possible. The storytelling starts with Sebastian arriving at the scene of a mass killing at an ominous psychological treatment facility. Then, scenes shift to present-day Castellanos, now one of Beacon Mental Hospital's patients in a fuzzy dreamworld where players can save the game and upgrade his skills and weapons. Then he's there again in a malevolent, shared mindscape, slowly uncovering the mad experiments where unhinged scientists connect hapless residents to some sort of animalistic hive mind. And the gruff, alcoholic cop walks Beacon's halls on yet another interlocking plane of existence. It might or might not be the real world but the freakish monsters still dog his steps.

Sebastian and his police partners are pulled into a series of nightmarish events being orchestrated by a renegade scientist named Ruvik. The story is presented as a set of slowly revealed puzzle pieces but it becomes clear that the game's big bad has been scarred by a horrific family trauma. That tortured backstory mirrors Sebastian's own troubled past, revealed through journal entries that you find throughout the game.

While the ever-shifting, untrustworthy presentation adds to the general creepiness of the horror-trope skeleton, the entire narrative is so under-explained and flatly acted that none of it feels memorable. Moreover, the game never makes you connect to the people barely surviving its story. It's not that Evil Within needs to aim to be another Last of Us. But more time spent on crafting the characters would have given the game-makers another way to make players uneasy. Sebastian's personality is so blasé it doesn't feel like he — or, more importantly, the player — has anything at stake. There's no charm or idiosyncrasy to these heroes or villains. They exist to be embittered or endangered and that's it. This lack of connection makes The Evil Within feel more like the work of an old master who hasn't quite absorbed the changes that his medium has gone through.

That persistent taste of reconstituted past glories — intertwined with those maximalist ambitions — run throughout The Evil Within in various ways. There's the most damnable tease at the game's beginning, where the setting of Krimson City falls apart as the main characters are speeding away from a cursed location. Ah, I thought, here's where Mikami will blow up a larger, more open-ended version of his survival horror vision. But that implementation never comes to pass. Even though the spaces in the Krimson City levels are bigger, they still fit into the same "skulk + gather resources + fight" loop that you do for most of the game. Overall, you're mainly left to pick through smaller, more cramped buildings and spaces. They're exquisitely designed and serviceable enough but nothing about them feels like a great leap forward.

The Evil Within: The Kotaku Review

That's true of the gameplay overall. The tension of the game's early levels centres around the idea that one wrong move will get you insta-killed, which happens fairly often. I spent a whole lot of time crouch-walking everywhere and hiding in closets in the first three chapters, feeling underpowered and lost. But by the middle of the game, the need to be cautious melts away and The Evil Within becomes more about prosaic considerations like reflex response and resource management. This is a game trying to be at least two very different kinds of things. A moody atmosphere designed to elicit scares and design mechanics which alternately direct players to be stealthy sneaks or fast-moving precision marksmen. While it's certainly possible to deliver on both of those aims, The Evil Within doesn't have the chops to make good on its multilayered promise.

I felt frustrated when playing Evil Within and I felt afraid, too. The latter was ok, a result of the game doing what it was supposed to do. The former, though, was a problem.

The thing I constantly had to decide is if The Evil Within was the kind of sprawl that was worth continuing through. Let's consider the weapons Sebastian wields. There are old stand-bys like a handgun, shotgun and sniper rifle. Ammo for these is scarce but never so low that you won't be able to proceed. The frustration I talked about comes into focus with the Agony Crossbow, the game's best weapon. Its bolts have a few different special abilities, like freezing an enemy in place, exploding when they get close or stunning them with strobe flashes. While you'll find bolts for the crossbow scattered throughout the world, the player is really meant to craft his own arsenal by finding scrap parts in the environment or dismantling the various traps Seb encounters. My desire to constantly have ammunition for the crossbow meant that I'd have to wander same-looking halls in search of bolts or traps. Tying the continued usefulness of the game's best weapon to an activity loop that quickly becomes boring is a telling example of Evil Within's shortcomings.

A lot of the game is a tedious slog of door-opening and object-grabbing. Even the act of picking objects feels consistently buggy. If the camera's not pointed in just the right way, the prompt to pick up a bottle of green upgrade gel won't show up. And when it's not being monotonous, the big action set-pieces are hamstrung by problems that make them annoying. You're often faced with instances where you'll somehow need to intuit something that you haven't been prepped for, like looking at the ceiling to find a switch to shoot. That kind of opaque design is certainly a creative choice but when it's stapled to imprecise mechanical execution, the best possible consequences of that choice gets stifled. In other words, don't-know-what-to-do is fine, as long as able-to-do-what-you-need still reliably happens.

Aiming dead center at a dead body that you need to shoot and seeing your subsequent shots have no effect… did you miss or is something else wrong? Trying to frantically mount a ledge so mutated sea creatures don't chomp on you but the command to climb up takes a painfully slow time to execute. Too often, I felt myself stymied because enemies magically detected me despite being hidden or too-same environmental design that led to me getting lost. I replayed way too many sections over and over because of moments where, seemingly, enough technical tightening didn't take place.

This state of affairs wouldn't be so regrettable if there weren't other, unabashedly excellent aspects of The Evil Within. Tango Gameworks has poured terrifying creature designs, replete with Cronenberg-style body horror, into the game. It's also bursting with great artistic details in the environment, made more effective by a slew of atmospheric effects. Excellent ambient sound design and music surrounds all of that, with sonic cues that will stay in your head long after you're done playing.

Speaking of creatures, The Evil Within's fiendishly architected boss fights are some of the best I've ground through in years. One level has you haunted by a ghost-like enemy who only needs to brush his fingertips on you to execute a one-hit kill. Nothing you do will harm him; you can only run. Another features a tough-to-decipher boss fights where you're too harried to tell if you're actually damaging the trap-laying monstrosity that you're battling. Other pivotal battles have you facing down big, lumbering enemies in tight, cramped spaces that don't let you take advantage of your speedier movement. Each juke and pivot is as precious as ammo and health syringes you'll hoard. These are the moments when the game feels its most assured, doling out diverse challenges that you'll need to frantically figure out as you go.

Again, thrills like those lose their edge when they're mired in inconsistent response or a story that's essentially a stack of clichés. In a game where every bullet is precious and a player's patience and mental energy areis continually taxed, these things wind up being more than minor annoyances. They become reasons to give up.

I wanted to like The Evil Within a lot. It is a game that delivers on much of its survival-horror-revival promise, making me jump in terror and feel sick at the sight of an enemy's guts twitching after it's dead. But it's also a game where I felt like my time wasn't respected throughout, where my most skillful attempts at stealth and combat got tripped up by messy execution. The world-making is strong here, creepy, confined conception that constantly makes you feel like you'll never feel truly free. Ultimately, though, the problems of Evil Within make it feel like a halfway-evolved collection of design ideas from its chief creator's glory days. Were The Evil Within more tightly focused, that fact might be forgivable. But it's too big and diluted for its best aspects to support it.


Comments

    I just started it last night (about 1 1/2 hours in) and my initial impression is that it feels like TLOU mixed with Res4, only way more creepier. Similar gameplay mechanics in the stealth department, but more of a psychological horror setting, complete with chainsaw wielding nutbags.

    I'm definitely in the mood for some survival horror right now so this will float my boat nicely. Hopefully it remains truer to the 'survival' aspect of the genre, than say TLOU, and backs off the guns and ammo in favour of creeping around cowering in fear.

      I've found it's definitely got that TLOU vibe but with a proper survival mechanic. You wont survive by blasting every bit of ammo you find into the next enemy there simply isnt enough to go round!!! Luring them into traps is really rewarding and brings the strategy into your panic which I've found nice and challenging.
      I'm only at chapter 5 having said that but I have noticed that chapters 4 and 5 both got a lot longer than previous chapters and I was cowering around on minimal health for a while there!!!

      Boss at the end of 5 gave me the chills last night creepy bitch!!!

        That's good to hear, I didn't like how TLOU was dressed up to be a 'survival' thing but ended up just being Uncharted albeit with mushroom zombies instead of military grunts.

        Definitely looking forward to staying up late and ripping into this over the weekend. Bring on the creeps!

          Spot on - TLOU was another Uncharted type play through... linear point and shoot crap

          Was a very pretty game but there's definitely a lot more balls to the Evil Within

    I only got about an hour in (probably not even), then I got to an area where I had to sneak past an enemy, died about 10 times, got frustrated and turned it off. It's a game I've been looking forward to, and I really want to enjoy it, so I might try and give it another crack this weekend.

      It is definitely going to impress you but there ARE those parts which are just really difficult and it almost takes away the experience. But as you did, at those times I have simply switched off and jumped back on the next night and that sequence you were stuck on is never so hard the next time!!!

      Last night I was at the end of chapter 5 and i just decided that boss was too heavy for me at 11pm at night and i just wasnt going to finish so im looking forward to killing that minion this evening at a more decent time.

      Also if you have headphones wear headphones... The ambience is AMAZINGLY creepy!!!

        Headphones sound like a good idea (heh), and i don't usually bother but I might have to give them a go this time.

          Yeah its a game changer! That eery music I cant stand it anymore!!!

    I'm 10 hours in and just finished chapter 10. I'm enjoying it so far. There has been a handful of times the controls have annoyed me (like how slow it is getting on ladders, or being blown up trying to walk slowly, or randomly standing up while I'm still holding crouch when a big fan blade cuts my head off) but other than that it's been pretty good. Sure the story is a little bland and appears somewhat obvious but the bosses have been well thought out and the atmosphere good. I haven't found a problem keeping the agony crossbow full with ammo though, I mainly just save it's explosive bolts for bosses and just use my upgraded pistol and shotgun or even better the environment and stealth for the easier zombies. Once you learn to throw bottles to stun then stealth kill zombies, or kill one then lure the others into it's way when you burn it, or even just shooting traps and barrels it becomes much easier to conserve ammo.

    The switch complaint seems a bit silly in your review. If you mean the area I think you mean it occurs when you have already been shooting the same switches, the only difference is some of them start appearing on the roof which just took a quick scan of the room to find. No big deal. The insta kills you can't know about haven't annoyed me either considering the game is fairly liberal with it's save points and it's checkpoints and after you die once you get a help tip on the loading screen which will say something like "you cannot kill xxxx enemy, try doing this".

    The pacing annoys me at times though, some chapters feel longer than they should be and if I have just fought 2 bosses I'd be happy if that ended the chapter, not another half hour of wandering until I reach an arbitrary door to trigger the end.

    Overall though it isn't a great game but at the same time I'm finding it's still good. I'd probably go for something like a low end 8 or a high 7 out of 10..

    Last edited 23/10/14 10:56 am

    I've found the controls a little "interesting" at times but overall its a good control scheme. My biggest issue is the panic that sets in! That's when I make stupid decisions and just dont have a clue what im doing and run into a tripwire that i was saving to lure a walker into!!!

    The game hits the mark for me... I've never felt that kind of panic ensue just with a couple of light enemies... The combined effect of having shocking accuracy on the pistol and having little to no ammo around everywhere makes picking your battles very important but like I say that choice is usually in a panicked state and doesnt always make for cohesive decisions!!

    Im loving the game so far but am finding I need full concentration so can only get into it when the misses and my 9 month old are in bed. Even then if its a bit late and my focus is waning its almost a lost cause - Never have a I felt this about a game there is always something you can flap through whilst tired but this REALLY requires full concentration and it draws you in completely - I didnt even notice the black bars after chapter 1 as the gameplay and the chase became compelling!

    Just noticed your problem - you tried to harvest the parts to make ammo?! Why dont you just play the game?! There are plenty of spare parts you can dismantle here and there but if you spent all your time dismantling them all that would mean you didnt use these traps to kill?! They are far more effective to kill a couple of walkers coming after you than to take the 1 or 2 parts from them!

    The only parts I collect now are from the chests with the bomb in there as theres nothing else to do with them

    Maybe ill need more agony ammo down the track but at the moment Im enjoying it - frustration is there sometimes but not nearly Dark Souls 2 level of frustration... Having said that is not nearly as bad as Deadly premonitions dodgy controls either! All in all this isnt even CLOSE to the most frustrating of games when you put it in perspective

    I dont know about the tedium comment either - I understand I really should have thought about my first post and just put this all in there but we cant all be writers now can we...

    But even if the button prompt doesnt come up you can still perform the action. I find you are looking for issues instead of enjoying what seems to be quite a fluid mechanic. I noticed it in the first chapter as i walked past locked doors, no prompt but press X and he grabbed the lock and said its locked... More and more games are doing this - We are gamers... We come from a background of trial and error in adventure games dont we?! Now we need the software to tell us what to do every step of the way?! Nah I think theyve done well keeping the prompts sparse - I havent had an issue picking anything up but you're right i barely see the prompt - This is a good thing!

    I got the evil within at launch and been super happy with it, I went in blind without looking at no reviews (I do this a lot these days just like when I was a kid) and have been very happy with it, What some call rehashes of previous games I like to call signatures of Shinji Mikami...

    Does it feel like re4? Yea, should it? Why not. If making games is art is it not the same as Monet using his trade mark colour style, painting landscape after landscape.

    One of my favourite things or least favourite when playing are those invisible monsters... you can hear them and very faintly see them, but its the noises there foot steps make, a squishing noise almost, every time I heard something vaguely like that I froze in spot looking around at the pools of blood,water what ever liquid was on the ground to see if I can spot the footsteps of one. Very well done.

    I think he has created something great, not everyone is going to like it but this will be one of the few games I bother going for 100% in trophies.

    Last edited 23/10/14 1:58 pm

    Has anyone else adopted Seb's way of saying 'what the fuck' when he confronted that kid in the cave?

    This game makes me feel like playing Deadley Premonition.

      Yeah, some reviews criticized the deadpan voice acting but I was always under the assumption it was trying to be nostalgic back to the early resident evil/house of the dead type voice acting. I like the what the fuck line and all the what's going on here lines. Most of the other characters are voiced properlly it's just Sebastian who delivers them funny.

    I wasn't that hyped for this game, just mildly intrigued. I picked it up because I saw it for a reasonable price and I have to say I'm having a great time with it. The graphics are intentionally a bit grainy and bad but I'm so swept up in the game's amazing atmosphere. I think the controls are intentionally meant to be a bit slow and clunky, it all adds to the panic that sets in.

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