Good survival horror games are hard to come by. While there have certainly been some excellent additions to the genre in recent history, far more games miss the mark than those who actually manage to hit it. Expectations for The Evil Within were high due to it being helmed by none other than Shinji Mikami, the man who essentially invented the genre with Resident Evil in 1996. But just how does it fare compare to his previous work?
The tone for the entire game is set right from the very start. Your first gameplay moments see you enter a psychiatric hospital that has been subjected to a huge massacre. A creepy insane asylum is not exactly the most imaginative start to any horror story but the other locations you are transported too as you progress seem to be lifted from a beginners guide to your typical spooky settings. Creepy abandoned houses and a deserted woods are just some of the other places you’ll have to explore, along with a large collection of dark passageways and hallways.
The Evil Within’s plot also seems to be a standard collection of horror tropes cobbled together. The player takes on the role of Detective Sebastian Castellanos as he investigates the events at the psychiatric hospital along with two other police officers in the form of Joseph Oda and Julie Kidman. However, after that the story becomes convoluted and confusing. There is never any real motivation as to why the antagonist is carrying out his mission or clear explanations given for most of the events that take place. By the end of the game you will be left with a whole host of unanswered questions that are likely never going to be cleared up. To be completely honest, the plot appears to have been an afterthought, something that was added to loosely connect the various environments you visit.
That’s not to say that The Evil Within doesn’t have any redeeming features. The core mechanics work well for the most part, with shooting being particularly well done. A good variety of weapons, including the signature crossbow, make taking down enemies rewarding. You’ll have fun in the combat sections as long as you stay away from using your completely ineffectual melee attack. The upgrade system also encourages you to explore your surroundings to find the all-important green gel that will allow you to level up various skills and abilities. Although it is baffling that none of the upgrades allow you to improve your stealth capabilities considering that the title puts so much emphasis on it.
During most of the gameplay it is obvious that the developers want you to avoid enemy encounters and try to sneak through sections. You are encouraged to do this by the lack of ammo. But many of the sections are made much easier just by taking out the enemies, especially considering the need to search for materials and green gel. The stealth option is also made infuriating by the strange checkpoint system that will leave you taking on the same encounter over and over again. Even more frustrating though is that you lose all the collected items every time you die, meaning you will have to go back and get them repeatedly. This isn’t helped by a difficulty curve that fluctuates wildly between areas or bosses that can take hours to beat, to those that can be breezed through with little to no effort.
Another strong point is the sound design. The various weapons all sound great, with the crossbow and guns feeling powerful and realistic thanks to the superb audio. Close combat feels that much more intense as well largely due to the sounds that greet you as you bash enemies enemy heads and cut through flesh. The music accompanying the on-screen action is also very strong. It never feels tacked on or over the top, instead relying on subtle changes in tone and tempo to increase the tension.
The visuals on the other hand are much less consistent. Some parts look stunning, with the lighting used well to create eerie environments, while others are downright terrible. Graphics in certain areas look like they missed a layer of polish applied elsewhere with low quality textures scattered throughout. One strong point though is the over-the-top violence and gore that makes blowing off an enemy head or impaling a boss with a harpoon feel satisfying. The performance can also be best described as erratic. The frame rate will look smooth for long sections before slowing to a painful crawl right when you are mobbed – parts where you need a solid rate to allow you fight efficiently.
Ultimately though, horror games much be judged on their ability to scare the gamer because that is in essence exactly what they have been made for. There are two main ways that developers can achieve this. Developers can go with a barrage of frightening moments that are intended to keep you in a constant state of terror as you wait for the next thing to jump out at you, as with games like Outlast. Alternatively, as Amnesia: Dark Descent and Condemned: Criminal Origins demonstrated, they can create a feeling of dread and suspense by creating a world that draws on psychological fears through dark atmospheres and sheer creepiness.
The Evil Within does neither of those things effectively though. The very few attempts at shocking you can be seen a mile off, so much so that your pulse will hardly ever rise simply because everything is so predictable. The bland environments and lackluster enemies also mean that the overall atmosphere never reaches a point where you ever feel scared. In fact, The Evil Within feels like more of an action-stealth game throughout than a survival horror. If you are looking for a solid horror experience that will actually get the adrenaline pumping then you would be best served by looking elsewhere.
What is most disappointing though is that The Evil Within could have been an excellent game. All the ingredients are there, they just haven’t been executed properly. The instances that work best, such as the innovative save and upgrade system, are too fleeting while the frustrating mechanics and poor plot could have been vastly improved. In the end, Bethesda’s survival horror title falls short of its hype and the illustrious past of its creator.