Editor’s note: I feel compelled to mention that, while Matthew clearly didn’t have a big ol’ blast with The Evil Within, it’s a hugely divisive game and your opinion of it obviously may not match his. Check out the December issue of NAG magazine for an alternative critical perspective on the game.
Believe me when I say I take no pleasure in this. I was looking forward to this game like you don’t even know. I wanted to like it. I really did. I forked over 800 bucks for it on launch day, after all – not something one does without expecting something good in return.
Well, that’s my opinion on The Evil Within given away right at the start, isn’t it? I’m ashamed to admit I bought into the hype. A survival horror game by Shinji Mikami? Sign me up! And, for a change, I actually did read and watch a fair bit about this game before I bought it, and I still didn’t see the warning signs.
Okay, so, the premise is you play a cop named Sebastian Castellanos, a really dull character who’s not nearly as interesting or fun as Leon Kennedy or Garcia F. Hotspur. He and his partners – a woman and a dude with glasses who aren’t important – respond to an emergency call at an old asylum. The story goes eight ways bananas from there, starting with a collapsing city worthy of the gaudiest Michael Bay movie and culminating in a series of puzzling, nonsensical and surreal horror segments that have no connection or coherence whatsoever.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time getting invested in a story when I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. All you know for the longest time is that you’re chasing a doctor and his autistic patient who appear to have some connection to whatever the hell is going on. And even when you do find out, it doesn’t mitigate the awful realisation that the game is just going to keep teleporting you from one random scenario to another.
It’s a pity, because the imagery and the enemy designs are really good, fantastic even. They’re sick and twisted in a way that really agrees with me – but without any kind of context, they don’t mean anything. And somehow, once you do get a bit more info about what’s going on, they seem even less relevant. You’ll see why. If you want to try and find any logic in this lunacy be my guest, but I’m willing to bet it isn’t there to be found.
Okay, so the story is bonkers, but not every good game has a good story. It should still be okay if it’s fun to play right? It’s a pity The Evil Within doesn’t check that box either. From the trailers, it looked like a return to Resident Evil 4‘s pacing and gameplay in the best possible way. It’s one of the reasons I was so keen for it, but the trailers lied.
The first thing I noticed – the first thing everyone noticed – is the massive (I say again, MASSIVE) borders at the top and bottom of the screen. Why? Why did those have to be there? It’s like viewing the game through a slit in a piece of cardboard. There’s no way you can tell me it was a stylistic choice. I refuse to believe no-one on the dev team put up their hand and said, “Um, boss, sorry to break it to you, but this looks like shit and players are going to complain” – because it does. And they did. It can’t be a technical limitation, either. The game looks good, but not so good that they wouldn’t have been able to make it run full screen on the PS4 and Xbox One.
I bring up this graphics-related issue in a section about gameplay because it’s so horrendous it actually becomes a gameplay issue. The view of the game you’re afforded through your prison peephole of a camera (a quarter of which is taken up by Sebastian) is so narrow and constrictive you have to sweep it around like a scanner to take in the full view, especially indoors. The borders cut off Sebastian’s legs from the arse down, so in order to see things on the ground when they’re close enough to pick up, you have to look almost straight down, opening yourself up to attack.
It also becomes an issue in other areas. A good portion of the game is spent avoiding and disarming traps, which is harder than it sounds with such a restrictive viewpoint. For instance, I was in a room with a big rotating blade spinning around, but I didn’t see it because I had angled the camera downwards a bit to disarm another trap low to the ground. A huge section of the top of the screen was obscured by that big black border – screen space that would have been damn handy for showing me that blade coming so I could react to it before it scythed through my neck.
I could complain about how the borders ruined the game for me all day, but I need to save some space for other problems. The next biggest facepalm is the aiming. When you aim a weapon at an enemy, the camera shifts to the side of Sebastian in a really awkward way. It’s okay for medium- to long-range shooting, but when enemies get close – and they almost always do – it’s almost impossible to aim properly. What the hell? This isn’t hard, you know, it’s been done correctly before in games directed by Mikami.
“There are also some sections, unfortunately only a handful, where the game opens up and gives you a section of a village or church yard or mansion to explore and fight in…”
On the subject of weapons, they’re okay. A handgun, a shotgun, a rifle, etcetera… but rewind ten years to the release of Resident Evil 4, which had several handguns, several shotguns, several rifles… One of the biggest joys was discussing that game at a pub with your friends and talking about your favourite toys.
The supposed highlight weapon is the Crossbow of Agony or whatever it’s called. Problem one – the bow part obscures its own aiming indicator. How did the developers not see this? How? And secondly, even after I upgraded the crossbow’s range a few times, it still had shockingly short drop-off. What the hell kind of weak-ass crossbow is this anyway? Yeah, you can collect parts to make different kinds of special bolts (like explosive, lightning and stun), but they don’t make it any less painful.
And the bosses. Oh, the bosses. They’re really cool and evil looking when you first see them – but after you’ve fought them a few times, the feeling of menace quickly turns to annoyance. Developers, listen carefully: if you’re going to have teleporting bosses, don’t give them bullshit insta-kill attacks – especially if you’re going to make us figure out a puzzle to beat them! That creepy spider woman and that blue ghost bastard excel at this. If you must give them an insta-kill attack, then at least have the courtesy to give it a wind-up animation that we have a chance to avoid. Games where you die if an enemy merely touches you belong back in the ’80s. In a bin.
Despite all these problems, there are some good points. I’ve already mentioned the sick and disgusting enemies, and they’re pretty fun to fight. A big deal is made out of the fact that you can’t kill them easily, so you have to burn them with matches to make sure they don’t get up again. Quick hint though, if you blow their heads off, they don’t get up again.
The mere handful of weapons do feel good, especially the sniper rifle which reminds me of the bolt action rifle in RE4, one of my favourite guns. Searching every nook and cranny for ammo and health items is also very appealing and satisfying, and you’ll always be happy to get the green jars of brain juice, which you use to upgrade your abilities. Speaking of which, the upgrade chair is one of the most nightmarish and disturbing things I’ve ever seen. Would you sit in that thing? I sure wouldn’t.
There are also some sections, unfortunately only a handful, where the game opens up and gives you a section of a village or church yard or mansion to explore and fight in. It really comes alive in those sections, freeing you up to fight, sneak and run away as you choose. Unfortunately, more often than not, you’re forced down a serious of corridors with precious little room for exploration and fun combat tactics.
It’s quite disheartening, because it’s easy to see how good The Evil Within could have been. Through the tangled mess of screw-ups, you occasionally catch a glimpse of something beautiful.
If I were to choose one word to describe The Evil Within, it would be “harrowing”. The game certainly is harrowing – but for all the wrong reasons. The competent visual design and occasional moments of joy don’t make up for its many other flaws.
50 A functional survival horror mired by a mountain of poor design choices and gameplay issues.