Tango Gameworks’ and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within is the perfect evolution of a PlayStation 2-era game. A true blast from the past, it is soaked in classic Japanese design from before the Western market took over with the previous console generation.
By and large, these designs, as we knew them, followed a very clear line of evolution, beginning on the NES and peaking twenty years later during our sixth generation of consoles. The survival-horror genre especially excelled at becoming a household fixture with masterpieces like Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill 2, the Fatal Frame games, and a whole host of gems you might have never heard of from Japan really pushing the limits of how scary and well designed a horror game could be.
It’s from this day and age that The Evil Within takes all of its best ideas and evolves the broken ones into something more penetrable. Mikami tosses aside the last decade of gaming like it never happened, continuing to tweak and perfect the formula he has had in mind since the beginning of his career and perfected in Resident Evil 4, and return to form by showing all the studios who have stepped up in his absence how to make a proper horror game.
A Puzzle With No Solutions
Resident Evil 4 is well regarded as a masterpiece, but not exactly for its narrative prowess. The Evil Within can boast an improvement in this area at least, telling a story that’s far more complicated in its delivery rather than its content.
Our protagonist, Detective Sebastian Castellanos, is about as flat of a police officer cardboard cutout as they come, from his grizzled beard to this cleft chin. I’d just love to have a scene where this guy is sitting at a desk, coffee in hand, cigarette burnt down to his lips, hand on his forehead as he stresses over a pile of paperwork. That’s the kind of guy we are dealing with here, a very generic police officer with a checkered past.
He and his partners are called to investigate an incident at an asylum deep within the fictional Krimson City’s limits, and upon arrival, they stumble across mass murder of dozens of innocent victims. Bodies pile across the floor, blood leaks from the gashes and cuts which crawl across their faces, torsos, and limbs as each person is sprawled or piled unceremoniously in the lobby.
The Evil Within pulls no punches in its opening act, bragging about how dark it is going to become with this reveal.
Through a bit of luck and some incredible stealth skills, Castellanos and crew are able to escape with two survivors, a doctor and a deranged boy, only to find themselves sent down a path of remarkable hallucinations.
The Evil Within never comes up short in its offerings of settings for these characters to wander into. Hollowed out church sites, underground sewers and caves, dark villages, lighthouses. If it’s a scary location in your mind, then The Evil Within probably takes you there over the course of its 15 chapters. Castellanos doesn’t know how to break free of his psychological prison; all he can do is push forward from one location to the next and hopefully arrive at the conclusion of his nightmare.
It doesn’t help either that he finds each of these places is populated with twisted undead figures trying to kill him. They aren’t zombies mind you, but they might as well be. Slow, lumbering husks of former humans, they come decked out with metal spikes sticking through limbs and barbed wire encasing their rotten and shredded skin. Resident Evil 4 popularized the idea of emotive enemies with its infected villagers, but The Evil Within takes it to a whole new level. The design of these beings is nothing short of genius, each more terrifying and full of wickedness than the last.
These ghouls are hardly the worst of his problems though, once Castellanos realizes that he is under constant watchful eye of a hooded murderer, the same one who seems to be the ringleader of this dangerous facade world.
The fun of experiencing The Evil Within’s story is not soaking in the narrative but rather wondering what will come next, where will this tortured antagonist whisk Castellanos and his friends off to and what horrible situations and bleak images they’ll find. Its psychological twists aren’t too surprising, but it’s the journey that matters here. The presentation is rock solid, and everything is revealed with perfect pacing… whether you’re realizing it or not.
Certainly a lot more engaging than elementary battles of wit with a Napoleonic zombie midget.
If it Ain’t Broke, Make it Better
As far as The Evil Within’s approach to gameplay, there really isn’t that much you haven’t seen before here. Some areas fix parts of Resident Evil 4’s, other parts take it a few steps back.
The over the shoulder approach to gunplay has been an industry standard since Resident Evil 4 invented it in 2005, so the fact that The Evil Within pulls the same style off is not unexpected. It’s a mechanic every studio has perfected over the last decade, and the fact that Castellanos can walk and aim at the same time already puts him in a league higher than Resident Evil 4’s Leon Kennedy.
The Evil Within drops in a few extra modern ideas, some useful – like stealth – and others – like blind firing – less so. By and large, though, the gameplay remains intact and untouched. Clunky aiming at slow stumbling enemies, fumbling through an inventory with no pause, managing ammunition consumption for the next fight.
It’s a rinse and repeat formula, but Mikami’s team finds plenty of ways shake up expectations through clever level design, challenging boss fights, and scripted scenarios that do the mechanics justice.
Like its predecessors from earlier times, The Evil Within revels in its flaws to ratchet up the tension. Mikami used to use the excuse that old Resident Evil “tank controls” were there to make the game more tense, but all it really ended up being able to do was turn off a good portion of his potential audience.
The Evil Within has no such game-crippling element. It’s easy to pick up regardless of how much experience you have with its ancestors, but it has enough awkward kinks to challenge without frustrating like the best survival horror games.
No Misconceptions Here
Best of all though, The Evil Within is very well aware of what it is: a video game. It gives you some mechanics to toy with, drops you in its setting, and says have at it. You never get the feeling that this is an “immersive world where you are dedicated to playing a developer’s vision.” There are no Grand Theft Auto IV moments where your bullets don’t count until Rockstar is ready, no qualms that this is supposed to be “experienced, not enjoyed.”
Shinji Mikami is clearly influenced by horror cinema, as seen by his choice to go with a 2.35.1 aspect ratio and a more cinematic 30fps, but gameplay from The Evil Within shows the team had no aspirations or delusions about this being anything more than a fun video game.
If an exploit presents itself that Tango Gameworks might have overlooked, it’s fair game. An early boss fight sees a chainsaw wielding maniac burst through a wooden wall. Well, drop a few mines in front of where he leaps out from, and laugh as he explodes into tiny pieces without a fight. It’s things like this that the likes of AAA would never allow anymore, and it feels wonderful to be rewarded rather than punished for finding an exploit in 2014.
Our hero also gains experience points and improves his skills by gathering a green goo left behind dispatched enemies. He sometimes finds it tucked away in jars or cabinets, or he just scoops it off the ground where a mangled body just evaporated. From there, I guess he puts it in his pocket. No need to dive into the logistics or exposition of it. Just power-ups using good old-fashioned video game logic, no different than Mega Man.
He can also be whisked away to a safe haven “hospital” through the setting’s mirrors. Here, he can access his secrets found through hidden locker keys, save by chatting up the nurse that appears to be visiting from a Bayonetta game, and power an electric chair with the green goo to zap his brain and learn new skills.
Levels are broken up into stages with a clear beginning and end thanks to a menu screen or maybe even a boss fight. Ammo lies in the most convenient of places and is dropped by enemies who don’t have guns. All of that awkward PlayStation 2 logic, when gaming was stuck between being “games” and being “interactive immersive cinematic experiences,” is in full bloom here, and it is a wonderful breath of fresh air to revel in it once again.
You’ll Know If It’s For You
In fact, that sums up The Evil Within in its entirety. It’s a throwback that some are going to love and some are going to hate. I rag on the AAA market for recycling game trends year after year after year, but when an unoriginal game recycles decade old mechanics so precisely, it becomes something more.
The Evil Within isn’t totally without an original idea. The schizophrenic storytelling can carry its 15 to 20 hour length without much of a hitch, and the behind-the-scene RPG mechanics always provide something to look forward to in between save points and something to stress over when spending them.
If you loved titles like Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2 and think that the genre just hasn’t been the same since in recent years, then The Evil Within is an easy recommendation, even at full price. It’s a full package game that demands to be played at least twice, and it feels more like “Resident Evil 5” than the actual Resident Evil 5 does thanks to the genuine backing of a master of the craft.
If you don’t care to dabble in the past and prefer todays more polished and immersive gaming experiences, then The Evil Within might not be for you. Do some soul searching if you want to try it, but the $60 might be asking for a little much.
The Evil Within is by no means a perfect game. The give-and-take of this love affair with the olden days is sacrificing Resident Evil 4’s perfect level design, weapon choices, and tension for The Evil Within’s better graphics, a better story, and more streamlined, modern controls. It’s a balancing act that still sees Resident Evil 4 coming out way on top.
There’s no shame in coming up short on one of the greatest games ever made though. Mikami does his inspiration justice with this game, and any fan of his from the peak of his career can’t go wrong with The Evil Within.
Disclaimer: We purchased The Evil Within for the PlayStation 4 with company funds, and we played through the single player campaign before writing this review.