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SummaryLost in the mind maze
The Good* Excellent pacing and encounter design
* Nice weapon variety
* Deep upgrade and crafting system
* Good setpiece moments
The Bad* Janky, stiff controls
* Gameplay mechanics are poorly implemented or underutilized
* Some frustrating bosses
* Disappointing story that makes zero sense
* Generic, dull settings
The Bottom LineThe Evil Within, which is referred to by the much cooler title “PsychoBreak” in Japan, is a horror-themed action adventure helmed by designer Shinji Mikami at his new Tokyo studio, Tango Gameworks. Mikami is famously responsible for the creation of the Resident Evil series and by extension the survival horror genre. It’s also a series I have very little experience with. So rather than try to compare it to his Resident Evil 4, which is the game most people have compared this to, I’ll be looking at The Evil Within as its own standalone product.
You play as Sebastian Castellanos, a hard-boiled detective who is hot on the trail of a serial killer known as Ruvik, who is terrorizing Beacon Mental hospital. After entering the hospital, Sebastian and his comrades are attacked by Ruvik. Sebastian wakes up in a nightmarish world filled with strange creatures who all are out to kill him. Tossed around from place to place by the will of a madman, Sebastian and his buddies will need to use their wits and make every shot count if they intend to stop Ruvik once and for all.
The Evil Within is surprisingly not as scary as I might have thought going into it. It was, of course, hyped up by Bethesda as the scariest game ever made. There were a couple of effectively creepy moments and some “gotcha” fakeouts, but I was never so scared that I wanted to just Alt-F4 the game. It is almost certainly among the most gory games ever made, though. Many of the death scenes had me absolutely wincing upon seeing them, and the game contains truckfuls of blood and guts. Even by the standards of most video games, this is truly gruesome and nasty stuff, and I’m a bit shocked that this only got a Mature rating. This is one title the squeamish should definitely avoid.
The Evil Within is also a very psychedelic game. There are all sorts of fake rooms, strobe effects, sudden gravity shifts, and other strange visual and environmental touches to keep the player constantly off-balance. These moments were often very well done. It’s a shame, then, that the settings themselves are often extremely generic, playing off of horror tropes. If you’ve seen it in a horror game or movie before, it’s here: creepy mental hospital, abandoned church, dark villages, etc. For a game that is set inside the mind of a killer, the game doesn’t unleash its creativity as much as it should, despite the occasional inventive set pieces. Only during the very end does the game offer the kind of whacked out insanity I was looking for, but by then its almost too late.
The Evil Within is a survival horror game designed in a way where you’re almost never fully stocked up on ammo and resources to survive. The game plays like a third-person shooter, with a behind the shoulder perspective. In fact, I felt that the game resembled a shooter a bit too much at times. Some ares consist of firefights with enemies that have the same kinds of weapons that you do. You’ll also solve the occasional braindead “puzzle” and do your best to avoid the Saw-like traps that litter the environments.
Exploration is a key part of the game. You’ll need to look in every nook and cranny to find ammunition, health items, and other collectibles. It is important to be as stocked up as you can be at all times, as whenever you feel sufficiently stocked, the game will almost inevitably throw waves of enemies or a challenging boss at the player. There’s a nice rhythm that the game settles into between exploration and action sections, never settling in one for too long.
Sebastian’s arsenal mostly consists of standard weapons such as a dagger, a pistol, a shotgun, and grenades. These all function as you would normally expect. The most interesting weapon by far is the Agony Crossbow, which is acquired in Chapter 3. This crossbow fires different types of ammunition which have different effects. Explosive ammunition is practically essential for taking down bosses but can also be used to deal with crowds of enemies as well. Shock and freeze bolts will lock enemies in place, allowing you to do extra damage to them with another weapon. Flash bolts blind enemies. It’s not as useful as other types but can be used to set up a stealth kill or to blind an enemy and make a quick getaway. Finally, harpoons can kill enemies instantly with a headshot, and are the only ranged weapon that can kill silently. When upgraded fully, harpoons can do fire damage, which can be hugely beneficial. This takes by far the most gel out of any upgrade, however. These bolts can be acquired through exploring the environment, but in order to get the most out of the crossbow, you’re going to need to collect trap parts. Throughout the adventure, you’ll run across tripwires, chests, and bombs which you can disarm to earn trap parts. You then repurpose trap parts into any of the bolt types. You can also lure enemies into existing traps, but I found it better most of the time to disarm them if I could, as the traps could generally be repurposed into something much more useful rather than just situational.
The one thing that just about all enemies in this game hate is fire. In addition to his weapons, Sebastian also has a supply of matches that the player can use to light enemies on fire. This works as a finishing move for several enemies: if you knock them down, you can rush over and burn them to a crisp. If you burn a body while enemies are standing on top of it, they will catch fire as well, though in the heat of battle this is quite hard to pull off. Sebastian’s animation for lighting and dropping a match takes a few seconds, and enemy attacks can interrupt it if they hit Sebastian making this a bit finicky to pull off. It can help you to preserve ammo for tougher fights. You can also shoot flammable objects instead for the same effect. When all of these elements are put together, you have a combat system that, while somewhat clunky, is nevertheless satisfying to use.
Every so often (about once or twice per chapter, to be exact), you will find side rooms that contain mirrors to an alternate world. You’ll know you’ve found them when you hear Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” and see the beacon logo. In this alternate world, which resembles a mental asylum, you can save your game, and upgrade Sebastian using the green ‘Brain Gel” that you have collected over the course of the game. These upgrades include increasing Sebastian’s health, sprint time, weapon damage, and inventory space. You’re absolutely going to want to seek out as much brain gel as you can, as some of the later enemies and bosses in this game are no joke. Most of the time, you’ll find gel in bottles hidden in crates and other places, but some enemies as well as bosses will drop gel when killed, so it’s not a bad idea to kill as much as you can along the way.
You can also find these little statues of a woman that when broken, grant a key which can give you access to various items stored in the back room of the safe asylum. These are often hidden in out-of-the way or obscure places, and you’ll need a keen eye to spot them.
There was one word floating through my mind as I played through this game: janky. There’s an odd stiffness to the entire thing that puts me at arms length. There are a lot of good ideas here, but they are implemented in such a half-baked manner that I’m left wondering why they even included them in the first place. As an example, one area contains small cans of flammable liquid that you can move around. You are supposed to place them into areas which you can then ignite to create traps for the waves of enemies that spawn in. Sebastian can’t simply pick up the liquid, however, instead, he moves it around by kicking it. Why can’t he just use his hands?
Another factor that really let me down was the game’s use of stealth. After the first few levels, I was thinking that this would be a really cool hybrid of stealth and horror - supplies are limited and shooting enemies makes noise. The best ways to deal with enemies is either to sneak past them or sneak behind them and give them a nice stab in the head. You even have the option of hiding in cabinets or under certain objects as well, but this is barely necessary to actually use outside of the first chapter, making it a pointless mechanic in the grand scheme of things. I found that much of the subsequent chapters either had Sebastian running down a corridor from enemies, fighting a boss, or killing tons of enemies in waves. Some later enemies can’t even be stealth killed, meaning that you’ll just have to run right past them if you’re out of ammo. There were occasional moments where the stealthy gameplay of the first few chapters would re-appear, but these were a bit too few and far between for my liking.
The bosses were hit and miss. Most of them were extremely satisfying and tense fights, relying more on the player’s wits and reflexes rather than raw firepower (though that helps somewhat too). However, one extremely frustrating boss in Chapter 10 was designed in such a way where its hard-to-avoid second phase can kill the player in a single hit, regardless of how much health they have. This boss took me an agonizing two hours to beat. The final boss, while no doubt impressive from a visual perspective, was nothing more than an extended quick-time event, and reminded me more of a Time Crisis-style arcade game rather than the PC/console game I was playing. It’s painfully clear that Tango Gameworks either ran out of money or time by this point and just decided to quickly slap something together to wrap the game up.
Finally, the story was kind of a mess. It was fun while playing through it, but once I reached the end of the game I realized that none of the threads seemed to be resolved or concluded in a satisfactory way. There are some interesting themes touched upon, but this is only lip service at best. When I can learn more about the story by reading the game’s Wikipedia article over actually playing the game, something is seriously amiss with the writing. Part of the problem is the presence of two story-driven DLCs that I didn’t purchase, which parallel the base game’s plot, and as far as I can tell are absolutely crucial to having the plot make any kind of sense. Really, though, I shouldn’t have to buy extra content just to understand what’s going on in the base game!
Graphically, this is kind of an ugly game. It is meant to be unpleasant of course: the settings are grimy and run-down, the creatures are misshapen and disturbing, and there are buckets of blood at every turn. Yet the actual graphics themselves really aren’t much to look at. Shadows have a very short draw distance, and texture pop-in is very frequent. I’m told this is an issue with the engine that the game uses, id Tech 5. There are occasional impressive dynamic lighting effects, which is very important in a game like this. One sequence in particular took place entirely by the light of my lantern, with all of the lights going out and the screen going completely dark. However, this won’t be a game that I’ll remember for its looks.
The sound design is pretty creepy at times, with loud booms, screams and slimy viscera all around. Its very effective stuff. The same can’t be said of the voice acting, which is hit or miss at best. Most of the characters come off as bland, without much personality of their own, though Ruvik, the villain, is effectively creepy. The music isn’t terribly memorable outside of the usage of classical pieces and the game’s theme song, it’s hard to remember anything else from the game’s soundtrack.
I’ll admit that I actually kind of liked The Evil Within, but it has a ton of issues. For everything it does right, there is something else holding it back. The combat is enjoyable and even satisfying at times, yet the controls feel clunky. Some interesting mechanics are either poorly implemented or very under-utilized. The game is very atmospheric, but the environments themselves are kind of generic. There are quite a few intense setpieces, yet the story is highly unrewarding. If you really enjoy horror games, and more specifically action-horror games, it’s certainly worth a look, but The Evil Within is not likely to draw in too many players outside of that audience.