This is part of a special Halloween feature that will provide a brief overview of the horror genre, with different recommendations for every type of player. You might notice that the games in this series tend to get pretty good ratings. There are two reasons for this. 1) I’m partial to the horror genre, it happens to be my favourite in gaming. 2) This is a feature of games that I would recommend, therefore they’re bound to be scored highly.
And from one classy, artful and restrained game, we now transfer to looking at an unashamed shlock-fest from veteran horror director Shinji Mikami. The Evil Within is almost the antithesis of Alan Wake in every respect. Where the latter dared to focus on narrative, atmosphere and experimental storytelling, the former just cranks the gore and visceral imagery up to 11 and never once relents. If Outlast was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of horror games, then this is The Evil Dead, with bloody violence and grotesque imagery that is so over the top, that it borders on comical. But therein lies the appeal. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but it commits to its ghost-train sensibility so wholeheartedly, that it’s hard not to have a little bit of fun.
Story-wise, this one is just as difficult to summarise as Alan Wake, but not because it’s particularly elaborate or complex. The issue here is more that the entire script is absolute bollocks of the highest order. Something about a shared consciousness experiment and the physical manifestations of a killer’s mind. I don’t know. It’s basically Inception if all the projections were monsters and the whole thing was incoherent bobbins. It even does the city folding on top of itself thing.
Of all the game’s that I’m going to recommend in this series, this is definitely the weakest in the narrative department. The characters are bland at best, and utterly confusing at worst, the structure is appalling, the lore and rules are frequently muddled, and the exposition in particular is truly baffling. Information is dolled out at such an inconsistent rate, with Mikami spending ages making sure that we have a firm grasp of certain obvious things (like character names and tragic backstories), and then totally forgetting to explain vital concepts. It’s so bizarre!
For example, it’s detailed over and over again how a certain character lost his mind and changed his identity, and each time it’s presented as if we’ve never received the information before. Meanwhile, a salient plot point regarding a supposedly important patient at the asylum is skipped over entirely, and we’re just expected to understand his central importance and inexplicable powers. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling things, but I’ve never experienced storytelling like this, where the trite is spoon-fed to the audience repeatedly, whilst the more confusing aspects of the story are completely glossed over. You’ll simultaneously be frustrated at the pandering and lost all at the same time.
Luckily, the game has enough redeeming qualities to overcome its narrative shortcomings. For a start, the enemy design here is impeccable. From Siamese twins with wormy faces, to a J-horror girl with arachnid limbs, and a relentless stalker with a safe for a head, every creature here is both imaginative and intimidating. They also make for pleasingly diverse encounters, as each monster has different abilities and weaknesses. It helps ensure that no two set-pieces ever feel the same, as one minute you’re scanning for displacements in the water, in order to try and track down an invisible foe, and the next you’re trying to lull another tenacious enemy into a furnace. Even the standard fodder antagonists are refreshing in that they are not zombies, nor do they behave like zombies. These are more like deadities, with traces of their human personalities intact and the ability to wield makeshift weapons, survive bullets to the head, and search in hiding spots. In the monster department, The Evil Within certainty gets an A+.
Combat is also satisfying and challenging, even if the difficulty curve is occasionally too steep. There’s a pleasing sense of strategy to fighting, meaning that you have to learn certain tricks and methods in order to overcome the often overwhelming odds. From using melee weapons to conserve ammo, to making use of environmental advantages, and learning when to use what guns, there’s a lot to keep in mind. There’s also a competent stealth mechanic, and an accessible crafting system that allows you to build different types of crossbow bolts, both of which help the gameplay strike a good balance between action and horror. The only real issue with the design is that ammo distribution is far too inconsistent. For a game that throws hordes and hordes of monsters your way, you really need to have a fighting chance, something which The Evil Within often forgets to provide.
Some of the boss battles can accordingly feel overtly punishing or downright unfair. One in particular proved to be literally impossible for me, due to the fact that I had no health syringes and therefore had to try and limp my way through the level. Suffice it to say, this particular boss was too fast for that to work, and I had to go back to a much early save so that I actually could tackle the situation in the proper condition. It’s a shame, because the boss battle was initially quite scary and intense, before I lost patience with it. That’s something you should be prepared for as well; lots of frustration. With enemies that soak up bullets, bosses that are capable of insta-kills, and a general lack of supplies, this game can often test the patience of even the most hardcore horror gamer. On the one hand, I like the the sense of powerlessness and vulnerability, on the other, fear can very quickly turn into annoyance, and what was once a petrifying menace can soon become a major nuisance, as is often the case here.
Another problem with the game is that it is thoroughly unoriginal. Every good idea it has is taken from either Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, Outlast, Alone in the Dark, or Amnesia. In some cases the steals are quite blatant; ‘The Keeper’ is an obvious Pyramid Head knock-off, the invisible water enemies are plucked straight from Amnesia, and the entire first act of Resident Evil 4 is ripped off level-for-level. Even gameplay mechanics are copied over from the aforementioned games, with foes that you need to burn in order to destroy (AITD), and moments in which you’ll be hiding under beds in a derelict insane asylum (Outlast). In some instances these similarities are clearly deliberate homages, but in others I’m not so sure. Either way, it all feels too familiar for a horror fanatic like myself, and just makes me wish I was playing some of those other games. Still, there’s something kind of enjoyable about the ‘horror’s greatest hits’ style of this game. It’s like playing through a Top 20 list of the best horror games, which I mean as both a good and a bad thing.
This mixtape approach to horror also resultants in one of the most endearingly stupid aspects of the game; it’s absolute disregard for tone. I’m not even being sarcastic, I do find it kind of charming. Indeed, this is a game so all over the place, that it begins with you being stalked by a single enemy, unable to defend yourself at all, and ends with you in a flying Humvee firing a turret gun at a giant, fleshy Kaiju. Because the game is cherry-picking the best bits from a multitude of sources, it has no idea what it wants to be. High octane action-horror? Outlast style stealth-game? Silent Hill esque exploration of the psyche? Old-school survival horror? Zombie shooter? Is it set in a creepy old asylum or is it focused on an apocalyptic. city-wide disaster? Who knows? Why not try all of them? There’s literally one part of the game that has you transition from buddy-cop action tropes in a B-movie setting, to suddenly exploring dark and dusty catacombs alone. It’s a clumsy move, one that tries to weave between camp and disturbing in the space of a loading screen. Luckily, I happen to enjoy all these different types of horror, otherwise this would get on my nerves.
I think the compilation nature of The Evil Within is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Yes, it does mean we get to relive some fantastic moments from other games, but it also results in a messy structure, incoherent story, and a lack of originality. Still, if you can get past these failings (and the off-putting difficulty), then there’s a lot of guilty fun to be had with this title.
RECOMMENDATION: FOR HARDCORE HORROR FANS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCE WITH THE GENRE AND WANT A BIT OF EVERYTHING. JUST DON’T EXPECT MUCH FROM THE STORY.
The Evil Within is available now on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.