Shinji Mikami has long neglected the survival horror genre, having created the Resident Evil series and overseeing the series development up to Resident Evil 4, finally returns home to the genre he pretty much created. The first title from his own development studio Tango Gameworks and published by Bethesda Softworks, The Evil Within feels like a great old Mikami game… by that I mean Resident Evil 4. The Evil Within feels like Resident Evil 4. A lot like it.
There’s an armed and active shooter in the local insane asylum. An unknown number inside are dead, including several police officers, so instead of sending in a SWAT unit to neutralize the shooter the city sends in Krimson City Police Detective Sebastian Castellanos, his partner Joseph Oda and rookie Detective Julie “Kid” Kidman. So already the suspension of disbelief is fairly high. It doesn’t take them long after arrival to find bodies everywhere and watch a supernatural antagonist, Ruvik, taking out the remaining police. Of course said supernatural antagonist immediately appear behind Castellanos. Without further ado he’s separated from his partners and in a twisted world of monsters and gore soaked walls.
The Evil Within’s story has a panicked “We’ve made this game but we forgot to give it a plot! Throw every cliche at the wall and see what sticks!” vibe to it. The problem is that they didn’t remove the stuff that didn’t stick and nothing is really explored in an interesting way. Add to that Sebastian being a boring character to spend time with. What he lacks in personality, he doesn’t make up for in tough-as-nails-been-there-done-that-brought-home-the-t-shirt attitude. While his sidekicks are a bit more interesting they’re not explored enough for them to really matter.
Dialog is as cheesy as it gets but not in the Resident Evil way. In those it’s a lovingly made cheese that fits the tone and helps make the experience, a high quality brie that would have gourmands fighting to the death for it. Here it’s more of processed cheese, it doesn’t really fit with the rest and doesn’t help anything along besides fill silence, a cheese in a spray can that gets clogged if left sitting on the table for a minute. The voice cast is… well… they’re there and that’s about it. While Jackie Earle Haley is solid as Ruvik, the man just does creepy evil bastards well, and Yuri Lowenthal gives a little life to Oda, the others are a master class in mediocrity. Maybe they’re just lazy and wanted a quick paycheck. I haven’t decided which. What makes this worse is that they’ve spent a fair amount on the voice cast and cast actors whose work is at least known to a more general audience. Anson Mount brings his full skills to Castellanos, meaning he fails to emote or even bring the slightest amount of depth or shading to his performance and doesn’t even bother to sound like the world weary character the dialog tries so hard to make him out to be. Jennifer Carpenter’s go as Kidman is fortunately brief as she only pops up a little and for fairly short spans of time, tragically she’ll be front and center for at least two of the coming DLC.
The Evil Within’s levels look fantastic. The changes in environments from chapter to chapter offer a fair amount of interesting settings. The lighting effects are well done to highlight the environments and give each one a distinct feel. While none of them are really anything unique, they are all done with care and an eye for detail. Several of the stages are really incredible sights. It’s too bad that Mikami doesn’t allow them to do their work. Almost every area is splattered with gore and has corpses shoved into every corner to the point of overkill. Instead of letting them work as they are for effectively creepy settings. Mikami simply overcrowds them. They’re too busy to let them really do their job of heightening tension or giving an interesting experience. To make it worse is the choice to cram the screen in a letterbox format. I guess its in an effort to make it all feel more like a movie but it doesn’t. Instead it just makes things harder to see. The smaller more interesting details need to be nearly stood on and can be overlooked entirely. The traps tossed throughout each level and items occasionally disappear in the cramped frame. It makes the experience more frustrating instead of absorbing.
Characters and enemy models all have a very dated look to them. On top of that none of them are very unique looking. The normal level enemies are all very cut and paste from every other horror title, glowing eyed zombie like creatures. The bosses are all gigantic variations on popular characters from other titles. One that you keep running into is a masked guy with a chainsaw… something that you have never seen in another Mikami game. Except, of course, Resident Evil 4. There’s a Pyramid Head knock off, this time with a safe wrapped with rust barbed wire. There’s a long haired onryo with multiple arms. While they’re still effective they just make the experience feel like a retread when facing them.
Combat is a mixed experience. While I found the stealth to be really solid and fun when it’s a workable option. The head on encounters grew very tiring. Your character just moves too slowly when aiming, the camera zooms in ever more completely blocking out the majority of what’s happening around you. Melee attacks, which are pointlessly weak in most cases, will go wide of the mark and as just swung wildly. Precision and accuracy is nearly impossible with most weapons since the frame rate has a tendency to drop when you need it the most and enemies will suddenly vanish from your well lined up shot to be right on top of you and just to the left well outside of your view. The boss fights are more often puzzles than direct combat, which works really well and makes every confrontation interesting… except… many of them deliver one hit kills and the load time that follows can get almost painfully frustrating.
The Evil Within is not a bad game by any means. It just doesn’t ever live up to its potential or take any new paths that we haven’t all taken before. There are several fantastic moments but they are surrounded with mediocrity or with so much frustration that just walking away often seems like the only rational thing to do. It’s definitely not for everybody. I prefer to look at it as a warm-up for Mikami and Tango. There’s enough here to give hope for whatever they have next up their sleeves, even though it’s not enough to make The Evil Within work as well as it should.
7.5/10- The frustration, lack of scares or suspense, some blatantly bad design choices and annoying combat undermine what has moments that could have made this a new classic in the genre… but if it is your kind of game it’s worth sticking it out. Only for die hard Survival Horror fans.