One of my first Playstation memories was the sheer terror I felt when dogs unexpectedly jumped through a hallway window in the original Resident Evil. I had never experienced the natural instinct of “Fight or Flight” within a videogame and at that moment I couldn’t wait to experience it again, and again…and again. Unfortunately in recent years the Survival Horror genre has become a shell of it’s former self and has morphed into a “Fight or Fight more” Action Horror genre as it chases the all mighty dollar. I, like many, have been pining for the triumphant return of this beloved genre. So who better to resurrect it than Legendary director Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame?
The game begins with veteran detective Sebastian Castellanos being called to the scene of a gruesome mass murder at a nearby mental Hospital. Accompanying Sebastian are his partners, Juli Kidman and Joseph Oda. Upon entering the hospital the detectives are greeted by dozens of disfigured bodies and enough blood to make a slaughterhouse blush. After hearing a distant gunshot Sebastian rushes to a nearby security monitor and witnesses a ghostly figure slaughtering three security guards within seconds. Before Sebastian can comprehend what he saw the apparition ambushes him, knocking him unconscious. Sebastian awakens in a deranged world with no idea of where he is, the whereabouts of his partners, or who is behind this evil force. While the story sounds promising it slowly unravels in a convoluted and disjointed way, as if the movie “Inception” had a baby with the movie “The Cell”. Sebastian is constantly shifting between locales, encountering enemies and situations that become more surreal by the minute. While this greatly enhanced the Survival Horror aspect, constantly keeping me on my toes and in fear of what will happen next, it ended up being gluttonous rather than fulfilling. More than half-way through the 15 chapters I was still lost and deciphering the narrative felt daunting, as if I were unraveling Christmas lights with vertigo. Then in the final few chapters, enemies that seemed to be mindless flesh eating creatures were suddenly self-aware, military gun-toting, bad asses. What? Why?! Couple that with a forgettable cast of characters including Sebastian who seems eerily calm and emotionless throughout the most mind-fucky experience a human being has ever endured. I kept hoping for the other shoe to drop, to encounter that “light bulb” plot twist moment where everything falls into place. Unfortunately that moment never happened and at the end of my 20-plus hour play through on Survival difficulty, I was still left with a clump of messy Christmas lights.
Thankfully the confusing storytelling is overlooked because of Mikami’s masterful direction of Survival Horror gameplay not seen since Resident Evil 4. The Evil Within offers a brilliant mix of stomach churning visuals and creepy sound effects constantly delivering goose-bump, sweaty-palmed, hair-raising, claustrophobic, horror-filled moments. The balance and pacing in this game are also outstanding, constantly replicating that “I just barely survived” feeling. I rarely felt comfortable, and was always on my heels dreading what was waiting for me in the next room. Scouring every nook and cranny for ammo and the hope that came along with it. Feeling like one extra bullet could be the difference between living and dying. Creatively utilizing whatever I had in my arsenal in the most efficient way possible. Without me even realizing it, the game had me putting a premium on surviving at all costs. For a Survival Horror game this is the most important aspect and Tango Gameworks absolutely nailed it. I constantly felt like I didn’t have enough ammo yet I always seemed to have just enough. I loved the suspense and tension this created as I lined up for that ever important headshot knowing that failure would mean almost certain death. Also it was extremely rare to ever have a full health bar so death was always lurking around the next corner; Which wasn’t such a bad thing since I was typically rewarded with an awesomely, gruesome death scene. Do yourself a favor and let the Chainsaw guy kill you, trust me it is worth it. Level design, although linear, is well crafted and clever, especially when it comes to avoiding and eventually utilizing the many traps you will encounter. I loved how it didn’t hold my hand but still made these ammo conserving opportunities obvious. I always felt clever when I was able to plan ahead and use a trap against a horde of enemies, or even kill one of the early level bosses. In one instance there was an oil slick on the ground in a hospital room. I’d seen a few of these already and noticed if enemies are near when lit, they will burst into flames. I decided to keep it in mind just in case things got hairy. Well, about 5 minutes later a horde of enemies ambushed me in a room down the hall. I ran back to the oil slick and when they got close I set it ablaze killing all six without ever firing a shot. Extremely rewarding, especially in a game where ammo is scarce and each enemy is like a T-1000.
While my experiences were mostly positive there were a few times I encountered some issues. First there are definitely graphical hiccups with both framerate and texture pop-in. While it doesn’t detract too much from the experience, it happens enough to be mentioned. Also the controls are still a bit clunky and some animations are too long. I don’t know if this is done on purpose to increase tension or stay true to the throwback charm of the game, but it does cause frustration when picking up items or trying to avoid traps and enemies. Lastly, the trial and error nature of the game is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great because it allows you to die in amazing entertaining ways and learn from your mistakes, but it can also be annoying when you need to retread areas, enemies and item pickups since your last checkpoint.
The Save Room mechanic is also a throwback to the Resident Evil days, even utilizing a typewriter to do so. While I found the autosave function a bit sporadic and at times would load me into situations that took a few seconds to regain my bearings, I still loved the angelic call of the save room’s creepy yet soothing music. The upgrade system is also well executed using Green Gel collected through exploration and downed enemies to upgrade Sebastian’s stats and weapons. It brings an added layer of depth and helps cater to your preferred play style. Another great addition is the Game + mode allowing you carry over your current upgrades, weapons and ammo for another play through. You will also gain access to some heavy weaponry which I won’t spoil, but if you’re familiar with Resident Evil 4’s Game + explosive treat then you will know what I am talking about. And if that isn’t enough there are multiple difficulty settings, tons of collectibles, and trophies to be had. More than enough incentive to endure the story one more time.
While the promising story ends in a tangled mess the balanced gameplay, imaginative enemies, unsettling atmosphere, resource scarcity, and well paced action make The Evil Within one of the best survival horror games I’ve ever played. The journey is far better than the destination and more importantly “Fight or Flight” is finally back and fans of the genre should welcome it with open arms.
*Review based on PS4 version. Also available on Xbox One, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360