As I sat at the kitchen table, hands sweating, pulse elevated, anger finally beginning to subside, I pondered the reasons why I continued to play Shinji Mikami’s 2014 award winning survival horror game, The Evil Within. There appears to be two aspects to surviving this game. One being the obvious survival of protagonist Sebastian Castellanos within the nightmarish but fascinating world the game delivers. The second being a slightly less ordinary and certainly more important one. You must also survive your very own ever impending lunacy as you repeat grueling, absurdly difficult and often unintuitive scenes frequented throughout. I feared playing it as much as I feared the horrors placed before my eyes. Despite all of this, I found myself compelled to go back time and time again, like a pseudo masochist or somebody wedded to the slogan ‘no pain, no game’. On I went…
“I feared playing it as much as I feared the horrors placed before my eyes.”
Let’s start from the beginning. The game’s Director, Shinji Mikami, has been responsible for some of the gaming worlds horror classics, such as Resident Evil 1 and 4 and Dino Crisis. The Evil Within follows a in a similar vein and often pays homage to them in some of the scenes, including the now famous Zombie turning head reveal. Sometimes I did get the feeling I was playing in the past rather than the future of horror gaming. It is shot in third person with a setting that is as claustrophobic as it is bloodcurdling. The game is split into chapters of varying lengths and difficulties and contains many of the usual traits of the horror genre but then manages to take these to the next level. Ammo for the most part is highly limited. So much so that it can actually render certain sections impossible without resetting the chapter and finding a more stealthy ways to progress. The enemy AI seems more intelligent than in prior horror installments and some of the bosses are unequivocally tough. Mikami himself claims this was all part of the plan. He wanted to create an uncompromising environment that left the player constantly on edge and with the feeling that they wouldn’t make it through. In this respect he was certainly very successful. This aspect of the game, while often frustrating, does add to the tense atmosphere and also makes each milestone completed fill you with both relief and pride.
You play a detective named Sebastian Castellanos who, alongside two colleagues, is called to investigate the scene of a bloody massacre at Beacon Mental Hospital in Krimson City. Upon arrival you see a white hooded figure on the security cameras. He looks directly at you and then vanishes, only to reemerge behind. In one quick movement he injects you with some unknown substance and you are banished from the scene. When you regain consciousness you find yourself hanging upside down with a perverted and sinister looking butcher carving up bodies one by one and you appear to be next on the list. Once you cut yourself free, you’re then tasked with sneaking up to the cutting table, stealing the keys and unlocking the exit door, all while not being spotted by this ever present and grotesque creature. You carefully and quietly move up the stairs to apparent safety. You are free!? Not so fast… In a fleeting moment you have stumbled over a tripwire and set off the alarm. This is when the fun begins… Your formidable foe is onto you in a flash, this time wielding a rather large chainsaw and he means business! You are then subjected to several intense and grueling chase scenes, some involving stealth as you pass your new best friend as quietly as possible and others just pure adrenaline induced running as serrated traps close in on you. And there we have it. You have now been plunged into the brutal world that is The Evil Within. This opening scene amounts to one of my favorites in horror gaming history. However, it doesn’t go unnoticed that if the opening scenes are anything to go by, and they are, you’re in for one hell of a demanding and unrelenting ride. This is both the beauty and a somewhat downfall of the game. One minute you are in awe of the chilling backdrops and deadly villains out to get you, the next you descend into pure animosity and self-hate as you attempt the same segments time and time again in order to pass through it unscathed. There are bosses in the latter stages of the game that would honestly go down as some of the toughest things I’ve ever been tasked with doing in my relatively short life. Perhaps this can be put down to the fact that I haven’t achieved a whole lot but more likely on this occasion it is because they are just ludicrously hard!
Your safe haven throughout the game is the despair filled walls of a mental asylum that contains an inexplicable nurse and save point. It is here that you can also level Sebastian up in ability and weapons using a currency known as ‘green gel’. The leveling up system is admirably intriguing but also a sure-fire way of setting yourself up for disaster right from the get-go. You usually begin a chapter here and there will be a midway point where you can choose to enter too. The way to access this space is through mirrors that portal you there. You always know when one is approaching because you hear the soothing tones of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune gradually intensifying as you get closer to the mirror. This song has never sounded so good, as you bask in the serenity of its brief respite. Trust me, you will understand once you have played the game for a short while. Combat is not one of the games strengths with a cumbersome system I found difficult to master in tight situations. You are often forced to change weapon quickly in order to survive, and let’s just say, I didn’t always achieve that feat. However, in my opinion the choice of weapons is just right and leveling them up feels very satisfying and makes a notable difference to your subsequent endeavors.
Probably one of the strongest elements of the game is the general ambiance and attention to detail in the designs of each section. From blood stained floors, to decaying hallways, the sense of suffocating doom is always upon you. The level design is impeccable. From beautiful gothic mansions to eerie morgues containing winding dimly lit corridors. You always get the sense that something terrifying awaits you around that next bend. The game is linear but wonderfully paced and the more frequent enemies are varied just enough that they keep you interested and equally on edge.
“You always get the sense that something terrifying awaits you around that next bend.”
Something many critics have pointed to is that while the storyline is engrossing enough to keep you going and its strengths in horror are there for all to see, the acting really does let the game down. It is reminiscent of the first Silent Hill game, where the dialogue is as frightening as the game itself. The best way to describe it would be that it was on par with a 70’s Zombie B-movie or better yet, a porn flick. Sebastian’s reactions to the many countless depraved and chilling things thrown at him is borderline comical and often takes something away from the overall atmosphere. Without giving anything away, it has to be said that large portions of the plot appear to go unexplained after completion and this make for a slightly underwhelming conclusion. Downloadable content has been released since which is said to tie up many of the loose ends but this seems a bit hollow when you have already forked out up to $60 for the game.
All in all, I am glad I completed The Evil Within. I dedicated a lot of time slugging away at it and while I certainly had my reservations, as this review makes evident, it is undeniable the impact it had on me. I must confess that without a Youtube walkthrough in the concluding stages I don’t know where I would be today. Possibly on the floor somewhere in a vegetative state muttering incomprehensible words to myself. You are rewarded with a scorecard at the end of the game and mine reminded me that I had spent in excess of 18 hours trudging through it and had died a colossal 80 times. This number of fatalities would actually be even greater if it wasn’t for the fact that I loaded once death seemed inevitable on countless occasions. The Evil Within is as punishing as it is captivating. I admire its dedication to the survival horror genre and it pushes the boundaries of what is possible while still being enjoyable. The game wasn’t as frightening as some of the critics would have you believe. Nevertheless, there are sure to be scenes that have you quaking in your boots, questioning whether you want to open that rusty blood splattered door before you. For me the intrigue is enough to have me ready for more anger provocation. I think I am finally there again. All that is left to do it press play and find out what new terrors await me in The Evil Within 2…