Detective Sebastian Castellanos is having a bad day. While investigating multiple homicides at Beacon Mental Hospital, he is thrown into a nightmare of gore, horror and monsters whose sole purpose in life is to stamp on his face until his skin falls off and his eyeballs pop. Welcome to the twisted world of The Evil Within.
To say Bethesda’s new title is dripping in blood is akin to suggesting that Usain Bolt is ‘a bit fast’. Certain areas of the game are awash with the red stuff with huge vats of blood to wade through, corpses and body parts piled up in corners and, if you are unlucky, you will watch some of the most graphic death animations ever seen in a video game. The first of these you will encounter within minutes of starting the game as your first task is to retrieve a set of keys, which in turn will allow you to escape from a human abattoir. If spotted by the butcher – who has just gutted and halved one of your fellow abattoir guests – you will be treated to a close up of Sebastian’s head being cleaved from his body by a large axe, and blood spurting like a fire hose from his neck.
As you may have guessed from the barbed wire box art, The Evil Within has more in common with movies like Hostel and Saw than traditional spooky horror films. There is the occasional jump scare as something with far more legs than necessary screams out at you from behind a door, but the overall tone is set by swarms of cockroaches, dismembered bodies and the most disgusting squelching noises you have ever heard. It is without doubt the grimmest game since The Suffering on PlayStation 2, but all the better for it.
The Evil Within also has a lot in common with the Resident Evil series, not surprising when the creator of that series, Shinji Mikami, also served as director on this new game. The standard Evil Within enemies are the Ganados from Resident Evil 4 in all but name, there is boss with a giant chainsaw, invisible enemies, deformed dogs, mansions, traps and plenty of Resident Evil style puzzles in which flicking the incorrect switch will result in spikes slamming up from the floor, killing your character without warning.
The game also inherits some of Resident Evil’s problems, from terrible points of logic to a poor and cheesy script. “I’d better hold on to this,” explains Sebastian as he picks up a chainsaw, but less than five seconds later I have to use the chainsaw on a thick metal chain and not the wooden door that the chain holds shut, which would have been much easier to cut through. Job done, Sebastian throws away the chainsaw, less than ten seconds after emphatically exclaiming that he needed to keep it.
To aid the detective in his hellish quest there are a number of weapons including a pistol, shotgun and the Agony Crossbow, a hefty weapon that can fire bolts that electrify, harpoon or explode. All of these can be upgraded, as can Sebastian’s abilities and stats. Sebastian can also dismantle explosive devices and bear traps, thus gaining parts to create new arrows for your crossbow. Alternatively you may wish to leave the traps in place and lure enemies in to them. How you play is up to you.
You can melee attack enemies but this serves to knock them back rather than kill them, thus giving you a few seconds to run off and hide. There’s plenty of hiding places to try, whether it’s under beds, in cupboards, or behind walls, anywhere to keep out of sight of the local population who have taken to decorating their faces with smashed glass and spikes and now want to give you the same make-over. If you do manage to hide and the enemy has passed by, you can creep out and get a one hit stealth kill by sneaking up behind them, but even then they may still be a threat. Downed enemies do not always stay dead, and the only way to make sure they are never getting up is to burn them by using one of your limited supply of matches.
Fellow investigators Julie “Kid” Kidman and Joseph Oda appear sporadically throughout the game, as do a doctor and patient you rescued from the Beacon Mental Hospital. Joseph is particularly welcome as he is well armed and usually appears at just the right moment, but don’t get too used to their company, because you might turn a corner and have reality warp, separating you from your friends, though that could be preferable to them succumbing to the evil and attacking you.
To save the game you must find a mirror and stare into it, transporting you to a hospital, a safe haven with single nurse. The hospital also has a morgue which contains bonus items to help with your quest and a large chair which you can use to upgrade your stats. However, returning to the “real world” also respawns the enemies. I had spent quite a long time clearing out the threats in one area only to find they had all returned after I had nipped off to the hospital to perform an upgrade. There is also a truly amusing/frustrating sequence part way through the game that will have you chuckling and cursing the game’s designers in equal measure. They are truly are evil.
Sound is always important in horror games and The Evil Within has some of the best audio design since the original Dead Space. Voices call from empty cells, unseen things go squelch in the night and possessed villagers will scream as they search for you. Their fevered cries will help you locate and avoid threats, but if you make too much noise by kicking a door open you can alert them to your location.
Technically, the game impresses with atmospheric particle effects, dynamic lighting and a wonderful 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In addition to the reality warping effects, there are also a couple of explosive set pieces that can dramatically alter the world and location around you. Unfortunately the game seems to have been held back slightly by targeting last gen as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Facial animations are flat, textures occasionally pop in and, in one section wading through debris that is floating on top of water sees it travel straight through Sebastian’s body as if he were not there.
Outside of occasional bugs that had me restart and survived the day one patch – the most amusing of which saw Sebastian’s wig fly off his head and bobble around on screen as he got caught stooping to pick something up – my main grievance is that the game reloads the area every time you die, and since you will die a lot this can be quite annoying, as it drags out of the game and makes you watch a progress bar fill up for twenty seconds. Adding to that, Detective Castellanos is possibly the world’s least fit policeman, as he can only manage to sprint for three seconds before having to stop and catch his breath. Obviously, if he could run about at full speed like a normal human you could skip past the majority of enemies, so it in the interests of game design that he can’t run too far, but it does seem a little silly.
Small niggles aside, it’s the story that will keep you playing. Occasional clues are left on voice recorders or scrawled on notes and at the beginning of the game you will have no idea what, or indeed who, is real. Corridors lengthen in front of your eyes, doorways vanish, gravity will flip ninety degrees as you plummet to your death and you will frequently travel to a completely different location just by walking forward one step.
The introduction of new weapons and enemies, such as the squid-like Quell and horrendous Devil Dog keeps the pace up during the fifteen or so hours of game time and a couple of difficulty levels mean the game has some replay value. As you progress you do feel like you are edging closer to the truth, a horrific truth that will probably be covered in human intestines and gnawing the limbs off screaming babies, but a truth nonetheless.
Despite borrowing a lot of well-worn themes from other games and movies (Hello, creepy shop mannequins from Silent Hill), The Evil Within feels fresh and exciting. It’s easy to recommend to fans of the original Dead Space and the earlier Resident Evil games.
Version tested: PlayStation 4