For fans of the survival horror genre, the recent surge of such games has surely been a source of much terrified joy. In amidst this rise comes a game from a legend of the industry, with Shinji Mikami returning to his old stomping grounds with The Evil Within.
Working with Bethesda and his freshly founded studio at Tango Gameworks, it’s his first attempt at the survival horror genre since his work on Resident Evil 4 rejuvenated the series which he had created. Indeed, it’s to that game and that series where I feel the Evil Within has the strongest ties, though thankfully the control scheme is a lot more fluid and natural than it was almost a decade ago.
Picking up the game a few chapters in, and I took control of Detective Sebastian Castellanos as he travels to an orphanage on the trail of a boy, Leslie, who seems to be the source of everything that’s going wrong. Accompanying him is Doctor Jimenez, to return Leslie to his care. It’s apparent almost immediately that this is not likely to be a place that’s conducive to good mental health, but it goes even further than this, with the mutilated and transformed bodies of those that have surely died shuffling around.
Immediately, I’m on my guard as I tentatively approach small fire with three of these being meandering back and forth. Yet, despite trying to hide and sneak up for a melee kill, I’m quite easily spotted as I crouch in the shadows, and find myself churning through my limited supply of bullets as they come towards me. But even as my shots land – always aiming to remove the head or destroy the brain – it doesn’t necessarily kill them, with these twisted beings often getting back up to come after me once more.
Without an explosive headshot or stealth kill, the only way to put them down for good is to set them alight, but this just puts further emphasis on the need to scavenge throughout the world for bullets, matches and other parts. Backing up the detective’s pistol was a rather tasty shotgun, though with even more limited ammunition supplies, and there’s always the Agony Crossbow, with its varied and powerful crossbow bolts, which can do anything from deliver an electric shock to setting proximity mines.
Those weapons come into play during the pitched battles, defending yourself from a massed wave of enemies, but they will often take a backseat to other elements, as the Tango Gameworks flex their creative muscles. The instances of fraught combat give way to tense exploration and scavenging, never quite sure what might be around the corner. Sometimes, you simply have to run away, with your weapons unable to hurt the monster that chases you.
The mansion, set much deeper into the game, also exhibited a greater degree of puzzling. As the plot no doubt twists and turns on the way there, this was quite a nice call back to where Shinji Mikami started in Resident Evil, and as Sebastian encounters a huge locked door, it gives you the freedom to pick the direction to explore and find how to open it.
The undead wandered around, as I explored, and my reflexes were tested by a couple of devilish traps, but it was the puzzles at the end of each route that the game was at its most gleefully gruesome. The locks to that main door were somehow activated by brain impulses, and listening to recordings, I had to place a probe in the right part of the brain to trigger it. Then again, this is a game that will also feature rooms almost entirely red with blood and had me rummage around in a body for some keys.
The tendrils of insanity seem to take root in the minds of everyone, whether it’s the twisted experiments on brains or encountering the clearly deranged owner and doctor at the orphanage. However, it manifests itself for the good detective with some fantastic visual trickery.
Just at the point where the plot seems to be taking a turn for the good, the level transformed, blocking off a path that previously existed and then cutting Sebastian off from the Doctor and Leslie at the orphanage, lending a suitably cinematic twist to the gradual spread of the lunacy and, combined with certain implacable foes, can be a particularly powerful method of unexpectedly pulling the rug out from under.
While it’s stylistically very strong, with the pervasive darkness that shrouds the forboding environments and, of course, the inventively grisly horror that is at every turn, lt’s a slight shame that, playing the PC version, it seems to miss some of the graphical prowess that you might expect from the new generation of hardware.
That’s perfectly forgiveable though, and the only element that I found consistently jarring was that of Doctor Jimenez, who accompanied the good detective to the orphanage. He suffered from the same tendencies that we often see with AI companions, stomping around as I was trying to sneak, speaking loudly, opening creaky doors right behind me and generally breaking me out of the moment.
The biggest feeling that I got was that this was that The Evil Within follows in the footsteps of the classic survival horror games. While gaming’s evolution has affected elements from the combat to the game’s blend of several styles, it eschews an action packed adventure in favour of the more traditional horror that Shinji Mikami set out to make.