Best known for his work on Capcom’s Resident Evil franchise, Shinji Mikami didn’t just help pioneer the survival horror genre, he created it. Long into the early 2000s, he helmed one of the publisher’s core production studios until the series fourth instalment. Although Resident Evil 5 was still well received among many fans and critics, the series has taken somewhat of a tumble since its glory days. Resi 6 was a trainwreck of disastrous proportions while Operation Raccoon City was the very definition of mediocre. For the most part, Capcom’s Revelations spin-offs haven’t quite hit the mark, despite steering the series ever so slightly back on track.
So Mikami has been free to ply his chops as a renowned director, first on God Hand, then Vanquish at Platinum Games. Having left the studio to form Tango Gameworks, this new team was quickly snapped up by ZeniMax, parent company to Bethesda. When it was announced Mikami would return to the survival genre, the excitement was palpable. He may not have the Midas touch, but with games like Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Ace Attorney, and Killer7 under the belt, it’s hard to argue with that track record.
Over time, Tango’s “Project Zwei” eventually surfaced as The Evil Within. Announced in April 2013, fans were already booking their tickets to board the hype train. Although never a great substitute for raw gameplay, a live action trailer did more than sate their collective thirst for a bloody survival horror romp with pedigree. News that Tango had picked up staff from studios such as Platinum, Grasshopper, Clover, and Game Republic, also helped to galvanise this premature aura of positivity.
As gameplay footage began to surface, some of that excitement began to fade for reasons we’ll delve into later. That said, when The Evil Within finally launched in October 2014, it garnered fair reviews across the board and even managed to chart in the top three on release week, both in the UK and across the pond. It currently holds an average rating of 73% over at OpenCritic. In our own review, Tuffcub described The Evil Within as “fresh and exciting” awarding the game an impressive 8/10.
However, with a bit of time to reflect, I recently went back and played Tango’s debut from start to finish. In short, there’s little here indicating a return to form for Shinji Mikami’s attempt to re-jig the survival horror genre. The Evil Within certainly has its highlights, though felt largely derivative, echoing innovations made elsewhere in the genre and by other studios.
Where The Evil Within impresses the most is at a conceptual level. Setting the game within a haunted asylum and a menagerie of adjoining areas was hardly an original premise, but served as the perfect gateway for Mikami’s re-entry into survival horror. Tango even managed to worked some intriguing twists into that core idea with a vast albeit linear city level and some mind-bending alterations to a number of trippy game sequences.
What stood out most, however, was the design of its antagonists. Where lead man Sebastian Castellanos and his cop cohorts were glaringly generic, a number of the enemies they came up against were truly terrifying. No baddie here tops Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis yet there were some delightfully ghoulish creatures on show.
A few notable nasties include the butcher-like Sadist as well as The Keeper and Laura, who continued to pop up for spontaneous boss fights. Equal parts praise and disgust also go out to the many-limbed Amalgam as well as Shigyo. As someone with an irrational fear of what lurks beneath, swimming away from this particular fiend stoked fears that no game in recent memory has been able to exploit.
Sadly, everything else about the game was mediocre at best. The story, while serviceable, felt too indulgent and convoluted at times, held up by an indefensibly weak cast of characters. Nondescript protagonists are arguably part and parcel of the survival horror genre, but The Evil Within’s dreary detectives felt as though they fit that role a little too perfectly.
The game’s mix of combat, exploration, and puzzle solving did little to carry the bloated narrative either. Shooting felt slow and inaccurate, even with enemies lumbering at a snail’s pace. Considering the deliberate scarcity of ammo, fights quickly dissolved into a frustrating series of missed shots and hasty melee attacks, as I looked to maintain distance between Sebastian and approaching enemies.
A series of vague yet formulaic boss battles did little to ease this annoyance. Although Tango’s intentions are clear – to make the player feel helpless and create a genuine sense of peril – the execution was never quite there. Whenever Laura came out to play, I’d instinctively look for a gas pipe or valve to shoot. Similarly, when ambushed by The Keeper, I would prepare to stick him with every bit of unwanted ammo clogging my inventory.
Thematically, Mikami and the team at Tango Gameworks hit the nail on the head, and driving it into a particular gruesome layer of blood-soaked tissue. Unfortunately, caught between the two is a drab layer of uninspired filler that fails to break away from a dumb story, dull combat, and tacked on progression systems.