A name particularly resonant in the annals of survival horror in video games is that of Resident Evil. Up until it took a curious and unloved turn for the worse over the last console generation, the series synonymous with the genre, almost epitomising it. Reaching its zenith with Resident Evil 4, a title forever enshrined in the gaming hall of fame, the series can thank its creator and director for its successes up until that point: a man called Shinji Mikami.
Painted as somewhat of a luminary for the survival horror genre, Mikami’s return to it is marked by the release of hotly anticipated, yet divisive nightmare-vehicle, The Evil Within. Having broken away from Resident Evil publishers, Capcom, Mikami established his own company, Tango Gameworks, and The Evil Within is the studio’s maiden voyage, a voyage into a sea of screams.
Blending body horror with the psychological, The Evil Within sets out its stall as a celebration of horror games, a triumphant phoenix from the ashes intended to represent the best features of a genre that has been somewhat forgotten beneath years of open world titles and first-person shooters.
A mysterious affliction has befallen Krimson City after a spate of murders, bodies being possessed by an unknown evil, becoming part of The Haunted. As you’d expect, it’s down to the player to work out what’s going on.
Gritty noir cop, Sebastian Castellanos, is our window onto the insanity, bringing with him a strong stomach, if a somewhat depleted sense of humanity. Given his muted reaction to the terror surrounding him, he must be used to this sort of thing. Crime in the game’s Krimson City must make Hannibal Lecter look like Kermit the Frog.
Castellanos’ vacancy serves, intentionally or not, to place enough distance between the player and the game so as to preserve the entertainment element of The Evil Within, it’s worth noting that without this distance, with a more vulnerable, more human protagonist, the experience might be uncomfortably overwhelming. It’s the distance that allows us to transition from being spooked by a fat, chainsaw-wielding zombie to marvelling at the ways we can reduce it into a cadaverous mess over just a matter of seconds.
Comparison with recent success story, Alien Isolation, illustrates this notion of distance perfectly. Where Alien Isolation immersed the player, encouraging them to be the protagonist, The Evil Within gives us a punchbag to shove into the meat grinder and watch being dragged into hell. The subtleties of Alien Isolation, the clever pacing, the cerebral construction of tension – those aren’t here. What we’ve got instead is an orgy of gore, explosions of blood and viscera pissing from every inch of the screen.
Visually, it’s no holds barred. Red certainly the go to colour, the only hue to avoid looking washed out behind the cinematic muted film-grain (which comes complete with a love it or loathe it 2.35:1, letterboxed aspect ratio), and the graphics do a sterling job of realising the twisted monster designs – Laura, the unkillable arachnoid abomination, a personal favourite. Lighting and sound have been ably manipulated to make the edge of your seat a familiar place to call home, and the particle effects in particular, with dust illuminated by rare beams of cold light, bring the eeriness deserved of the setting for the bulk of the game, an abandoned mental hospital.
Despite the game’s best efforts, and there are some particularly lurid moments, the initial shock at all the gore is anaesthetised after an hour or so of play and then it’s up to the psychological elements to twist the screws. The periodic apparition of the mysterious antagonist Ruvik, digitally glitching into view, is always a spine-chilling affair. Familiar mental hospital tropes are exploited in the pursuit of fear: empty, discarded wheelchairs, chairs with restraints and padded cells. The psychological horror is more effective and longer lasting than the gore factor, sustaining the game as it meanders through its various personas.
The game’s heritage is clear as day with an over the shoulder camera setup and very limited ammunition distributed throughout the levels, necessitating comprehensive exploration. The Evil Within is pacier and more action-oriented than we’ve seen before from Mikami, but there’s still a reliance on conservative weapon use and creative exploitation of the environments when tackling The Haunted.
The weapons list is streamlined, consisting of a revolver (later a magnum), a shotgun, a sniper rifle and the fantastic Agony Crossbow, which fires bolts of varying kinds that can be found in the level or crafted from parts. Parts are scavenged from the environment or salvaged from disarmed traps. Weapon selection, accessed through the right stick, slows down time but doesn’t stop it. So in the thick of it, decisions need making with some haste. Going gung-ho on the guns is best avoided, as the scarce ammunition soon runs dry. Stealth kills and found melee weapons are the wise choice here, although the rudimentary stealth system is barely serviceable and awkwardly operated on the Xbox ONE controller, calling for the right shoulder-button to be held.
Saving is, in another hark back to the times of old, somewhat of a limited commodity, accessible through the save room, a ward in the hospital on a separate plane, accessed by warping through mirrors. Here, players can also have upgrades applied to Sebastian, incrementally spending Green Gel, the game’s ludicrous upgrade currency, on improved abilities, weapons and carrying capacity. Upgrading sprint duration early on is a must, as by default it’s absurdly short and running out requires Seb to stop for a breather. It’s a good job he ran out of cigs early on, I suspect there’s a case of chronic emphysema at work.
Throwing in a few superficially cryptic, though atmospherically presented, puzzle segments, The Evil Within follows a strictly linear path in revealing how The Haunted came to be, teasing at the threads of the darker sides of human nature. The symbolism of the mirror being used to warp to the temporary respite in the save room is poignant and the musical motif of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune denoting the mirrors’ location, heard throughout the game, is a fantastic bit of song selection, the juxtaposition of the soft and sad piece with the twisted insanity on-screen is disturbing in its own right.
The Evil Within seeks to shock and it seeks to truly terrify, distorting elements of human nature to a point where they’re almost painful if recognised, beneath the smears of blood. The issue that arises however is in the vehicles in which it chooses to transport its distortions. In an attempt to maximise the spectacle, the loudness, The Evil Within’s own voice almost lost in a chorus of the genre it’s at once homage to and a summary of. Despite this, we’re offered a rewarding ghost-train style thrill of a ride; a tough going monster, warped, macabre and proudly nostalgic over the old classics that bred it.