Shinji Mikami, director of the acclaimed Resident Evil 4, promises to bring back old-school Survival Horror with The Evil Within. To be honest however, I don’t think the genre has ever left. Survival Horror continues to thrive in the indie gaming scene where consumers can find games that replicate the classics such as Lone Survivor or try something different like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Even the recently released Alien: Isolation is a genuine Survival Horror experience that eschews the annoyances of classic Resident Evil and Silent Hill titles. These games have already beaten The Evil Within to the punch, even if the genre admittedly continues to struggle to compete with the mainstream console success of, say, the first-person shooter.
So, does The Evil Within, which is paired with the bold ##bringbackhorror hashtag, qualify as Survival Horror? If so, where does it fall under in the spectrum of the Survival Horror genre? In short: it is, mechanically speaking, undoubtedly Survival Horror. However, I’m not entirely convinced if this is what old school Survival Horror fans have been craving.
One of the mechanics Survival Horror is known for is the association of powerlessness. Ammo is scarce, enemies are tough, and the protagonists, unless he or she is a member of S.T.A.R.S., lacks combat training or experience. As a detective, Detective Sebastian Castellanos, the protagonist of The Evil Within, has seen more action than most civilians; he’s certainly handy with a gun. Too bad, in true survival horror fashion, that this malevolent world in which he must survive is stingy on ammo and other necessary supplies.
In addition, hand-to-hand combat is all but useless against these enemies, save for situations in which Sebastian needs to clear a large enough hole in order to run away. The demonic creatures are, as expected, supernaturally strong and able to decimate the poor detective as soon as they grab him. True to the genre, the game initially encourages players to run away.
However, The Evil Within allows players to employ stealth and the environment to their advantage, features noticeably absent from the classics. While holding down the R1 button, players can sneak up behind enemies in order to stab them in the back of the skull. They can also safely approach traps that they can dismantle for parts necessary to crafting various useful bolts for their crossbow. In many cases, players can lure foes into traps by climbing under trip wires and then watch as their overly aggressive enemies foolishly trigger the explosions intended for Sebastian.
On paper, these mechanics seem like a perfect way to modernize the Survival Horror genre. As I continued to play however, I started to associate the mechanics with games like Metal Gear Solid or even the steal mechanics of Skyrim. As I took advantage of lighting bales of hay on fire and creating bolts capable of freezing, I progressively felt more like a badass and less likely to run away from enemies, unless I had to for specific boss fights. However, whenever I consider the opening chapter, in which Sebastian must escape from a sadistic chainsaw-wielding monster with a leg injury, I can’t help that the game lost sight of its original goal.
Admittedly, though these mechanics nearly alleviated all of the suspense from the game, I found myself enjoying them. I suspect that when Mikami promised to bring back Survival Horror, he meant that he wanted to create the spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4, and at times I experienced pleasant flashbacks. Like the former, The Evil Within is an over-the-shoulder third person shooter, giving players considerable more aim. It seems like Mikami has taken some design cues from his recent project with Suda 51, Shadows of the Damned, as Sebastian can actually move while shooting. While this seems like blasphemy, considering even Leon Kennedy could only stand still while shooting, I still found the enemies to be genuinely tough to kill, even if they are occasionally prone to becoming stuck on fences.
This freedom of movement really compliments the environmental kills which is where I found the game to be the most fun. In chapter 3, I stockpiled all of my ammo in order to defeat the chainsaw-wielding sadist. I failed but shortly discovered the solution: knock over a stack of hay bales and light them on fire just as the monster came into contact with them (pro tip: everything is weak to fire in this game). Even though I felt more like Bear Grylls than a hopeless protagonist, I could tell that Tango Softworks placed a lot of care in the survival aspect of The Evil Within.
The visual design also elicited similar mixed-reactions from me. Mikami’s characters and enemy designs are top-notch, blending the sadistic, humanoid creatures from Resident Evil 4 with more bizarre qualities. The long-haired demon with spider-like appendages seems like Mikami’s more aggressive take on creatures from Japanese horror movies. Even the normal enemies, like a doctor from early in the game, looks menacing despite looking like he could be anyone’s next-door neighbor. Medieval-like torture devices create an anachronistic environment, emphasizing the brutality that encompasses the world. Finally, Mikami introduces some psychoactive elements similar to Silent Hill, mostly used to help build-up Sebastian’s encounters with the game’s most lethal foes.
The problem is that the game bombards you with demons, traps, and trippy scenes, giving little time for players to take it all in. Enemies are practically everywhere, giving off the same threatening vibes as any other action-adventure antagonist. The psychoactive imagery helps keep things interesting, but, as with any trip, one can become used to it quickly. Even the jump scares barely phased me, as I was always on the alert for dangerous surprises–probably because I spent most of my time sneaking past and disabling traps.
I’ve always thought, even if a survival horror game isn’t as scary as it aims to be, it can redeem itself with a thought-provoking story. At times, The Evil Within comes close thanks to its depiction of the main antagonist, Ruvik. The game hints early on that this is an illusion created by Ruvik. Artifacts and flashbacks, which take the form of ghostly interactions, help me understand his pain a little more. The game also hints that its victims also contribute to the world, including Sebastian. Unfortunately, I couldn’t draw a connection with Sebastian or the other protagonists. I never got to know Sebastian beyond the casual mention of his drinking problem and dark past that ties into the overarching plot. Considering the psychological imagery, I think Tango could have developed this aspect a little more.
Even though I’m somewhat critical of The Evil Within, I can’t argue that it gives players their money’s worth. Auto-aim, checkpoints, and other common traits of modern design are present; however, the options menu is extensive and gives players the option of making the game as difficult as they wish. Speaking of which, players can turn down the difficulty at any time. Levels are self-contained chapters, but each one rewards players with valuable items and collectibles should they choose to explore the game thoroughly. Finally, players can expect to log in 15 to 20 hours into The Evil Within, mostly by figuring out the best way to exploit environmental weaknesses.
Still, in its quest to bring back Survival Horror, The Evil Within strays too far into Survival territory. It’s not as old school as some might hope. This game is set to appeal to fans of Resident Evil 4 more than anyone else. While the survival mechanics are a lot of fun to experiment with, they ultimately dissipate any horror to be found in The Evil Within.
This review is based off the PlayStation 4 version of The Evil Within provided by Bethesda Softworks.