Being a cop in Krimson City is a tough job. Not only is the crime rate high, but there’s every chance that responding to your everyday mental hospital massacre will result in being trapped in compounding nightmare realities populated by homicidal monstrosities. Get some better work stories indeed.
Welcome to the seriously tough day at the office for Detective Sebastian Castellanos that is The Evil Within, the new title from survival horror legend Shinji Mikami, creator of the Resident Evil series. The Evil Within is the first survival horror game Mikami has created in nearly a decade. His last entry was 2005’s widely acknowledged classic Resident Evil 4.
Alongside two of his fellow officers, Castellanos is called to attend the incident at the mental hospital at the outset of the game, and there’s only just time for the player to mentally process him as your standard “world-weary detective with emotional baggage” archetype before he's attacked by a mysterious figure and wakes up to his new and rather more upsetting circumstances: suspended upside down from a meat hook in what appears to be some kind of human abattoir, awaiting the attentions of a grotesque butcher. Rough as this seems, things are only going to get worse for the unfortunate detective.
Players will guide Castellanos through the challenges he’s about to face from the now familiar over-the-shoulder perspective that Resident Evil 4 put front and centre in gaming’s collective consciousness. Nearly everything about The Evil Within’s basic gameplay can trace its lineage to that earlier series. Especially in the early stages, playing The Evil Within often feels like playing through a reskinned Resident Evil 4. Ammo is scarce, every shot counts, and zombie-like enemies stagger and charge towards Sebastian in numbers that can threaten to overwhelm his own slow and deliberate movements. The latter include having to stop moving in order to aim his gun, and a pack-a-day tendency to get puffed out after just a few seconds of sprinting. Castellanos's melee attack buys space but does no real damage, so getting cornered is a death sentence. Save points are even accessed through safe rooms, each always playing a repeated strain of Debussy’s Clair De Lune that eventually comes to prompt a Pavlovian sense of relief for the player.
There’s a couple of new options for Castellanos that his police colleagues from the Raccoon City PD were never afforded, though. Holding a shoulder button to move stealthily, players can sneak up behind an unaware enemy for an ammo-saving stealth kill, while beds and wardrobes scattered around the nightmarish levels act as hiding places from roving enemies, should Castellanos decide that discretion is the better part of valour. Clearly implemented to offer an alternative play style, these options rarely seem practical.
While much about the gameplay is familiar, The Evil Within keeps things fresh and creates an emphasis on surviving by constantly throwing new scenarios at the player. Castellanos' new reality is ruled by a nightmare logic. Perspectives shift suddenly, and he (and the player) are forced to adapt. Gravity shifts, hallways stretch into infinity, and it’s common for the detective to black out or sink through a floor and emerge in a completely different environment. It’s all vaguely tied together with a couple of common threads, one of which is an eerie other-space hospital that Castellanos accesses through a mirror portal in safe rooms. Here players can save the game and use collected resources to upgrade the detective’s abilities and arsenal.
For much of the first half of the game, answers as to why and how all this is actually happening are few and far between – Castellanos simply tumbles from one awful scenario to the next. This has a corresponding effect on gameplay, which can switch from stealth sections to open multi-level combat areas, to death trap avoidance and solving simple environmental puzzles, to frequent and varied boss fight sequences. The Evil Within provides little in the way of clues as to how to approach each situation. It’s very much “adapt or die” stuff. If you’re not the sort of gamer who enjoys trial and error, parts of the game – and its loading times – are sure to frustrate. On the other hand, you're always on your toes (often to the point of nervous exhaustion), and there’s immense satisfaction in overcoming some of the tough situations the game can throw up.
Through it all, the seen-it-all Castellanos sees a lot more, including some seriously grisly stuff. In some places he will literally have to wade through blood and body parts. Aesthetically, the early game is pure gorenography, which in combination with the the repetitive trial-and-error gameplay doesn’t create enough suspense. After a couple of failures you'll become desensitised to the sight of Castellanos having his head chainsawed off – but it’s always highly unpleasant, twisted stuff. As the game proceeds though, its plot and encounters start to explore the more psychological and supernatural aspects of horror, making things unsettling on a more bone-deep level. The Evil Within also has some truly inspired tricks up its sleeve that turn player expectations on their head. There are also some memorable boss encounters – one recurring enemy in particular (with the unlikely name of Laura) is truly the stuff of J-Horror-inspired nightmares, and her unwelcome appearances never fail to trigger an instant “Oh God, Run!” response.
This makes The Evil Within a bit of a mish-mash of tones and influences, though – horror’s viscera-filled kitchen sink. This bits-and-pieces approach largely works surprisingly well while you’re playing moment-to-moment, but the answers at the end can’t quite tie everything together in a completely satisfying way, and the game’s characters and writing never really quite step up: “There’s something wrong with this place” observes a gravelly-voiced detective Castellanos after spending several hours waist deep in gore. At the end of the game, the experience hasn’t quite succeeded in becoming more than the sum of its parts.
Even so, The Evil Within is definitely more about the journey than the destination. What's fuelling this nightmarish engine is hardly a pressing concern when there's only one round in the chamber and three zombies lurching toward you. Don’t think – do what you need to survive.