When announced, The Evil Within sounded right up my alley. Shinji Mikami creating anything is enough to capture my interest. However, this was enhanced further by The Evil Within proposed as a return to his roots as a survival horror director. It was also his first game on 8th generation hardware. I was pumped to see what he would craft coming back to a genre he hadn’t touched since 2005’s Resident Evil 4.
But if anything, The Evil Within is an exercise in how bad marketing can bring down the best ideas, well executed or not. Before the game’s release, the primary gameplay demo used a chapter of the game that is not at all representative of the rest of the experience. Ads for the game ran all over the internet and on billboards worldwide, but the designs of the posters were vague and fairly dull looking logos. I’m not saying vague advertisements for horror are inappropriate; in general, the opposite is true. But to achieve this effectively, you must be able to plant a seed of mystery in the viewer, giving just enough to entice, without giving anything away. That’s where The Evil Within‘s marketing failed, as the logos were vague to a point where it’s frankly hard to discern what the game even was. Hell, if you didn’t notice the game console logos at the bottom of the posters, I wouldn’t blame you for not knowing that The Evil Within was even a game. Ultimately, what this comes down to is that I skipped The Evil Within at release. The poor marketing, coupled with middling critical scores, wore down my initially high excitement for the game, and I never touched it.
Fast forward to E3 2017 and news of a sequel arises, boasting an aesthetic reminiscent of Silent Hill and a character driven storyline to match. With Silent Hills dead and Resident Evil 7 being the only thing to fill the void, my interest is once again alight. Looking into stories about The Evil Within 2‘s plot, it also seems to tie heavily into the first game. So with the fascinating sequel on the horizon and sale prices so low my lunch cost more than the game, it’s finally time to jump into The Evil Within. And how is Shinji’s valiant return to horror?
…Well, let’s just say I hope you like Resident Evil 4.
Off the bat, I must point out how glad I am to have played The Evil Within this year rather than at release. At release, the game employed a limited aspect ratio, similar to The Order 1886, where the top and bottom of the screen are cut off. I understand the theory behind the decision, where a closed in and uncomfortable camera is employed to raise tension. In practice though, it’s discomfort that just serves to be annoying. Luckily, post-launch patches to the PC version added the option to disable it, and that’s only to the benefit of the game.
Aside from the technical changes coming from a different generation of hardware, there isn’t too much that separates The Evil Within from Resident Evil 4. On the surface, it may seem like it’s heavily modernised; however, everything that’s added is done in a limited way, to the purpose of holding together the feeling of its predecessor. Tank controls have been replaced with a more modern system, but movement is given an intentional looseness. Sebastian, the game’s protagonist, takes his sweet time turning in any direction, punishing attempts to strafe heavily and encouraging slower, more careful play. Over the shoulder aiming works basically the same as Resident Evil 4 as well. The camera is even more zoomed in, making it almost like a pseudo-first person perspective. They’ve also added the ability to move while shooting, but it’s so slow and penalises your accuracy so heavily it may as well not be there. This culminates in a game that, despite a lot of surface changes, feels very much like the same game I played a decade ago.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. Resident Evil 4 is the absolute benchmark of the action-horror subgenre, and it’s nice to play a new campaign that uses those same mechanics effectively (well, except for inventory tetris, which is absent in TEW). It’s just disappointing to see this directly from Shinji Mikami. I mean, the last time he returned to survival horror was following up on Resident Evil 1 with 4, reinventing the franchise and establishing a new subgenre of survival horror. It might just be the diminishing returns of new hardware, but it is a shame to see his latest project resemble an expansion pack more than anything else. Well crafted, but derivative.
Derivative is also an effective word for describing the game’s plot, but in a different way. Mikami makes absolute full use of this being a new IP to deliver something Resident Evil absolutely couldn’t get away with. This results in an insane mishmash of horror tropes plucked from many films and games. Oddball elements of supernatural horror are blended with very grimy, yet elaborate mechanical traps that feel plucked directly from a Saw film. The game also takes place in a dream world, where someone else is controlling what’s going on, which the game then uses to tie Sebastian’s psyche in with the main plot. I could go on with how goofy many of the game’s plot elements are, but the main point is that your mileage will vary with how much you enjoy corny horror tropes. I have heard outside criticism involving the game’s story being too vague and hinging too much on DLC to explain everything. Personally, I had no problem with things being vague, as understanding how everything works more often than not takes away from horror stories (looking at you Alien: Covenant).
And that’s pretty much it to The Evil Within. Resident Evil 4‘s long lost expansion pack, wrapped in a modern coat of paint and given a plot that drags you through a plethora of dumb horror tropes. As far as recommending the game goes, personally, I would say play Resident Evil 4 first if you haven’t. It’s the slightly more polished and fleshed out experience, although that might be my nostalgia talking more than anything else. But if you’ve finished it and still want more, you can’t go wrong with the $10 that The Evil Within is often discounted, especially if you’re at all interested in the very Silent Hill direction the sequel is taking.