The Evil Within is a frustrating game. Not because of its difficulty—although it can be tough at times—but because it comes so close to doing something great. So close, yet so, so far. Despite what the score attached to this review might indicate, The Evil Within is not boring in its mediocrity. It’s a game of highs and lows that provide plenty of talking points and promise for the sequel.
The Evil Within is also a game of caveats and as such this entire review could follow the format “x is a great part of the game, but y is a problem.” You need a strategic approach to most combat scenarios, however the game descends into generic shooter territory and suffers as a result. The story is far deeper than the bland detective protagonist would initially suggest, but it takes too long to get going and you need to play the DLC to have a good idea of what’s going on. The atmosphere is dark and twisted, but bugs and sloppy animations regularly pull you out of the experience. You get the picture. x is a great part of the game, but y is a problem.
You play as Sebastian Castellanos, a walking cliche of a grizzled, alcoholic detective, accompanied by his partner Joseph Oda and rookie cop Juli Kidman. They respond to a distress call at Beacon Mental Hospital to find the patients lying in pools of their own blood just before a mysterious figure known as Ruvik kills some cops and captures Sebastian. Sebastian escapes the mental hospital, however his vehicle crashes and he ends up in the woods, moving from one nightmare to the next with little in the way of cohesive plot development to provide context for the journey.
It’s hard to overstate just how nonsensical the story is in the first half of the game. There’s barely any character development apart from a brief mention of Sebastian’s alcohol problem, and his only motivation is a vague desire to catch up with a young mental patient named Leslie who he’s only just met. Ruvik occasionally pops up to look menacing, but he never does anything of note and disappears as quickly as he shows up. He’s not especially threatening, but you know he’s a dangerous bad guy because he wears a hood.
The character development never improves, however the story has more depth than the first few hours suggest… assuming you have access to the DLC. A ridiculous amount of the story is reserved for the DLC, so much so that you’d be hard pushed to explain what the hell is going on without it. Most of the DLC is played from Juli Kidman’s perspective and is a dull mixture of stealth, walking, and exposition. I wouldn’t typically recommend it, but it’s essential to understanding the story here. Tango Gamewords could easily have incorporated the DLC into the main game because there are plenty of tedious Sebastian levels begging to be cut.
At first glance, The Evil Within’s story is silly horror schlock, however as the pieces come together the story ends up making a strange kind sense. At least, it does in the context of a Shinji Mikami psychological horror experience. Shinji Mikami knows his horror tropes and he isn’t afraid to use them. The game starts with an homage to Resident Evil, as a zombie-like creature eats a dead body before slowly turning around to face the player. There are also empty wheelchairs, chainsaw wielding madmen, and large spiders to fight. You don’t need to see Mikami’s name in the credits to know who directed The Evil Within.
Sebastian starts the game with little in the way of weapons or ammo and therefore has to resort to stealth. Unfortunately, Tango Gameworks forgot to add any stealth mechanics beyond throwing bottles to distract the “haunted,” the faster and more aggressive take on traditional zombies the game uses as basic enemies. The haunted have an uncanny ability to spot Sebastian in a way that often feels unfair. You can’t cling to walls or peer around corners, and even when crouch-walking the haunted will hear you coming more often than not.
Fortunately, you don’t need to keep to the shadows for long. After a couple of restrictive levels where you spend more time fighting the camera than the haunted, the game opens up and gives you options beyond basic stealth kills. The switch from a stealth approach to a strategic approach is a huge improvement. Fighting the game’s camera as you try to sneak past enemies is not particularly fun, however choosing from the multitude of combat options is satisfying right through to the end of the game. Do you use a flash bolt followed by a stealth attack or an explosive bolt that might blow up multiple enemies? Do you shoot a bomb to blow it up near enemies or do you defuse it and use the parts to craft more bolts? Or would you prefer to rely on the good old-fashioned shotgun?
Roughly two-thirds of the combat encounters in The Evil Within require this think first, shoot soon after approach to combat. In addition to a revolver, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenades, you also get an agony crossbow with five different bolt types. Freeze bolts make enemies vulnerable to your otherwise useless melee attack, but my preferred bolt is the flash bolt which blinds enemies and lets you go in for one-hit-kill stealth attacks. You might not need to shoot at all. Running is usually an option, and an attractive one at that, thanks to the limited supply of ammo Sebastian typically has on hand.
You can even run from some boss fights although doing so means sacrificing green gel, Sebastian’s ‘currency’ for leveling up his weapon skills and physical attributes. The first thing you’ll want to level up is Sebastian’s stamina, which makes a 30-a-day smoker look like a marathon runner. At the start of the game, Sebastian can only run for three seconds before he stops and bends over to catch his breath. Being killed after running for ten yards and keeling over looks ridiculous.
Matches are one of the most useful weapons at your disposal. Enemies often go down and play dead for a few seconds, so you’re well advised to get in quickly and throw down a match to make sure. If you time it just right, you can catch a few other enemies in the fire and save yourself some hard-earned bullets. It’s incredibly satisfying to burn three enemies with one paltry match, and yet this experienced detective can only hold five at a time until you upgrade your maximum stock. It takes one of the game’s best mechanics and turns it into something many players won’t experience unless they level it up the right skills.
Once you’ve leveled up these needless distractions, you can focus on the fun stuff like 50% critical hit chance for the revolver and the ability to set enemies on fire with a single bolt. These upgrades make a huge difference, but far too many feel like padding and I was bored of leveling up by the end of the game. You spend one-quarter of the game trying to make Sebastian feel like a normal human being who can hold more than five matches and then in the last quarter you’re just making incremental increases to weapons you’re not using all that much anyway.
No matter how much you upgrade your weapons, they won’t be much good against Ruvik’s collection of fiendish traps that range from trip wires and bombs, to spikes that crush you from the ceiling or burst forth from the floor. The puzzle traps are so simple you have to try to fail, however some traps are impossible to avoid. This occasionally leads to ‘gotcha’ deaths which can feel a touch unfair, but these traps are nearly always placed near generous checkpoints to limit the frustration and let you try again quickly.
You can also use many of the traps against enemies. At a basic level, Sebastian can lure enemies into trip wires or bombs, although by doing this you waste the valuable resources you get from dismantling the traps which can be used to make bolts. Big traps, like spikes and fire pits, can be turned against the haunted if Sebastian pulls a switch at the right time, although the camera makes this as difficult as possible by restricting your view.
I mentioned that everything in The Evil Within comes with caveats and nowhere is that more evident than in the visuals. Tango Gameworks has a deft touch when it comes to visual storytelling. You can power through the church grounds without giving it much thought, but if you slow down you’ll notice that it’s the site of sadistic experiments which fit into the main story and the backgrounds of two characters. Every enemy tells a story. The Keeper—an enemy with a safe for his head—represents Ruvik’s desire to keep secrets after being betrayed by an associate, and there’s a reason one recurring enemy is weak to fire.
And yet… for all the effort to create an incredible world, I’ll remember the dreadful letterboxing (which you can now remove following a patch), regular frame rate drops, and sloppy animations that feel like something from an alpha build. Sebastian’s body often falls apart into six pieces on death as if he’s been carved up by one of the chainsaw-wielding sadists. Or there’s the way Sebastian will always crouch from a standing position to fiddle with a bear trap even when he’s already crouched when you activate it.
The Evil Within has all the elements of a great survival horror game. There’s a great story… eventually. There’s satisfying tactical combat… sometimes. The world looks suitably grim and foreboding… when it’s not breaking apart before your eyes. It’s a game that needed another twelve months to meet the developer’s vision. That’s what sequels are for. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Evil Within, but I can encourage you to keep an eye on the sequel. It could be something special.