The Evil Within is the stuff nightmares are made of. I'm not being dramatic, almost everything in this game will cater to the popular nightmares that plague humanity - in my case that happens to be clowns - and throws them right in your face. That's not to say it is a scary game, because unlike other contemporaries the goal of The Evil Within is to disturb you and create tension rather than grab you with a quick jump scare (although it can't resist the urge to do that as well at times). Bundled altogether it creates the closest representation of a haunted house without forgetting that it's also a video game and therefore can make death a reality for all parties involved. This would be a fantastic reality for the definitive horror experience if it weren't for the abundance of setbacks that range from visuals, to AI, and even creep into gameplay that no matter how big a fan you are just cannot be ignored.
The first thing you will notice is that the screen resolution is narrowed. Specifically the game has an odd resolution with full 1920 length and reduced height, which has black letterbox bars that extend to the entire screen of 1920x1080 (1080p). This is a significant amount of real estate that surpasses traditional letterboxing and can be off-putting at first. Whether the resolution is truly an artistic choice like Bethesda has claimed or if the game just couldn't run at full 1080p (this is the case with all versions, including PC), I have to admit it becomes irrelevant fast because it wasn't really noticeable once I had been playing for a few minutes. Not only is the screen smaller, but the framerate is sub-par even by a console game's standards, which tries to maintain 30 frames per second (fps) but dips down into the mid and even lower 20s depending on the situation. With already flawed controls - more on that later - the inconsistency in fps might have come off as just another obstacle to success but in truth I had little problem with it. Ironic as it seems, I never saw significant dips when a horde of enemies or sudden aggressive circumstance arrived so it really had little effect on my enjoyment. All in all, whether it be aesthetics or lack of optimization, the biggest gripes I've heard about this game from screenshots were forgotten concerns a mere fifteen minutes in.
Normally I don't talk about other games in reviews because I think that each game is a work unto its own and every work borrows from another, but the roots of The Evil Within and the couple of experiences it borrows from are too ingrained in its DNA to not draw such connections. It is the creation of Shinji Mikami, who is best known for the creation of the Resident Evil series and is directly responsible for the decisions that led to the released versions of 1, 2, and 4, which juggle around as the fan favorites for the series. Since the release of Resident Evil 4 Mikami has danced between a few titles and developers, but he always ends up back at his roots in horror games. While Resident Evil decided to go more action based in its sequels, Mikami has kept the vision of the action/horror hybrid he demonstrated in 4 alive through 2011's Shadows of the Damned where he teamed up with Suda 51 to create what was then boasted as the potential Resident Evil 4 sequel that never was. Both the critical and sales reception of that title proved that the quirky nature of Suda's vision seemed to clash with the tension horror of Mikami and it was anything but the Resident Evil 4 follow up fans wanted. That all changed when Mikami's studio, Tango Gameworks, announced The Evil Within to be the true spiritual successor to his work and at its core you would be hard pressed to argue that this game is not a true Resident Evil 4 follow up.
Knowing that's where the roots to The Evil Within lie brings with it not only the great parts of the 2005 revamp, but also the dated and flawed gameplay that it represents today. Right out of the gate this title's flaws get revealed and never hesitate to remind you they exist. Detective Castellanos, our lead, moves clumsily about in the rain at the game's opening moments, which had me worried right off the bat at my ability to run, aim, and shoot with such floaty inaccurate controls. It takes a few chapters, but when the gunplay begins to ramp up and with scarce ammo as a major liability, you can't help but want to blame the controls for the pathetic misses at point blank range. In fact, late in the game when you are forced into an arena atmosphere with many enemies and little ammo, it feels like a puzzle figuring out how to distribute your resources to effectively take everyone out. It was pretty laughable as my wife watched me run around in circles like an idiot for fifteen minutes while a herd chased me, not in any danger of dying but also having no resources to handle my pursuers. Mikami's previous titles always had a melee option to get you out of these tough situations, especially because any enemy can drop coveted rounds, but in The Evil Withinyour melee deals a negligible amount of damage. Even if you upgrade it, going to fists against any enemy leaves you doling out pointless damage while also allowing the enemy to get in a couple blows themselves with surprising strength. In fact, most of the upgrade system in this game makes little difference in the overall experience save for the few items based on running and healing, both defensive maneuvers. In short, ration your ammo, this is a survival horror game after all.
Before you ever dawn a true weapon The Evil Within will introduce you to the game's stealth mechanic. For a majority of the game avoiding detection or methodically eliminating everyone in the room is as much an option as charging in guns blazing. Your first encounter with this game's twisted reality and subsequent enemies is more of an obstacle course where you can get acquainted with how to sneak up to or past foes. It's nothing complicated and for the most part the illusion of when enemies can and cannot see you remains consistent. This is where The Evil Within attempts to pull off its best The Last of Us impression and it doesn't do a good job. Castellanos moves painfully slow in stealth mode to the point that sneaking up on an enemy, even if you mimic its moves from the moment it turns its back to you, can be a stressful encounter. Once you get close enough the game will display an icon allowing you to perform a stealth kill, but if for some reason that prompt doesn't show - and at times it won't - or that enemy turns around suddenly you could be in for a world of trouble. Thankfully it's not instant death but the enemies have a knack for being able to pinpoint your exact location for quite some time after one of them initially sees you. There are bottles in the environment that I figured would be helpful like they were in The Last of Us, but the mechanic almost seems broken at the onset. Later in the game your bottle diversion is much more effective and this is most likely due to the openness of the environments early on compared to the closed tight conditions of the endgame. Sneaking around also allows you to avoid traps and even disarm them for ammo, but again the minigame where you have to stop a needle in a small space has an odd delay that often ends with you blown to bits. I also thought it was a huge wasted opportunity that the enemies can't trigger the traps themselves, although you can definitely trigger them with bullets to make for environmental landmines if you see fit. Clearly Tango checked all the boxes when trying to emulate The Last of Us but like most aspects of this game they didn't sweat the details enough to give it that polished feel.
Despite many of this game's weaker points, it is one hell of a ride. Whether it's sneaking past psychotic chainsaw-wielding butchers, disarming a booby trap connected to a meat grinder, or taking on an unnamable creature in a parking garage, this game wears its horror badge proudly. Everything about the art direction, enemy design, and of course enough viscera to fill an ocean is meant to unease and intimidate. While they may all initially look the same, your enemies do progress and have the same variety that Resident Evil 4 did before it, where each new section of the game had its own distinct enemy. These standard foes will be a bit of an annoyance, but they are nothing compared the few, but impressive bosses you will encounter. Each monstrosity that comes from The Evil Within will play upon horror tropes that are varied and create the game's largest moments of tension. As much as I'd like to gush about some of my favorites, I feel it's inappropriate to give them away. One well documented boss is The Keeper, but he's better described under his nickname, Boxhead, due to the massive safe he wears on his head as protection. While discovering how to take out each distinct boss may be a bit annoying, the fact that I was grinding my teeth on edge while I figured out the somewhat basic method of dispelling them to be of the best in my horror gaming. This game is disturbing, disgusting, anxiety-filled, and I loved traversing through it.
That said, it does wear out its welcome. In a trend I've seen far too often these days,The Evil Within does feel like it was padded. You will find inconsistencies in the levels with one action-packed chapter followed by a dull repeat of mechanics without even a boss battle to wrap things up. That would be fine if the gameplay was diverse, but it's during these seemingly padded chapters that The Evil Within loves to demonstrate its ability to be repetitive and boring or utterly cheap with quick "Gotcha!" deaths. Sure, it's cute once in a while, but after the 10th time on a part that requires memorization to best or that would have been a breeze if what to do was clear, you feel cheated, and did I mention the lengthy load times? I'm also torn on the constant throwbacks to Mikami's Resident Evil roots that make this game almost feel like a re-imagined hodgepodge of those initial games. Any large fan of the series will see right through these nods but after a while it seemed to strip the unique nature expected of a new intellectual property (IP). I mean come on, it even has an unlockable machine gun, RPG, and statues of the characters unlock upon completion.
When you put it all together, the duality of good and bad that has remained consistent throughout this review makes it a difficult game to give a final verdict to. The Evil Within nails the high end goal that Mikami started way back in 1987 with Sweet Home and finally made a true haunted house simulation that looks and feels every bit as twisted as it should be. With this extreme attention to detail and tone, it's surprising that the core of the game and the mechanics that surround it weren't given equal effort. It's programmed sloppy, it plays sloppy, and it unfolds sloppy. For fans of Mikami's past work or anyone who's looking for that new horror experience, I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to play at least the first handful of hours with this game. Hang on to that love and fandom, though, because you are going to need to grind through to the eventual conclusion that seems just as determined at making you quit out of frustration as it does encourage you to reach the end. After having overcome the game's final challenge, realizing what holes in the plot remained, and reflected on the last 15-20 hours of gameplay, I came to the conclusion that The Evil Within was a blast of a ride first time through, but unlike most of Mikami's previous work it's many flaws prevent me from wanting to delve back into it again.
Final Score: 6/10
This game was not provided as a review copy from the publisher, it was provided by the reviewer. It was played for a total of approximately 20 hours and the campaign was completed in full. The Evil Within is available on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC for $59.99 with identical content, display resolution (as opposed to native resolution), and performance (ie: framerate) on all platforms; however native resolution, visuals, and textures can differ between them.