Mikami is a name that holds a lot of meaning and weight to me, as a Resident Evil fan it was Shinji Mikami that brought the genre from the obscure into the mainstream – he created a game that was as terrifying as it was well designed and sublimely programmed. A genre-defining game that was one of the best games of the era.
When Mikami directed Resident Evil 4 he had created one of the best games ever made a cemented himself into gaming folklore; he is one of gaming’s greatest visionaries and, without a doubt, the greatest within the survival-horror genre. When he makes a new game, people take notice; when he makes a new horror game, everyone does…
…2013 & 2014 saw a resurgence of the horror genre and when Mikami released his newest horror game, ‘The Evil Within’, the world was rightfully excited; the question is though, is ‘The Evil Within’ worthy of take a place in the heritage of Shinji Mikami?
‘The Evil Within’ follows the story (well several concurrent stories) of Sebastian Costellanos – a grizzled detective with a checkered past and unknown motives as he investigates a mass murder in a mental hospital. The game uses numerous techniques to progress its story (cutscenes, voice recordings, written documents), but it quickly becomes a muddled mess and following it requires much more effort than is ever paid back. Due to the fragmented nature of the narrative, by the halfway point of the game I had no idea what was going on and focused my effort in finding the police diaries of Sebastian as this side of his story was much more compelling than anything else. These diaries reveal a troubled past that has shaped the man that we control during the game and whilst they don’t explain what the hell is going on, it is interesting enough to placate the player.
I live streamed my entire playthrough and my viewers and I tried to create some sense of what we were watching; we came up with a few theories as we played; the best one we could come up with is that the story was purposefully made as obtuse as possible – to confuse the player and help them empathetic to Sebastian and the situation he finds himself in. Being in a state of constant confusion really works in the games favour it unnerves the player and makes them much more susceptible to the type of horror Mikami is shooting for. ‘The Evil Within’ doesn’t rely on jump scares but rather it creates an atmosphere of foreboding and, through jumping from location to location, never allows the player to settle. The visual design is some of the finest in horror gaming, the environments do stick to the conventions of the genre of the detail in every location is fantastic, little details placed within and taken away of every environment tell a story of their own. Every location appears normal at first appearances, but on further inspection there are things out-of-place; be it subtle details such as digital clocks in an old-fashioned village or much more obvious and deliberate e.g. blood and mucus dripping from walls – these details challenge our expectations and further unsettle the player as well as give TEW a real visual identity that strengthens its horror credentials.
The enemy design is also absolutely fantastic especially for the boss creatures; these quickly become an event; they grow in grotesqueness and an imagination too often missing in AAA games with a sound design that is quite simply brilliant! Every boss encounter is as disgusting as they are horrifying from a visual design perspective; often though the boss fights are frustrating exercises in trial and error. However, once you know what you have to do they are somewhat fun, if still extremely disappointing. These creatures deserved better. The general enemies are also extremely disappointing – they are essentially a Los Plagas replacement and although their mutations get gradually more disturbing; there is a distinct sense of deja-vu. There are also several invisible enemy variations which I hate, it is extremely lazy design that frustrates more than terrifies.
Overall though, the boss enemy and setting design is on a par with RE4 and it often surpasses its older half-sibling…
…gameplay-wise it is a much more mixed bag. Where RE4 struck a perfect balance between action and horror; giving the player choice on how to approach most situations and only forcing combat in a handful of set-pieces. TEW really struggles to find the same balance. TEW doesn’t know if it wants to be an all-out horror game or an all-out action game and it falls awkwardly between the two. On one hand resources are extremely scarce which makes the player consider the best way of progressing through rooms to conserve ammo and healing items; on the other hand, however, all too often does the game demand that you participate in a combat challenge or boss fight. This puts the player in a situation where combat is required but they lack the resources to succeed. This reduces these sections to running around using environmental aids to kill enemies and hope that they drop ammo, which they seldom do. I do not mind a game demanding me to be resourceful, but I do have an issue with being asked to be resourceful whilst the game withholds resources. All too often I found myself running blindly around praying for an ammo drop, even just pistol bullets that never came. I even had to beat a late game sub-boss with melee – a sure sign of bad design.
Other issues lie within the stealth mechanics; often it simply doesn’t work, enemies AI are either far too ignorant of your presence or gifted with X-Ray vision and super-hearing that will be alerted to you no matter what you try. Aiming is a crap shoot; you’ll regularly miss shots despite where the reticule which is frustrating in action games but here, with its extremely limited ammo, it is infuriating to waste ammo (through no fault of your own) which you cannot afford to waste. Sebastian also controls extremely sluggishly with animation taking priority over responsiveness – this is not as bad as it could be though; I expect some form of restrictive controls in this genre, it doesn’t mean that it is not worth mentioning. There are sections of the game that are nothing more than trial and error – playing a section repeatedly, getting a little further each time and repeating until you complete it. It’s not fun and it robs the player of the satisfaction of relying on their skill to progress. It is annoying at the best of times, but it happens during boss battles which are never easy and to be thrown to the beginning of one because you didn’t see a valve to shoot is annoying and quite bad design. FInally, there are the performance issues – despite being extensively patched post-release there are times in this game when the framerate tanks to around 15 or lower (to my eye) – playing it with the letterbox turned off is simply not an option if you want an enjoyable experience.
Overall though The Evil Within is an enjoyable game, sure it’s janky and there are severe issues but there is much to love here. The bat-shit crazy, indecipherable story, creature design and locations kept me playing through and although it was extremely frustrating in sections (hello last chapter) I never felt the desire to not complete it. I didn’t love every second, but I am glad that it got a sequel and I am very much excited to play it.
Whilst not a classic, there is no doubt that The Evil Within is a good game.