I had some really high hopes for The Evil Within. It looked like Shinji Mikami was trying to bridge a gap between the survival horror trappings of the original Resident Evil and the more action-oriented shooter gameplay style of Resident Evil 4. The former was a slower-paced game that emphasized open-ended exploration, puzzle-solving, and resource management in a horror setting. The latter game dropped most of its horror ambitions in favor of totally campy action shooter schlock. Early trailers for Evil Within looked it would hit a good balance between the two styles.
I didn't jump right on this game at release because I saw some mediocre reviews and heard that it failed to deliver on its promises. After booting up the game, waiting for an hour-and-a-half for the 4.7 GB update file to install (what did this update do? Tack on a whole new game?!), navigating the slick title menu, and then proceeding through the first few chapters, I verified that the game does indeed fail considerably as a horror game.
A legitimate - but poor - attempt at horror
But it is worth noting that The Evil Within (unlike Resident Evil 4 and Shadows of the Damned) does seem to be making a legitimate attempt at being a horror game, rather than just an action shooter with zombies. It just doesn't really succeed at this goal.
Early levels in particular are full of exceptional lighting and ambient effects that really help to build an ominous atmosphere. The addition of stealth mechanics does put a greater emphasis on avoiding direct conflict and encouraging a more cautious approach (compared to RE4's guns-a-blazing attitude).
I've heard a lot of complaints that this game's story doesn't make sense and is stupid. I think most of these people didn't finish the game (or at least get to the point around chapter 10 where the story is explained). The story makes sense. The problem is that the game is very disjoint and never really builds on these foundations.
The game's narrative causes the character to jump (seemingly at random) from place to place - even within a single chapter. Each new place quickly starts to feel like a narrow-scope set-piece for an action scene rather than any kind of terrifying world. The game and individual chapters lack narrative cohesion and unifying design. There's very little opportunity for the game to allow open exploration or atmosphere-building, since the whole game feels like a collection of randomly-thrown-together set pieces and battle puzzles. So even though the overall story makes sense (in retrospect), the individual scene and level-progression doesn't.
Reality is being warped, resulting in some trippy effects, but a very disjoint sense of progression.
The designers seem to be trying to mimic the Otherworld of Silent Hill, but the transition is so jarring, and the places feel so completely unrelated to one another, that it just doesn't work. You get through a pain in the ass, trap-infested maze while dodging monsters, only to be teleported to another maze area when you reach the exit! "OK, we're done with this area, let's just go to some other random challenge room." There's no sense of ever achieving anything because you're rarely ever allowed to actually go to the places that you are trying so hard to get to. And once that sense of futility sets in, any fear starts to dissipate. You're no longer concerned with getting out or saving yourself or even progressing the story because you realize that you can't achieve anything without the game giving it to you.
It's a real shame too, because some of these reality-warping mind tricks might be very effective if they were organically integrated into the flow of the game. I especially liked one bit in which a character falls down a bottomless pit, only to have the whole world re-orient itself so that the walls become the floor. So instead of falling to his death, he harmlessly rolls to a stop. Unfortunately, these effects lack subtly and feel random.
Chapters also vary wildly in length and difficulty. Some are short, with only one or two key events happening and only a single access point to the save room. Some aren't even long enough to have a door to the safe room (like chapter 8 or 12). Others seem to drag on for hours (like Chapters 6, 10, and 11), containing a gauntlet of set piece battles and boss fights that will need to be retried over and over again, traps, multiple cutscenes, and even multiple save room accesses. So when you sit down for a session, it's hard to have an idea of how long it will be before the next chapter division. Constant notification that you've hit a checkpoint sucks almost all tension out of the game and remove much of the incentive to struggle to stay alive.
Stealth mechanics [LEFT] quickly give way to constant ambushes [RIGHT] and shoot-outs.
The atmospheric effects eventually start to fall away, and as the game progresses, the stealth elements also start to lose relevance. Enemies start being scripted to turn around before you can sneak up on them, and by chapter 7, enemies have been introduced that can't be stealth killed anyway. Later-game encounters often involve ambushes and degrade into shoot-outs, and you're never required to sneak past a boss in the way that you have to in the opening chapter (though there is one boss that you can temporarily hide from). Heck, stealth is such an inconsequential design consideration, that the designers didn't even add any stealth related upgrades for the character. You can't eventually learn to stealth kill enemies from behind cover, increase the distance for a stealth kill, perform stealth kills on two enemies at once, or anything like that. And these would all be great upgrades to have available!
Perhaps the most effectively unsettling part of the game is the safe room where you go to save your game and level up the character's abilities. The weird effects in the safe room, the subtly off-putting (and condescending) behavior and line-delivery of the nurse, and the fact that weapons and combat controls still function in the safe room did create a sense of uneasiness for me that dwarfed any of the game's actual levels. As far as hub locations go, this one didn't feel as safe as the ones in other games - at least not initially.
The longer levels that encourage multiple trips back to the safe room served to desensitize me to the location and started to make the room too comforting. It began to feel safer and safer as the game went on. Compare this to Silent Hill 4, which has a similar hub area. In that game, the apartment feels like an innocuous safe haven at the start of the game. But it gradually becomes less safe as the game goes on and you uncover that it is the centerpiece of the narrative, and travelling back to it begins to feel less comforting and more like a necessary evil. It's amazing how newer horror games keep making Silent Hill 4 look better and better by comparison...
The "safe room" is surprisingly unsettling, and is the most atmospherically frightening place in the game.
My own worst enemy
Shinji Mikami definitely has a terrible sense for what makes a game horrifying. The scariest thing about The Evil Within is the controls. Like Shadows of the Damned and Resident Evil 4 before it, Evil Within is just hard to play. But unlike a good, hard game like Bloodborne, this game is hard because the character feels like he is arbitrarily and artificially crippled. Sure, Bloodborne has some annoying camera issues, and the controls are poorly suited to some tasks. But Evil Within's controls aren't suited to any task, and the camera is universally annoying and interferes with the ability to execute basic functions that the game is designed to allow.
The character is sluggish in his movements and attacks. He often feels like he's walking in a space suit. Dead Space, for example, is about a character in a space suit and magnetic boots. It makes thematic sense for his movements to be somewhat slow and lumbering. But even that character moves more quickly and fluidly than Sebastian in Evil Within! Even tasks that should be trivially easy (like picking up items off the ground or pulling a lever that is dead-centered in the camera) are made more difficult than they should be. The slowness of the camera and the lack of a quick-turn or camera-align button adds even more furstration when you're stuck in confined spaces and have to run back and forth to avoid enemies. It just take so long to turn the character around and draw your weapon!
Enemies seem faster than they really are due to confined spaces and the slow character.
The player has time to react to threats, but the character often can't complete actions quickly enough.
I can live with the character being slow, and it works well in the game. Enemies seem very fast and nimble, but that's only because you're comparing them to a protagonist who moves like he has a broken leg. The enemies' speed can thus be conveyed without having to make the enemies move faster than the player can physically react or comprehend, and without having to give up the claustrophobic feeling of the game's confined spaces. You have to be quick on your feet and creative in how you resolve problems, because the character sure isn't quick on his feet.
But even though I recognize the value in these mechanics and how they contribute to the game's challenge, there's way more restrictions placed on the player than seems reasonable. And this isn't just a matter of the controls being poorly designed or tested. No, these controls are deliberately designed to be bad. That is the source of all the game's challenge. The game is hard because the designers knowingly tied the player's hand behind your back, and then created scenarios and challenges that specifically require you to use that tied up hand. If Sebastian handled like a character in any other action game (Nathan Drake in Uncharted, for instance), then this game would be pitifully easy. So in one sense, the controls are actually excellent because they do exactly what they are designed to do. The problem is that they are designed to make the game needlessly difficult and unpleasant to play.
The camera pans slightly to see around corners.
At least you can walk with your gun drawn and aimed now! So we can finally check that issue off the list of complaints going all the way back to the original Resident Evil. But despite being a shooter, there is still no strafe command. Oh, and stealth and crouching was added, but you can't aim or fire weapons while crouched. The stupid quicktime events from RE4 are also not present thankfully.
It doesn't help that half the time, you can't really see where you're going or what's going on around you. The camera is very close to the character, and the field of view is pathetically restrictive. The letter-boxed, "widescreen" presentation (16:6) only further restricts field of view so that you can't see over obstacles when sneaking. Is this deliberate? If so, then you need to provide a "peek from cover" control!
Despite playing on a 16:9 HDTV screen, Evil Within is still letterboxed down to a 16:6 aspect ratio. Why?
And the letterboxed presentation also makes it very difficult to see various environmental obstacles such as beartraps or pit traps. I shouldn't have to constantly stop and look down at the ground in order to see what is right in front of my character's feet. Nor should I be stuck in situations in which I have to shoot something on the ceiling in order to stun or damage an enemy, but I can't keep both the enemy and the trigger object within the camera frame to judge when the enemy is in position.
These are examples of how the game goes out of its way to use its own arbitrary limitations to add artificial (and unnecessary) difficulty. The game isn't hard because the challenges and enemies are hard. It is hard because you can't see what you are doing or what's going on around you, nor can you make the character do what you want him to do. There's realistic and acceptable challenges - like resource limitations and relative physical weakness of the player character. Then there are completely artificial and unreasonable challenges - like cropping out a third of the screen, and then putting shit on the floors and ceilings that you need to be able to see! Even the sniper rifle scope is partly cropped because of the letter-boxing!
Sebastian also has a horribly annoying habit of slowly opening doors, as if cautiously peeking inside. But you can't see what's in the other room because you lose camera control and the character's body blocks the view into the doorway. And even if you could see into the room, and found a zombie waiting to rip your head off, you can't cancel and back out anyway, and you have to wait for the slow animation to finish before you can draw your gun or take any other action. So what is the point of this long, drawn-out animation?
Opening doors results in this slow animation of the character cautiously entering a room,
but the player has no control, can't back out, and the character's body block the view of any threats.
And the control issues don't end there. The character has limited stamina, but he starts to slow down well before the stamina is completely consumed. And when you do run out of stamina, the character keels over for several seconds and becomes completely immobile. As with everything else, the game is more than happy to use these limitations against you. Certain encounters require you to constantly run in circles to avoid enemy pursuit and one-hit kills.
There's also a similar body-burning mechanic as the Resident Evil Gamecube remake. So you have to collect matches and use them to burn bodies so that they don't reanimate and attack you. The fact that enemies are more of a fire hazard than a Christmas tree in February does leave room for fun and creative ways dispose of enemies, but it also suffers from annoying restrictions. Most prominently, there is no way to drag bodies, and your supply of matches is limited. So if you kill a bunch of enemies in close proximity, you can't pile them up to burn them all at once. You also can't drag them into an already existing fire. This leads to situations in which a dead enemy lies half a foot away from a raging bonfire, but you still have to use one of your precious matches to permanently dispose of the body.
Bodies need to be burned to prevent them from reanimating, but you can't drag bodies to more efficiently destroy them.
I do have to give the game credit for encouraging and rewarding creative use of your resources. Every level is loaded with indirect ways of distracting and killing enemies. Though, the distractions seemed to also stop working by halfway through the game. Bear traps, tripwire explosives, combustible props, and so on are scattered all over the place. If you take some time to explore the environment and study the enemies, you have plenty of opportunity to use these environmental resources to your advantage. And even if the traps by themselves aren't enough to clear an area, you can combine them with your own weapons and various shortcuts in the levels to dispatch enemies with minimal expenditure of your consumable resources.
But the aforementioned control and camera issues can make it difficult to notice and recognize these opportunities - at least on your first exploration of an area. I often didn't notice traps until I accidentally triggered them myself, and was only able to use them to my advantage after I died and had to repeat the encounter.
But the game is also terribly inconsistent in this regard as well. For all the environmental combat puzzles, there are also encounters where you just have to repeatedly shoot an enemy that you are stuck in a room with, or in situations in which you just have to run away or survive against an enemy that can't be killed. And you can rarely tell the difference.
You might waste resources on a boss that can't be killed [LEFT] and have no choice but to run away.
Then you encounter it again a couple chapters later, but this time you can kill it [RIGHT].
There have been several boss encounters in which my weapons didn't seem to be slowing the boss down at all. So I died several times while running around in circles trying to look for the "trick" to beating it. But there was no trick; I just had to keep shooting it. In other boss encounters, I just backed up shooting at the enemy, wasting ammunition until I triggered a cutscene in which the character just escapes or is literally removed from the environment and thrown somewhere else. And then other fights against the same boss in which I'm trying to find the way out, only to realize that I can kill it this time.
It's like it was designed by a child. I eventually got into the habit of just running around looking for environmental tricks, then letting myself die so that I can retry and use them. And once a horror game puts you in the position of not caring whether the character lives or dies, then it stops being a horror game.
There are also tradition adventure game puzzles that involve finding "keys", pulling levers, pushing buttons, and some mild environmental manipulation. Most of them are very easy to solve assuming that the difficulty in navigating and observing the environment allows you to find all the necessary pieces and clues.
Despite being out for twice as long as Bloodborne
, only 1/3 of Evil Within
players defeated mid-game bosses;
's players like the game enough to have played through its tough mid-game bosses.
This was your last chance, Shinji Mikami
The Evil Within is so close to being likable. It requires the player to pay attention to your surroundings, study an area and enemies, plan carefully, and also act quickly on your feet. These are all commendable elements of design.
If only Shinji Mikami would give the player the tools to do the things that the game demands. Instead, he is adamant that the biggest threat to the player isn't the enemies or the environment; it's the needlessly handicapped character. But then again, the loss of sanity is a major theme, and having a player character that is his own biggest threat actually fits well into that theme. So maybe Mikami is cleverer than I'm giving him credit for... Or maybe it's just a happy accident that Mikami finally hit on a confluence of his crappy gameplay design and absurd story concepts so that the two actually work well together on some minuscule level.
Playing through The Evil Within has easily been the most miserable experience that I've had on my new PS4 so far.
In typical Resident Evil fashion, the dialogue and line delivery is often laughably bad.