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The Evil Within (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Evil Within (PlayStation 4) review

"It may not be a revelation, but The Evil Within is clearly the work of someone who's been here before."

The Evil Within (PlayStation 4) image

Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games ever made period, amen. But where it should have redefined survival horror, it instead ushered in an era of action games being fitted with flickering lights and sluggish controls and incorrectly passed as survival horror. Titles like Alone in the Dark and the latter two Dead Space games presume that RE4 being louder than its predecessors was the only reason for its critical and commercial success, ignoring its expert use of narrow spaces, its keen eye for disturbing visuals and its rapid-fire delivery of the unexpected.

The most prominent victim of this misconception is the Resident Evil series itself, which took only two mainline entries to devolve into dumb, over-scripted faux-spectacle. But Shinji Mikami is on the case, and his first dip back into true horror since his 2005 masterpiece is unsurprisingly the closest anyone has come to recapturing that game's intensity. It may not be a revelation, but The Evil Within is clearly the work of someone who's been here before.

As with its spiritual predecessor, The Evil Within ditches the awkward controls and obscuring camera angles that defined Mikami's earliest work but keeps the ammo limitations and uncomfortably tight quarters. In an outright shooter, The Evil Within's zombie-like enemies would pose little threat they move relatively slowly, they rarely use ranged attacks and they're quite susceptible to gushy headshots. But when your bullet supply can usually be counted on your fingers and the protagonist's aim isn't particularly reliable anyway (at least until you boost his accuracy via some well-implemented RPG elements), even a handful of minor foes can quickly make you feel overwhelmed. If this style of design isn't "scary" in the traditional sense, it's unquestionably tense and at times downright unnerving.

I can't summarize The Evil Within's plot without spoiling it, since the campaign doesn't even suggest what's going on until halfway through, but there's a deliberate disconnect in the way the story moves from one random, nightmare-like scenario to the next. By the game's second chapter, you've already been whisked from a murder scene investigation to a torture porn dungeon to a crumbling cityscape to a rural village, all within the opening half hour. That lack of direction may make for a largely incohesive narrative, but narrative is not why we are here. We're here for thrills, and once The Evil Within establishes that there's no way of predicting what it'll throw at you next, it stays engaging.

The Evil Within (PlayStation 4) image

The other important factor that The Evil Within establishes early is that it's not afraid to kill you, quickly and violently. The entire campaign plays like a shop of horrors: pressure plates and tripwires trigger spikes, spears and blades, usually resulting in instant death. Levels are laced with bombs, and while they can be diffused, the corresponding mini-game is tough, to the point that it's usually easier to just creep around explosives without setting them off. The Evil Within is a tense game at its highest volumes but equally tense when nothing is happening, because either you inch through levels slowly and carefully, or you die a lot.

Again, though, the real triumph is pacing. I was concerned that The Evil Within would overstay its welcome at a reported 15 hours, but the game so successfully finds ways of upping the ante with each chapter that I never grew tired of it. Early levels are generally low-key and focus on teaching the players the ins and outs of the surprisingly solid stealth system, making way for a meaty middle act featuring some of the year's most inventive action scenarios (like when you have to battle a hoard of enemies in a circular maze in which a chest-high blade spins to the tune of a carousel). By the time we hit the last few chapters and The Evil Within returns to the city-wide apocalypse hinted at in the opening moments, it feels less like forced mayhem and more like the natural peak. Yes, even during a bus chase against a three-story spider-like abomination.

I could write an essay on the number of ways in which Mikami borrows from his own work in RE4 to positive results in The Evil Within, but I'll settle for one more in particular: unveiling of boss monsters. It's not enough to simply drop us into an arena against a big, ugly creature apropos of nothing. You've got to build it up, tease it, let us know what we're up against. One of the first bosses is a spindly woman with massive claws who can just kind of spawn out of the floor whenever. The first time you encounter her, your only option is to run. The second time, she corners you, and you're only saved by the almost accidental discovery that she's afraid of fire. The third time, you're in an enclosed area full of torches, furnaces and fuel barrels. Hmm.

To be honest, The Evil Within's only major lapse in design is the final boss, and not because it's absolute orangutan butts over-the-top, which is fine, but because the battle itself is disappointingly trite. It's essentially just a glorified rail shooter involving none of the skills that you've acquired throughout the rest of the campaign, and stands out as the lone weak point of an otherwise shockingly consistent game.

The Evil Within (PlayStation 4) image

Well, it's lone weak point in design, anyway. I described the story a bit earlier as "incohesive," and that may have been understating the issue a bit. The Evil Within's story is awful. And I can totally buy into it as an excuse to rattle off every nightmare-like set piece that Mikami could think up, but while the setting's disconnect from reality is excusable, the game's dialog and character work are not. It continually annoyed me that none of the central protagonists, all run-of-the-mill detectives, ever seemed baffled or disturbed by the increasingly bizarre events unfolding around them. A story doesn't need to be realistic, but the way its characters react to it does. By the final act, the hero is taking decisive actions in a conspiracy that both he and players have no business even wrapping their minds around, let alone having a stake in. Motivation is nonexistent. This is a poorly-told work of fiction rather than the puzzle Mikami clearly thinks he's stirred up.

Frustratingly, for all that The Evil Within toys with reality and perception, there's little psychological insight here. The game's visually style is imposing and oppressive everything is rusting, peeling, crumbling, or wrapped in barbed wire, and there's creative imagery at play, particularly in the enemy design. (Get a load of these mini-bosses that make unthreatening, everyday objects like lockers and fishhooks sinister.) Mikami has taken obvious inspiration from Silent Hill, graduating from the zombie dogs and giant bugs of his earliest forays into horror, but I think he misunderstands that the enemies and environments of Silent Hill at least, at their best channel pointed human fears, sexual or otherwise. The Evil Within is certainly eye-catching, but there's no rhythm or reason to its madness. It's thematically empty. It's horror, but it's not the sort of horror that haunts you.

But as action-horror, following nearly a decade of developers tripping over themselves trying to piece together Mikami's formula, it's an utter delight to see the man himself resurface and beat the aging, confused Resident Evil franchise at its own game. I wish the story had allowed me to experience this return to form unaccompanied by the screech of my dying brain cells, but The Evil Within is exemplary nonetheless.

P.S. The Evil Within runs in letterboxed 2.35:1. I am not fond of this decision. Yes, this is how films are presented, but video games are not films, and placing an arbitrary restriction on visibility all for the sake of "theatricality" in a game that doesn't even have a good plot is not a stylistic choice that I can get behind.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (October 28, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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dementedhut posted October 28, 2014:

Well, that pretty much answers my Chatter post, I guess! And yeah, the letterbox feels really tacky. I heard there's a solution for that on the PC version, but a bunch of prompts show up in the black bars, so it's for naught... Good job with the descriptions, too. You don't give a lot away while describing what to expect in the game. Good stuff!

I really wanna try this myself now, but I only have a 360 to pick from, so I hope there aren't any technological limits that bog down that version.
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joseph_valencia posted October 28, 2014:

RE4 was also letterboxed, as I recall.
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Suskie posted October 29, 2014:

It was letterboxed 16:9, which is fine. Excellent, in fact. It's standard now, but it was lovely back in 2005 when video games were still largely stuck in 4:3. Seems universally accepted that 16:9 is the ideal resolution for maximizing visibility in an interactive medium, as it accommodates our horizontally-aligned vision without sacrificing vertical real estate. 2.35:1 is a step too far, I feel.

And hey, thanks for reading!

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